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MAILBAG: Where Northwestern football goes after its bye week

The Wildcats’ season has hit a pause after a frenetic last three months.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 30 Penn State at Northwestern Photo by Ben Hsu/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For the first time all season, it was a Saturday of college football with no Northwestern logos shown, with the Wildcats on a bye week — and, very probably, providing the first lax week surrounding the program since early July. As the three Inside NU Editors-in-Chief attempted to recoup and reset (who are we kidding, Northwestern students hardly do that), we also answered your questions regarding all things NU. Below are our thoughts on the remaining football slate, the new Ryan Field, university leadership and much more.

“Can you compare the state of fandom at this point to what it was like at this time last year? Or, maybe easier, which dining hall has the best food these days?” -@Cyan220

Bradley: I would venture to say that Northwestern football fandom is probably in a slightly better spot than in October of last year. In 2022, there was a sense of almost “How much longer can this go?” with real angst about whether or not the Wildcats would win another game. There was also definite embarrassment and growing disdain for Pat Fitzgerald as a coach. Now, though, I think most NU fans feel as if there’s little to lose in 2023; while a good number of supporters have their eyes already geared toward 2024, there are also those who are actually eager to watch the second half of a football season, something that may not be true since 2020.

Combining the aesthetics, number of options and location, Allison is definitely my No. 1. It might be the only dining hall I can somewhat reliably count on for any pasta.

David: I’m going to answer both questions. Even with everything that happened this summer, I think the state of fandom, especially among students, is higher than it was a year ago. It is cliche, but winning cures all. At their bye last season, the ‘Cats were 1-5 and had just been blown out 42-7 on homecoming. It was clear that the team was in decline and people were done with the season midway through.

This season, Northwestern is 3-3, including a fun win over Minnesota, and has shown glimpses of promise heading into the back half of the season. It sure feels like more people are paying attention and heading to Ryan Field than they were 365 days ago.

As for dining halls, there is only one correct answer, and it is not even a dining hall. I will say Restaurant Gold — my apartment — is the best place to get a meal. I whip up a mean brisket all the way to penne alla vodka. Iggy can attest to my work.

Iggy: Unlike Northwestern football against Duke, David was certainly cooking. It goes Allison, Plex (the stir fry, location and hours are carrying harder than 2018 LeBron here), Elder, Sarge. End of discussion.

The state of the fandom, especially given what unfolded this summer, is higher than I could’ve imagined in August. That doesn’t mean crazy high — on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d call it a 4.5. But Northwestern somehow has an outside chance at a bowl game, the fanbase is almost entirely behind its head coach and students have shown out at games to a decent extent so far. The first-years got their first dose of Ryan Field football with the wild Minnesota comeback (even if 75% of the crowd left in the third quarter). Unlike in 2022, the Wildcats still have a lot to play for entering mid-October, so fans can still dream.

“What, if any, are NU’s efforts to compete in NIL deals and are you aware of how it’s going?” -danwhite77

David: The most I can tell you is Northwestern now has its own NIL collective, TrueNU, run by former Northwestern football player and director of football operations Jacob Schmidt. We really have no clue how it is going, but getting Boo Buie to not only not turn pro, but to keep him from transferring means that he probably got a pretty penny to return to Evanston.

“When does the AD’s contract expire?” -danwhite77

Iggy: Funny you ask. They did, too.

“In Braun’s post game comments after PSU he seemed to express remorse about some of his aggressive play calling. But we weren’t going to win (or come close) without aggressive calls. Do you think he’ll be as aggressive going forward?” -danwhite77

Bradley: Being aggressive has been one of Braun’s hallmarks; after all, what does a first-time coach at any level really have to lose, especially on a one-year trial? I doubt that facet of his decision-making would change just because the team failed on fourth down against Rutgers and Penn State. Frankly, in many ways, it’s been a welcome modification to Northwestern football — a program which has traditionally erred on the side of conservative play-calling.

David: I had no issues with what Braun did against PSU, and it didn’t feel like Braun regretted those decisions after the game. The ‘Cats were playing with house money, and they had to take a gamble at some point if they were going to upset the No. 6 team in the nation. If anything, I feel Braun has been too conservative in some situations. I think he’ll continue to evolve and get more aggressive as the season goes on, even if not every decision works.

Iggy: I don’t think Braun’s aggressiveness takes a fall off a cliff in Big Ten play, but I think the fact that Penn State’s defensive talent utterly overpowered NU was part of the reason why he went for those short fourth downs. He felt like he had to make the most of every possession where the ‘Cats had a remote chance to keep the football, and tried to.

Yet, he’s also been conservative before. On the opening drive against Minnesota, he punted on a fourth-and-1 from about midfield because he felt “it could really be a game that possessions were limited.” Folks, if that doesn’t scream late-season Big Ten West football for you, you need to crawl out from under your rock and turn on your TV. Kidding aside, though, every opponent left on the schedule is much closer to Minnesota than PSU. I don’t think Braun will dial back the aggressiveness because he failed, but more so because of the opponent and a different game flow.

“Any idea on whether the stadium will actually happen and, if so, when?” -danwhite77

David: To be completely honest, I have no f**king clue. The Evanston Land Use Commission recommended that the City Council approve the construction of the new stadium, but emphatically rejected NU’s request to rezone the stadium to allow for commercial use — a.k.a. concerts. Throughout the hearings, Northwestern’s COO Luke Figora said the university will walk away from the project if it can’t host concerts. Whether or not NU is bluffing? Who knows.

What I can say is that the City Council will have the final say, and it can overrule any recommendations the LUC made. In my personal belief, based on no reporting or speaking to sources, I assume that it gets done. Both sides have too much to lose to not get a deal done, regardless of any uproar from surrounding neighbors of Ryan Field. If the City Council approves the project, Northwestern has stated it expects to open the new Ryan Field in 2026.

“Do you all want critiques on your columns in the comments or nah? I think most of them are well intended, but wanted to see what you think.” -danwhite77

David: As someone who has had my fair share of negative comments, I really don’t mind the critiques at all. I understand that people will not agree with everything, and that’s okay. Our readers make this site run, so I am grateful for anyone who takes the time to read what a 20-year-old has to say — whether they like what I’m saying or not.

Iggy: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!

Bradley: As long as the feedback isn’t overly negative or making personal barbs, all good here. As David and Iggy said, it only enhances our writing.

“Please rank the remaining 6 games in terms of the chances Northwestern wins — I’m curious how possible y’all think a path to 6 wins (or 5, I suppose, since 5-7 teams can be eligible) is.” -C.E. Bell

Bradley: In terms of easiest to hardest: Purdue, Illinois, Nebraska, Iowa, Maryland, Wisconsin. I don’t see NU getting to six wins — maybe five if everything goes well — just because I don’t trust the Wildcats’ offensive or defensive lines to either hold or up make an impact against only Big Ten competition. The Cornhuskers are definitely beatable, but doing so in Memorial Stadium is a much more daunting task. Even playing the Fighting Illini, fresh off an impressive win in College Park, could prove challenging in Champaign.

David: From easiest to hardest: Purdue, Illinois, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, Maryland. Out of the three of us, I am probably the most confident about Northwestern getting to six wins, and it’s not because I am super confident in the Wildcats, but it is because I think the rest of the Big Ten West is that bad. The Cornhuskers, Boilermakers and Illini are all very beatable, but NU is going to have to play clean football to win. With these squads, if NU can get to 20 points, it should be enough to win these games.

The biggest toss-up for me is Iowa. The Hawkeyes’ defense looks unstoppable, but the offense looks even more putrid than last year. With Cade McNamara out for the year, it feels like the ‘Cats need to eke out 17 points to win at Wrigley Field.

Iggy: Purdue, Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Wisconsin. I think NU can win two of the first three. I’d give five wins a 40% chance, and I’d put six wins at around 25%. The fact that most of these offenses aren’t impressive gives the Wildcats a chance to hang in any game, even if they’re behind.

“Who do you think will be back in 2024-25? Schill, Gragg, Braun, Bajakian, etc?” -AyanKB

Bradley: Schill and Gragg are almost definitely not going anywhere, despite how fans may feel. As mentioned earlier, Gragg still has multiple years left on his contract, and has the full faith of Schill. Considering Schill was only inaugurated last June, I doubt he would be fired solely because of how he handled this past summer — it’s worth noting, too, that the Board of Trustees probably doesn’t feel as negatively as the general public may.

In terms of football coaches, I would be very surprised if Bajakian stayed, not only because of his lack of offensive success over the last three years, but also because of him publicly defending Fitzgerald via a “Cats Against the World” shirt in early August. It wouldn’t shock me whatsoever if most long-term assistants (e.g., Kurt Anderson, Tim McGarigle, Matt MacPherson, Jeff Genyk, even Alex Spanos) departed this offseason.

In order for Braun to make a truly compelling argument to lose the interim tag, he’ll almost definitely have to go 5-7 or better, which still may not be sufficient. But, I think there’s a sound chance he’d be back as NU’s defensive coordinator. Players have absolutely gravitated to him and are truly impassioned to take the field under his leadership. Plus, the Wildcats’ defense has made strides in certain areas, even if it has ways to go.

David: I agree with Bradley on everything. It is very clear to me that Michael Schill and Derrick Gragg are not going anywhere in the short term.

I do think David Braun will be in Evanston next year, but I couldn’t tell you in what capacity. Braun has surprised me this year, and I would not be surprised if he had the interim tag removed. It is obvious that the players love playing for Braun, and the team has made improvements as the season rolls along. Now, it would be perfectly acceptable for NU to hire a more experienced head coach, but I wouldn’t be shocked if that coach kept Braun as his DC. Northwestern’s defense is punching above its weight, mostly because Braun’s scheme has put the players in a position to succeed.

Bajakian and the assistant coaches are a much different story. We can talk about their on-field performance all we want, but it is the off-the-field accusations that may make it hard for them to retain their jobs. I find it very difficult to believe that not a single member of the coaching staff, especially those who have been at NU for a long time, had no inclination that hazing occurred. With that, alongside the coaches’ loyalty to Pat Fitzgerald, I think many assistants will depart this offseason — whether by choice or by force.

Iggy: David and Bradley pretty much touched it all, but rankings are fun so I’ll do that. From most to least likely: Schill, Gragg, Braun, LAKE MICHIGAN-SIZED GAP, then Bajakian and the coaching staff. Unless Northwestern loses out, Braun’s done enough to warrant a return. Whether that’s as the permanent head coach or as the defensive coordinator, we’ll see, but the team has somehow looked normal even though dozens have indicated their support for Fitzgerald one way or another. He deserves a shot with a brand-new staff, assuming Schill and Gragg choose to go in that direction given they’ve already deemed Fitz partially responsible for failing to prevent hazing.

“Who’s more likely to win the national title, field hockey or lacrosse?” -@BrendanPreisman

David: Field hockey is dominant right now, winning its last 12 games and earning the No. 1 spot in the coaches poll; however, I will never bet against the lake show. Especially after Izzy Scane, Molly Laliberty and Erin Coykendall all agreed to use their final year of eligibility, I would place my entire Inside NU stipend on Lacrosse repeating as national champions.

Iggy: I’d say lax, but more so because the level of competition at the top for field hockey is so fierce in the Big Ten alone. I do think Tracey Fuchs’ team is the best squad in the country right now after the Iowa win. However, even if Northwestern continues bludgeoning teams with its press and fires off a ridiculous number of shots, all it takes is a hot goalie for a fluke to happen. Ohio State pushed the ‘Cats, and they face two huge Big Ten tests next weekend at Penn State and 13-0 Rutgers. If they can get through those games unscathed, then I think it’s a little closer.

The Lakeshow is — for the most part — running it back after winning the quarterfinal, the semifinal and the championship by an average of 10 goals. That’s a greater goal differential than the NCAA’s best average differential all season (and guess who has that, too?) Two of the undisputed top-five players in the nation are coming back, and will probably get better fresh off a 20-game win streak where it beat teams that were *checks notes* No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, No. 5, No. 9 and No. 10. They also won six more top-20 games. It’s almost unfathomable.

Bradley: When a national championship winner returns its basic core of players, including the best in the nation, I can’t bet against that; my answer would be Northwestern lacrosse, so David, Iggy and I are on the same wavelength. But, I think field hockey has a legitimate chance, too. Tracey Fuchs’ team is certainly younger than previous versions — and that lack of postseason experience could be worrisome come November — but this squad has met basically every challenge and has shown no signs of slowing down, even against formidable opponents.