If someone asked you to paint a picture of what a bowl-eligible Northwestern football team would like a year ago, what would you have constructed?
I couldn’t begin to speculate what’s running through your mind, but I can make a few bets. I bet that you wouldn’t have imagined a David Braun-led team, certainly not under the conditions in which he ascended to the head coach post. I bet that you wouldn’t have suspected a 21-point comeback against a Big Ten opponent was in the cards. I bet that you wouldn’t have fathomed a formerly 1-11 team, who lost multiple talents to the NFL, would accumulate more wins in its following season through six weeks.
In any case — by many metrics — Northwestern football is outperforming expectations and is on pace to be the beneficiary of regressing Big Ten foes (see: Illinois and Purdue). Coming off its bye week, NU sits at .500, a win away from ascending above the depths of a three-year tenure in the red (excluding NU’s 1-0 start last season).
In layman’s terms, if the ‘Cats manage to upset Nebraska, an 11-point favorite, the path to a bowl game suddenly isn’t so daunting. But it’s not that easy, it never is.
Don’t allow a glimpse of optimism to be misconstrued with naivety. I’m still very much aware that NU is coming off a win against an FCS opponent, who mounted a near comeback in the fourth quarter and just this past week took a 41-point walloping at the hands of Harvard.
Northwestern is no stranger to not capitalizing on momentum, if that’s what you can call a three-point win against the Bison. It would shock nobody, especially not me, if the ‘Cats endure a mid-season collapse. Even though four teams sit below NU in the Big Ten West standings, I don’t think anybody would expect Braun’s squad to stomp the more meager teams.
Brendan Sullivan was at the helm two Saturdays ago, as Ben Bryant continues to deal with a shoulder injury. A.J. Henning was also sidelined. Even without its main cast of characters, the ‘Cats’ offense avoided lethargy for a good portion of the contest.
Sullivan and Co. put up 14 points in the first half (the other two courtesy of a Xander Mueller safety). The strong start, regardless of the lackluster opponent, was refreshing given the team’s often splotchy offense. Sullivan drew first blood via a 35-yard scramble that got NU on the board.
The legs on the junior quarterback were a welcome addition to the offense. For as good as Ben Bryant has been at times this year, there have been plenty of moments where his lack of mobility felt like a free pass for opposing edge rushers to get home. We’ve seen Mike Bajakian utilize Jack Lausch as a pseudo-running back throughout the season, but having a dual-threat under center adds a layer to the offense that makes you feel like any down and distance might be overcome.
Despite all of this, it would’ve been nice to see the unit put up a more dominant showing against a defense that ranks No. 66 in the FCS. Sullivan flailed at times, making questionable throws and taking questionable sacks — good for a QBR of…25.8. For reference, if that figure were to be Sullivan’s season-long average, he’d rank 128th out of 134 FBS quarterbacks.
Bryant’s return, which Braun has yet to confirm ahead of the Nebraska game, should be a source of excitement. Still, Sullivan’s contribution against Howard at least forces other teams to game-plan for a mobile QB until they know Bryant is healthy again.
On the other side of the ball, the defense is a tale of two levels — the defensive front and the rest. The ‘Cats are allowing over 170 yards on the ground through six games, which puts them in the lower quartile of rush defenses in the entire FBS. Meanwhile, the linebackers and secondary have generally held up their end of the bargain. Mueller and Bryce Gallagher have lived up to the expectations of veteran playmakers, and they’ve stepped up in big moments throughout the first half of the year. The secondary, led by Rod Heard II, ranks No. 5 in the Big Ten.
As you can see, gaps abound this Northwestern squad. Short-handedness at key positions, an offensive line that allows sacks too often for comfort and a defensive front that hardly can penetrate the backfield are reasons for concern. Fresh off a bye week, it’s time for all these groups to prove they’re more polished than before — otherwise, an extra December contest won’t be in the cards.
Despite all of these anxiety-inducing characteristics from a team with a poor track record in big games, a win against Nebraska changes the landscape of the season. Suddenly, with triumphs over the lesser Boilermakers and Illini, the ‘Cats will have tangibly outperformed nearly every expectation placed on them in the summer. All of NU’s lofty hopes hinge on surprising pundits, once again, following its bye week.