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Complementary football is not just a catchphrase, it is the standard for Northwestern football

David Braun has installed a new edge to this program.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Complementary football.

If you have listened to David Braun speak for a second this season, you have heard him utter those words. Whenever a question is asked about what Northwestern needs to do to get back on track, or what it is doing well, there is a strong likelihood that his answer will have those two words in it. In fact, he says it so much that the saying made its way into my Halloween costume.

As much as Braun loves to say those words, the Wildcats have not actually played four quarters of complementary football. Sure, there were spurts or even halves of good football, but NU had yet to play a full 60 minutes of solid football. However, on Saturday, the ‘Cats finally put it all together and outplayed Maryland for all four quarters. When asked if the team played complementary football, Coach Braun answered with one word: “Absolutely.”

“Turn on the film and you’ll see it,” Braun said after the game.

Northwestern displayed what complementary football looked like out of the gate. After a bad first drive on both sides of the ball, Taulia Tagovailoa lost grip of the football, and the ball landed in Bryce Gallagher’s arms to set NU up in the red zone. Unlike last weekend, when Northwestern couldn’t score a touchdown after forcing two turnovers in Nebraska territory, the ‘Cats’ offense converted on their opportunity. Cam Porter punched the ball from a yard out to tie the game at seven, and the offense got rolling from there.

I never thought I would write this sentence, but NU scored on four straight possessions on Saturday, putting up 24 first-half points. The last time the Wildcats scored that many points to open a game was against the Terps in 2020. After a week where the defense carried the team, the offense had to carry the ‘Cats in the first half.

Let me be the first to say it, Brendan Sullivan proved me wrong yesterday. I have been very critical of the ‘Cats’ quarterback since he took over for Ben Bryant three games ago, even calling for his benching at points, but he absolutely balled against the Terps. He threw the ball with precision and made plays off-script with his legs.

Let’s be frank: the reason Northwestern was not playing complementary football in past weeks was the offense. However, even with some offensive line issues, the junior's improvisation and playmaking were the reason the ‘Cats’ offense was humming on Saturday. David Braun never waivered in his belief in Sullivan, even as the outside noise was loud, and the gunslinger proved his head coach right.

“It started to click today,” Sullivan said post game.

As the offense put on a show, Maryland’s potent offense gave Northwestern’s defense trouble in the first half, moving up and down the field. However, when it was put up or shut up time, the ‘Cats hunkered down. There were multiple times when the defense bent, but did not break. Maryland reached the red zone five times but only came away with seven twice.

You want to talk about a game-changing moment and a sign of the defense David Braun is building, Maryland had a second-and-goal from the 1-yard line and came away empty-handed. NU stuffed the Terrapins on three straight plays and handed the ball back to the offense, which went down the field to kick a field goal. That is all three units doing their jobs together, or as Coach Braun would call it, complementary football.

Northwestern’s game of complementary football carried into the second half, but the roles had reversed. The offense stalled out to begin the half, going backward on its first three possessions. While the offense stuttered, the defense held down the fort. In the final two quarters, the defense forced three punts and an interception to seal the game. Against a high-powered offense, the defense stifled the Terps and delivered NU the victory. Each side of the ball stepped up when the other struggled, carrying the load for stretches of the game, and did enough combined to pull off the upset. That is the definition of complementary football.

“We put three phases together this week,” Coco Azema said. “We’re able to rely on one another and trust one another is huge for the team.”

If you know anything about me, you knew there was going to be a special teams section. Special teams can make or break a game, and the group was advantageous for the Wildcats. In recent years, Northwestern has struggled to find a consistent kicker, but Jack Olsen has been knockdown for the ‘Cats. Olsen was 4-for-4 yesterday, including a 47-yard bomb.

It is a luxury for an offense to trust that if it gets down the field, there is a strong probability that it will come away with points. In the return game, Coco Azema ripped off a 61-yard kick return to open the second half, setting NU up in instant field goal range. Complementary football requires all three phases to play well, and for the first time this season, all three units were in sync for 60 minutes.

One game is not enough to make declarative statements, but it is hard to argue that David Braun hasn’t brought the best out of this team. Using complementary football as a slogan is one thing, but Braun has the Wildcats playing together and imposing their will on opponents.

“Watch out,” A.J. Henning exclaimed after the game. “This team has everything we want right in front of us.”