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Where are we Wednesday: The ‘Cats are back

Northwestern is now one win away from clinching a bowl game.

Syndication: Journal Sentinel Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

One year ago, Northwestern lost to Minnesota in a 31-3 blowout — the ninth of its eleven losses in the 2022 season.

Four months ago, Pat Fitzgerald was fired amid hazing allegations that rocked the football program and made national headlines.

Two months ago, Northwestern lost its season opener in ugly fashion: a 24-7 loss to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Many fans were ready to concede that this year would be no different from last.

But four days ago, the Wildcats traveled to Camp Randall in Madison and dismantled the Wisconsin Badgers in a 24-10 rout that was never close, improving their season record to 5-5 and inching closer to their first bowl game appearance in three years.

On Saturday, the Wildcats looked rejuvenated, determined and out for blood following a lethargic performance against Iowa at Wrigley Field. In Ben Bryant’s return to action for the first time since Sep. 30 against Penn State, the offense exploded for 24 points in the first half. A.J. Henning and Cam Johnson each caught a touchdown pass while Cam Porter rushed for 72 yards on 18 carries.

Most importantly though, the offensive line finally delivered. The squad only allowed Bryant to be sacked one time the entire game in its best performance of the year. One of the main narratives of this season has been the offensive line’s woes, but the unit made a statement to the world on Saturday that it can perform when it matters.

Defensively, the Wildcats shut down Tanner Mordecai and Co. the entire day, limiting them to just a field goal until the very end of the game. The run defense was especially effective, holding the Badgers’ rushers to 86 yards for the game.

With the victory at Wisconsin, Northwestern is now one win away from clinching a bowl game for the first time since it won the Big Ten West in 2020. The excitement can be felt across campus, and it’s certainly present among alumni across the country too. After all, not only is Northwestern competitive, but it is surprisingly competitive. What many expected to be a rebuilding campaign as the Wildcats transitioned to the post-Fitzgerald era has turned into five wins and a revitalized team and fanbase.

In his first season as the program’s head coach, David Braun has more than surpassed expectations. He has lit a spark in his team, and his energy has propelled the Wildcats to the respectable 5-5 record they have posted thus far. Should Northwestern win its way into a bowl game, Braun should undoubtedly be crowned Big Ten Coach of the Year. He was thrown into an unexpected and unenviable situation and made the absolute most of it. Many fans are calling for the interim tag to be removed from Braun’s title, and I would be inclined to agree.

Over the next two weeks, Northwestern will take on two manageable opponents. This Saturday, the Cats will host Purdue in what will be the final game at Ryan Field before renovations begin. The following week, they will play at Illinois for the regular season finale. Northwestern has a chance to achieve what would have been considered unthinkable just two months ago. And if the team plays even remotely similarly to how it played at Wisconsin, there’s no reason why the Cats can’t shock the world.

It’s enticing to daydream about potential bowl game scenarios. After all, it’s a very real possibility. But in order for that dream to become a reality this week, Northwestern has just one goal on its mind: beat Purdue.