clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Northwestern’s high-strung rivalry win emphasizes its remarkable turnaround

A victory over Illinois gave the program back the HAT and true swagger.

Griffin Quinn/Northwestern Athletics

If you tuned in to any second of the battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy Saturday on Big Ten Network, two things probably resonated with you.

  1. You couldn’t look away — because if you did, you missed some frenetic play and/or six more points being tallied.
  2. You couldn’t discern whether Northwestern or Illinois was the team scratching and clawing to extend its season and to reach the six-win threshold.

Indeed, it was the Wildcats who came out on top from one of the wilder contests they’ve ever played, winning a 45-43 thriller in a more fitting sendoff to the mortal PAC-12 than to the Big Ten West. A major reason why NU claimed the HAT was that characteristic intensity, which never wavered despite a) largely playing for a better bowl matchup and b) a cavalcade of craziness.

To write that either team played “well” on Saturday in spite of the scoreboard probably wouldn’t be accurate; after all, there were six combined turnovers and consistent defensive lapses. The most unbelievable one came in the final seconds of the game, with Illinois’ John Paddock hitting Casey Washington for an 80-yard touchdown to bring the Illini within two with just 55 ticks left.

Yet, the next play encompassed why Northwestern found a way to emerge victorious, effectively the central tenet for its improbable season. On the game-tying two-point conversion, it seemed as if Bryce Gallagher hooked Washington, and yellow laundry even came onto the field — but it was all for naught, as Carmine Bastone’s helmet tipped Paddock’s pass, allowing the flag to be picked up.

Northwestern’s regular-season finale from Champaign was anything but perfect from a purple standpoint (see: Miles Scott’s end-of-half pick six, a trick play score from Isaiah Williams to Pat Bryant, Ben Bryant’s second interception), especially in surrendering 455 total yards. However, as has become the staple under David Braun, NU stepped up when it mattered most — even if the ball bounded favorably sometimes.

Consider Devin Turner’s PBU, leading to a Xander Mueller interception with five minutes to go. Or Anto Saka’s fourth-down sack of Paddock on Illinois’ penultimate drive. Perhaps most critically, look at the ‘Cats taking advantage of two Illini special teams fumbles, with one being run all the way back into the end zone by Garner Wallace. All those plays proved monumental in deciding the outcome, and reflect capitalizing on opponent mistakes.

The Wildcats’ seventh win was wildly entertaining, a bonafide seesaw classic coming down to the literal last few seconds. The victory didn’t just spike fans’ heart rates across the state: it reflects the strides made in just four months under Braun.

For the first time in two years, Northwestern was able to take back the HAT to Evanston. Pure euphoria from players, coaches and even staffers manifested itself for hours after the game ended in Memorial Stadium. In reality, those two capless seasons felt like an eternity, with Illinois absolutely dominating the purple and white from 2021-22. Saturday proved cathartic, exorcising demons against the team’s principal rival and showcasing that the Wildcats can control the state’s bragging rights to Illinois recruits.

On top of adding a key trophy to the program’s mantle, NU reinforced that recent evisceration at the hands of traditional divisional foes — namely Wisconsin, Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois — need only be a short-term phenomenon. That slight glimmer of hope to remain competitive in the conference was almost undetectable following last season, but it’s returned in full under Braun.

Overarchingly, the swing from a possible record of 6-6 to 7-5 may not appear enormous on paper. Yet, that number in the lefthand column guarantees a winning season for Northwestern, and puts it in somewhat exclusive company. Only seven of 14 Big Ten teams accomplished that feat, with three of them playing in the West. More broadly, just 35 other Power Five teams reached that mark, making NU part of the favorable 52.9% with 7+ wins.

Among the programs as which Northwestern had the same or better record:

  • Miami, which has Mario Cristobal at head coach (signed for $80 million) and brought in the seventh-best recruiting class in the country, per 247 Sports
  • Texas A&M, which had the 15th overall ’23 class — and which just paid more than $76 million to fire Jimbo Fisher
  • Colorado, which hired Deion Sanders, brought in Shedeur Sanders/Travis Hunter and was a prime attraction for celebrities
  • USC, which fielded Caleb Williams, was coached by Lincoln Riley and started the year ranked No. 6
  • Wisconsin, a preseason Big Ten darling in its first year with Luke Fickell, Phil Longo and Jim Tressel
  • TCU, which went 13-2 en route to a National Championship appearance last year
  • South Carolina, returning Spencer Rattler and on the heels of two top-seven wins to end 2022

The disparity between NU and the others in recruiting prowess, NIL funding and overall panache stands out, but nothing is more important than this: the Wildcats accomplished more or the same as these once-thought-of powerhouses after going 1-11 and not winning a game in America for almost two years.

Fundamentally, many Northwestern fans considered 2023 to be a year worth fast-forwarding, circling Nov. 26 on their calendars to get through the throes of another miserable season. Instead, that day has arrived, and the program’s trajectory is fully upstart; few want this year to end.

Subsequent to a 4-20 mark, supporters of the purple and white were viscerally concerned with how, if at all, Northwestern could survive in a cannibalistic, unstable college football environment. It seemed like a long-term restoration was both imminent and necessary, full of deep-seated reflection about the school’s values juxtaposed with attaining modern success.

Instead, after just 12 games of Braun at the helm, that development has been rapidly accelerated — indicating both the haste of the ability to change in the sport, as well as that the Wildcats can make the most of the talent that exists on their roster because of excellent coaching at multiple levels.

As we await NU’s bowl game destination (likely out on the West Coast, it would appear), shifts will inevitably arrive regarding the team’s staff and roster, some widely expected but others out of left field. The bottom line after 12 games under Braun, though, is that Northwestern has extricated itself from a two-year purgatory that looked permanent — through wild contests and a complex hazing scandal, with a hard hat on its head.