Bowl bound for the first time in four seasons, Northwestern’s 2023 story is nothing short of remarkable.
Northwestern’s six-win improvement from 1-11 in 2022 to 7-5 in 2023 is the largest win improvement by any FBS team this season — not to mention the minefield of adversity this group had to cross, with offseason scandal, a coaching change and uncertainty.
After their 23-15 home win against Purdue in mid-November secured bowl eligibility — and a student section stampede gave Ryan Field a proper sendoff — the ‘Cats put a cherry on top of the regular season, reclaiming the Land of Lincoln Trophy with a thrilling 45-43 win in Champaign.
Northwestern’s season was a true testament of enjoying the highs — think of NU’s first victory at Ryan Field in two seasons against UTEP, Charlie Mangieri’s game-winning overtime touchdown against Minnesota or Coco Azema’s game-sealing interception versus Maryland. It was also marked by having to push through the lows — like a brutal Week One loss to Rutgers, dropping a one-possession clash against Nebraska or losing via a heart-breaking, last-second Hawkeye field goal through the uprights in front of Wrigley Field’s right field bleachers. A Big Ten schedule is punishing, but through the disappointment and letdown of each loss, Northwestern rallied, finishing the season with three straight victories and never holding a multi-game losing streak.
On the field, Northwestern’s commitment to complementary football kept the ‘Cats in games. In 2022, Northwestern finished the year with a -19 turnover margin. In 2023, that number soared to +10, the seventh-highest margin in the nation powered by an FBS-best one lost fumble all season — a wild turnaround after Northwestern’s 14 lost fumbles just a year ago ranked second-to-last in the country.
It was David Braun’s leadership that powered Northwestern’s success. Winning over the locker room and fans’ support with his keep-it-real attitude — unafraid of displaying his emotions in postgame interviews and press conferences — Braun’s seven wins were the most by a first-year head coach since Walter McCornack’s 10 wins in 1903 — the same year the Wright brothers took flight and before the forward pass was even legalized in the college game (1906). Earning the Big Ten Coach of the Year award and Northwestern’s full-time head coaching job are small honors next to the historical success Braun achieved — becoming the first NU head coach to make a bowl appearance in his debut season.
Evident from the skipper’s “Purple to the College Football Playoff” rallying cry during Northwestern’s upset win over No. 1 Purdue in Welsh-Ryan Arena, Braun’s long-term goals for this team stretch far beyond making the SRS Distribution Bowl in Las Vegas.
Although whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, the momentum of extra practices and extra reps for Northwestern’s youngsters and an injection of postseason experience into Northwestern’s DNA will push the ‘Cats ahead into a new era of Big Ten football. The benefits of added opportunities to compete on the field are paramount for an underdog program primed to compete against bonafide competition like Washington, Oregon, USC and UCLA in the coming years.
We are three days away from a late afternoon kickoff in Allegiant Stadium, where the ‘Cats will meet a familiar bowl game opponent. After trailing 20-3 at the half, Northwestern’s last meeting with Utah ended in a 31-20 comeback victory at the 2018 Holiday Bowl.
After losing in the Rose Bowl the last two seasons, Utah’s 2023 campaign was a struggle in its own right without star QB Cam Rising. However, thanks to finishing the season as the PAC-12’s least penalized team, second-best rushing offense and the country’s fourth-best run defense in total yards, Utah scraped together an 8-4 record with impressive victories over ranked UCLA and USC teams.
Good news for Northwestern is the slew of players unavailable for Utah in Las Vegas. With about a dozen Utes in the transfer portal, having injuries and a handful of players declaring for the NFL Draft, some of Utah’s best impact players — like First-Team All-PAC-12 pass rusher Jonah Elliss, leading receiver Devaughn Vele and shifty duel threat safety and running back Sione Vaki — won’t take the field in Las Vegas.
With Utah’s schematic focus on running the football, Northwestern will need to rely on its rushing defense which allowed a Big Ten-worst 159.5 yards per game. The recipe for success is stopping the run on early downs and forcing the Utes into passing situations with multiple of their best pass catchers unavailable. Putting pressure on QB Bryson Barnes is essential too, with Barnes’ arm a threat from a clean pocket. The Utes’ signal caller is also a threat to escape the pocket, meaning Northwestern’s defense will be challenged, even without a multitude of Utes in uniform.
Offensively, the best place to attack Utah is its secondary. Although the Utes’ pass defense finished second-best in the PAC-12 — with both starting safeties and a starting corner unavailable for Morgan Scalley’s defense — Ben Bryant’s connection with Cam Johnson, Bryce Kirtz and AJ Henning will be an emphasis for Mike Bajakian’s game plan.
But as always, the game will be won or lost in the battle between Northwestern’s up-and-down offensive line against the fourth-best pass rushing defense in the PAC-12 (minus superstar Jonah Elliss and his 12 sacks). In games where the offensive line has been up to the challenge — against UTEP, Minnesota or Illinois — the ‘Cats have fared well. When they’ve been outmanned — against Rutgers or Penn State, for instance — things haven’t been so pretty. Either way, the end of Northwestern’s season will rely heavily on a group that’s dictated wins and losses this year.
Writing a story of unexpected success, Northwestern has a chance to add a tally to its program-record four-straight bowl wins and reach the eight-win mark for the first time since 2018. But whether you’ve made the trek to Las Vegas or are watching from home on Saturday, don’t let a potential loss bitter an unthinkable campaign or forget a season filled with twists, turns and unprecedented surprises that led the ‘Cats here in the first place.