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Northwestern football’s Las Vegas Bowl win caps a legendary season — and a foundational one

The Wildcats’ last win of their 2023 season may have taken place on Dec. 23, but its transitive properties should carry over for much longer to set standards.

NCAA Football: Las Vegas Bowl-Utah at Northwestern Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

As the whistle sounded after Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham signaled for his third and final timeout, Northwestern faced a third-and-7 — a proposition that the Wildcats have struggled with for much of the season, and a down on which they sat 6-for-16 on the night. Indeed, anything offensive on either side was far from a guarantee.

With the Las Vegas Bowl hanging in the balance, NU quarterback Ben Bryant took the snap, surveyed the Utes’ defense, scampered out of the pocket and catapulted past the marker. As his feet left the ground, he was met by Utah safety Nate Ritchie; after he was stopped, he stayed on the Allegiant Stadium turf, clutching his shoulder. Yet, in tow was the Las Vegas Bowl trophy for Northwestern.

In pretty much any other circumstance, one would be incredibly concerned about Bryant’s status given that he’s NU’s top quarterback and a team catalyst. But not this one.

Indeed, the clutch play envelops so much of Northwestern’s unbelievable season: putting everything on the line, even when nobody figures there’s a chance to do so.

Around 10 minutes prior, Bryant was hit hard on another run, seemingly concussed after displaying signs of the fencing position. The Wildcats’ starter left the game, and air was vacuumed out of the Raiders’ $1.9-billion stadium from those donning purple. A failed fourth-and-7 try shortly thereafter left most anticipating a Utah win in a tie matchup.

But if you know this Northwestern team, you knew that was never a real possibility.

Like Criss Angel himself, Bryant miraculously exited the blue tent, jogged over to the sideline, grabbed his helmet and re-entered the game on NU’s next possession — even Angel himself may have been impressed. What Bryant did is what Northwestern players, coaches and fans have grown accustomed to: lead a three-play, 53-yard drive to give the ‘Cats a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.

Northwestern’s fifth straight bowl game win was anything but breathtaking. The Wildcats didn’t cross the 300-yard mark, were outgained by nearly nine minutes in the time-of-possession battle, missed two field goals and scored on just two of nine drives entering Utah territory. But when the game hung in the balance, David Braun’s side simply executed when it needed to — be it Bryant finding Bryce Kirtz to score from 19 yards away or halting two straight Utes fourth-down tries.

That sentiment in and of itself is the defining creed of Braun’s first year in Evanston, one which saw NU amass 8+ wins for the first time since 2018 and finish the season on a four-game winning streak. Whether in the final game of its season — where just 9% of ESPN Bowl Mania predictors foresaw a win for the purple and white — or from the start — in which few envisioned the ‘Cats exceeding three wins, Braun’s bunch was never content with a token win in America or a lone Big Ten victory. As players chanted after the game, receipts were kept and, truthfully, shredded triumphantly.

In countless ways, so many moments from Northwestern’s 2023 campaign felt straight out of an Oscar-winning script — including lifting a trophy to close things out, of course. For all of the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies along the way (of which there were many), though, Braun’s inaugural year represents exactly what the Wildcats should strive to be on a yearly basis.

Under Pat Fitzgerald, NU’s program experienced never-before-seen highs, such as sustained bowl game success and even top-10 rankings in the eyes of the College Football Playoff committee. But for all of the summits, the nadirs of languid seasons like 2019, 2021 and 2022 created vicissitudes that prevented Northwestern from meeting its top potential.

With Braun now at the helm, the most important element might not be NIL, the use of the transfer portal or where the ‘Cats will call home in 2024. Instead, there’s a real argument that it’s avoiding disastrous, wasted campaigns.

Of course, it’s significantly easier said than done to follow a smooth trajectory like that; plus, leveraging resources like the portal and strong recruiting overlap greatly with more seasons of at least six wins. But when one really breaks down why Northwestern succeeded these last four months, it doesn’t feel overwhelmingly impossible to replicate.

Seasoned quarterback play elevating an offense when it matters most. A solid group of pass-catchers that can make tough receptions and conversions when necessary. An opportunistic defense that thrives on fourth down and in capitalizing on turnover chances. And, most critically, a coaching staff that harnesses every ounce of talent on its roster and caters play style to player traits.

A slew of teams around the country aim to follow that exact blueprint every year and fall well short. In fact, Northwestern would have clamored for that combination in the three aforementioned futile seasons it suffered recently. At the end of the day, though, that’s what spurred this remarkable season, one that began to feel far less fluky when realizing this team’s capabilities.

No, the Wildcats can’t just stand idly this offseason and expect a replica. Other teams in the conference (see Indiana, Nebraska, etc.) are already vastly improved in an 18-team battle royale. A lot of times, too, Northwestern won games on the margins despite having very poor showings for long periods on one or more sides of the ball. Regression is probably to be expected in the short-term future.

Yet, the team has already recognized some of its weaknesses and made crucial, forward-thinking decisions. Braun zeroed in on staff changes, including moving on from embattled OC Mike Bajakian and promoting LBs coach Tim McGarigle to DC, per ESPN’s Sean McDonough. Adding an impactful nucleus through the portal is probably the next step in that department.

Fundamentally, Northwestern will probably never experience a season like it just did ever again. Its enduring images, however — of beating rivals, rallying its community and hoisting glimmering trophies — doesn’t feel like too high of a standard. In fact, it’s what Braun must establish as the yearly goal for Northwestern as it seeks to remain relevant in a college football landscape that, in all honestly, almost aims to overlook programs like NU.