As Northwestern’s improbable season has officially come to a close, Inside NU will spend the next few weeks wrapping up our coverage of the 2023 football season. Today, we will start our review of each position group, starting with the quarterbacks.
After a thrilling bowl victory over Utah in Las Vegas, it seems safe to say that the Northwestern Wildcats are officially the most improved FBS team in the nation. Following a 1-11 2022 campaign and a hazing scandal that shook the entire program, the ‘Cats kept finding ways to overcome the adversity that stared them in the face all season long. Led by first-time FBS head coach David Braun, they didn’t just improve their 2022 win total by seven — the largest figure in FBS — but they reinstilled hope into the Northwestern football program. Heading into the season, the future for Northwestern football looked bleak. Now, there is a novel excitement surrounding the program — a world of possibilities.
Perhaps the biggest improvement from last season came at the quarterback position. In 2022, the lack of production and consistency at QB was a major reason for the team’s struggles. While far from perfect in 2023, this year’s quarterback room told a far different story.
Overall Grade: B
While it took a few starts for Ben Bryant to get rolling, he eventually provided Northwestern with the answer it had been searching for at the QB position. Unlike last year, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian could trust his passing game, and do damage through the air. While Bryant’s clutch gene and his knack for winning made him the perfect starter for this Northwestern team, Brendan Sullivan’s contribution was also significant, as he kept the ship afloat while Bryant was out injured. Only a junior, Sullivan may still very well be in the mix at the quarterback position next year.
It may seem obvious, but there may be no position more important in football than quarterback, so when trying to turn a team around it is crucial to get the quarterback position right. This year, thanks to Ben Bryant and Brendan Sullivan, the ‘Cats did just that.
Ben Bryant: A-
Stats: 173-for-277, 1,807 passing yards, 13 touchdowns, six interceptions, 19 carries, 135 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns
With sixth-year Cincinnati product Ben Bryant slated to start at the onset of the 2023 season, there was cautious optimism surrounding the position. Bryant had just come off a career-best season in Cincy, leading the Bearcats to a 9-2 record and a No. 22 spot in the AP poll before he was sidelined with a foot injury. Coming into Evanston through the transfer portal, he brought more talent and experience than Northwestern had under center in quite some time.
So when his Wildcat debut against Rutgers turned into an absolute disaster — reminiscent of Northwestern’s QB play from last year — there was cause for concern. He barely completed 50% of his passes, threw two interceptions, and the offense looked as stagnant as ever. Northwestern lost the game 24-7 — a troubling start to the season.
The next few weeks didn’t get much better for Bryant. NU beat UTEP on a ground-heavy offensive performance and was destroyed by Duke on another subpar Bryant outing. Three weeks into the season, the questions at quarterback remained unanswered for the ‘Cats.
It wasn’t until Northwestern’s unbelievable comeback against Minnesota that Wildcat fans could feel confident about No.2. The ‘Cats clawed back, overcoming a 21-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win the game in overtime. The hero? Ben Bryant. Finishing with four touchdowns and nearly 400 passing yards, the first Wildcat QB to throw four TD in a game since 2013. He controlled the offense with calm confidence in the late stages, making a few spectacular throws (including the game-winner to Charlie Mangieri) to help Northwestern finish on top.
Just as Bryant hit the turning point the ‘Cats had been waiting for, he hit the injured list, leaving the game against No. 6 Penn State when he hit the ground hard on his right shoulder. The injury sidelined the sixth year for over a month.
When he came back to face Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium, it looked as if the veteran hadn’t missed a beat. He led Northwestern to a massive 24-10 victory and kept the ‘Cats rolling into the later part of the season. In the last three games of the regular season, Bryant led Northwestern to three consecutive victories, including when the Wildcats reclaimed the HAT against Illinois.
With Bryant’s steady hand at the helm, Northwestern didn’t only reach a bowl game — but it took home the trophy in Las Vegas against a Utah team that entered the season ranked No. 14 and hadn’t lost to an unranked opponent all season. Bryant’s performance in Las Vegas was one for the ages and served as a microcosm of No. 2’s time as a Wildcat.
In the Las Vegas Bowl, Bryant threw for 222 yards for 2 TDs, while completing about 67% of his passes. While those were very good numbers on a postseason stage, the value of his performance went beyond the numbers. With 11:24 remaining in regulation, the score tied at 7-7, Bryant hit the deck hard, and it looked like his day — and his college career — could be over. Somehow, just minutes later, he was back under center for the ‘Cats, making some of his biggest and best throws of the season with the game on the line.
He nailed A.J. Henning on a deep ball to set the Wildcats up in the red zone and put the perfect touch on a TD throw in the corner of the end zone to Bryce Kirtz to give Northwestern the lead. Putting himself on the line, Bryant stayed stoic on one of the most pivotal drives of the season, just as he had all season long. Although he only spent one season as a Wildcat, Ben Bryant certainly left a lasting legacy of success at Northwestern.
Brendan Sullivan: B-
Stats: 63-for-99, 714 passing yards, six touchdowns, two interceptions, 30 carries, 270 rushing yards, four rushing touchdowns
Although he served a backup role to Bryant, Brendan Sullivan had about as much action this year as he had in 2022, mostly coming from his four-game starting stint during Bryant’s absence during October. For the most part, Sullivan was reliable — he limited turnovers (only throwing one interception during those four games), made good decisions with the football and proved to be dangerous on the ground as well.
On paper, Sullivan’s numbers are just as good or better than Bryant’s considering the smaller sample size — Sullivan finished with better marks in completion percentage, passer rating and TD-INT ratio. As I mentioned before though, numbers do not tell the whole story. During Sullivan’s time as Bryant’s replacement, the ‘Cats went 2-2. That’s not bad on the surface, but many Wildcat fans felt that if Bryant were healthy for those four games, Northwestern could’ve been 4-0 on that stretch.
Sullivan’s first start of the season came against Howard, a game in which Northwestern nearly lost to an FCS program. Despite the 23-20 final score, it was smooth sailing for the first three-quarters of the game. Sullivan danced his way to a 35-yard rushing touchdown on the opening drive and was able to lead NU to a 16-point lead. However, as soon as the game reached the fourth, the offense stagnated. Sullivan made no glaring mistakes and still finished with solid statistics, but the offense didn’t have that same killer instinct that it had under Bryant. Northwestern wasn’t able to properly close out the game and narrowly escaped with a win.
The dormant offense continued into their road game the following week in Lincoln. Sullivan had his worst game of the season, and in what turned out to be a one-possession Northwestern loss, many wondered what the result would’ve been had Bryant been under center. The pleas for Bryant’s return were growing louder and louder.
Still, Bryant remained on the sidelines, and Sullivan trotted back out as the starter against Maryland. Unlike his lackluster showing in Lincoln, the junior flipped the script, delivering the best performance of his career. He went off for 265 passing yards and two passing TDs, adding over 50 yards on the ground as well. He displayed talent we had seen in flashes, only this time, he was finally putting it all together.
Sullivan’s last action of the season came in Northwestern’s heartbreaking loss against Iowa at Wrigley Field — the last game before Bryant’s eventual return. Facing the infamous Iowa defense, Sullivan fared alright — avoiding turnovers and even connecting on a few deep throws. While the loss was certainly not on Sullivan alone, the offense once again struggled to move the ball, leaving many to wonder how the result would’ve been different if Bryant had been at the helm.
While Sullivan’s season certainly left a little to be desired, it should still be considered a success. He delivered exactly what was asked of him as Bryant’s backup — he played clean, kept the team in games, and even surprised with a few highlight plays every now and again.
Ryan Hilinski: Incomplete
Stats: 2-for-4, 88 passing yards, one touchdown, 0 interceptions
Ryan Hillinski’s career has certainly not lived up to expectations. In 2019, he started for South Carolina as a freshman thanks to an injury at quarterback. He wasn’t incredible but was serviceable to a decent team in the SEC. He was benched the following season, and soon thereafter hit the transfer portal, landing in Evanston. He started a few games in 2021 and earned the full-time gig in 2022. It was short-lived, however, as subpar performance led to a change at the QB position. To make matters worse, a significant knee injury at the end of 2022 took Hilinski out of most of the preseason.
In 2023, Hilinski found himself third on the depth chart and threw just four passes. His first of the season went for 85 yards and a TD, but the result was much thanks to Joseph Himon II’s 80+ yard catch-and-run on the dump-off screen. His next three passes all came in the Las Vegas Bowl against Utah while Ben Bryant was being evaluated for an injury — two of those landing nowhere near their intended targets. There was once a day when Hilinski seemed to be the Wildcat QB for the foreseeable future, but that day is far in the past now.
Jack Lausch: Incomplete
Stats: 2-for-3, 68 passing yards, 0 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 19 carries, 80 rushing yards
As essentially the fourth-string QB for Northwestern, Jack Lausch made himself useful by being the exclusive ‘wildcat’ quarterback for the Wildcats. If Lausch took the field in the shotgun, it was almost certainly going to be a designed QB run. While he only found the endzone once, Lausch’s presence threw an interesting wrinkle in the Mike Bajakian offense.