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2023 Northwestern football: A surprise season retold by the numbers

An anthology of stats, tidbits and number-nuggets from the most unlikely success story in college football this year.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 23 SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl - Utah vs Northwestern Photo by Steve Nurenberg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Before the season, it felt like all the cards were stacked against Northwestern. Now, only a few days removed from a Las Vegas Bowl victory over Utah, it feels like the ‘Cats have hit the jackpot. But it wasn’t just luck of the draw that landed Northwestern at this point. It was a season of resilience, character and heart.

Aside from those intangible qualities, Northwestern’s season can be told through stats and numbers. So, let’s take a journey back through the 2023 campaign using some key figures to shine a spotlight on an unforgettable season for Northwestern fans. Here are 21 numbers that tell the story of the Wildcats’ season (I’ll cool it on the Vegas references, I promise).

52: The number of days between David Braun being named interim head coach and the season opener against Rutgers

In early July, the Northwestern program was turned upside-down. After the sudden firing of longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald due to allegations of hazing within the Northwestern program, it felt like the Wildcats were on the brink of collapse. NU named Braun its interim coach with less than two months to prepare for Rutgers. It was a near-impossible situation for one of the youngest head coaches in the FBS. And although the Rutgers game did not go as planned, Braun quickly shed his inexperience and looked like a seasoned leader on the sidelines. Speaking of inexperience...

0: The number of games David Braun had coached at the FBS level prior to 2023

Not only had Braun never been a head coach when he was thrust into the position in July, but he had never even coached at this level of college football. Braun had spent his previous years as a position coach at FCS-level Northern Iowa and North Dakota State before being promoted to defensive coordinator for the Bison. Originally brought to Evanston to call the defense, Braun was working double-duty while still getting to know players on the offense, making his result at season’s end that much more impressive.

7th: The consensus prediction for where Northwestern would finish among the Big Ten West

Prognosticators did not like Northwestern’s chances coming into to 2023. Coming off a 1-11 season, Northwestern lost four players to the NFL and had just replaced its coach weeks before kickoff. It was justifiable to doubt Northwestern’s bounce-back. All eight of CBS’ college football experts picked the ‘Cats to finish dead last in a weak division. And I’m not trying to pick on CBS. Even this site was skeptical, with even our most optimistic picker predicting a 4-8 record for the Wildcats. Across the CFB landscape, there were murmurs that Northwestern could go 0-12. The ‘Cats finished 8-5, and placed second in the Big Ten West. Doubters be damned.

693: The number of days Northwestern went without a win on American soil

In Week Two, the UTEP Miners came to Ryan Field with the fanbase still feeling pretty pessimistic about the team after a loss to Rutgers. Oddsmakers shared that skepticism, making the ‘Cats only a one-point favorite at home against their C-USA foe. Northwestern demolished UTEP 38-7 to break the winless streak in America, and the strong showing was just a sign for more to come.

79: The combined total of points surrendered to No. 21 Duke and No. 6 Penn State

Excuse me for going slightly out of order. More on the game sandwiched between these two losses will follow. But it’d be disingenuous to only take the good stats. The Northwestern defense struggled against these two ranked opponents. At times, the ‘Cats looked competitive in each of these games, even taking Penn State to the halftime locker room with a tied score. But ultimately, two talented teams got the better of Northwestern and provided an early-season reality check.

99.5%: Minnesota’s win probability against Northwestern at its highest point (per Yahoo Sports)

This one is going to be a bundle of stats. Northwestern’s 37-34 overtime comeback win against the Golden Gophers was one of the wildest finishes in all of college football this season. Many fans had left when Northwestern trailed 24-7 at halftime. The crowd thinned out even more when Minnesota took a 31-10 lead into the fourth quarter. Here are an extra duo of bonkers stats that I’d be remiss to not include:

  • 21: Northwestern’s fourth quarter scoring output (Minnesota had 0)
  • 215: Bryce Kirtz’s total receiving yards on the evening

4: The number of games Brendan Sullivan started in Ben Bryant’s place

After Bryant went down with an injury in the Penn State loss, backup Sullivan had to keep the ship afloat and man the offense. In those four games, Sullivan kept the team in bowl contention by going 2-2. Sully was especially effective in the Maryland match, throwing for 265 yards and two touchdowns and adding another 56 yards on the ground.

31.5: The record-setting over/under for Northwestern-Iowa

When the line opened for Northwestern and Iowa’s match at Wrigley Field, the painstakingly low 31.5 scoring total line marked a record as the lowest in college football history. Hilariously, the under hit, as Iowa won 10-7. The record was broken a week later when the Iowa-Rutgers line was put at a mere 27.5. That mark didn’t hold the title belt for long either, being topped two weeks later by a comical 25.5 total for Iowa-Nebraska. All three unders hit in classic Kirk Ferentz fashion.

1,092: The length of Northwestern’s streak of days without a road victory before playing Wisconsin

Sitting at 4-5, Northwestern traveled to Madison to try to bring its record back to .500 against a tough opponent in the Badgers. Early on, the ‘Cats came out feisty, converting each of their first 10 third downs and taking a 24-3 lead to the half. NU held on in the second half to win 24-10, quashing an unbelievably long dry spell without a true road victory. It was the Wildcats who were jumping around in Madison that Saturday afternoon.

1: The longest Northwestern losing streak of the 2023 season

In his first year, David Braun often talked about the resilience of this Wildcat squad. No stat better encapsulates this resilience than this one. Not once did the ‘Cats let losses snowball. For a while, it looked like one might also be the longest win streak of the season, as the win column in the ‘Cats’ first 10 games looked like L-W-L-W-L-W-L-W-L-W — but the Iowa loss at Wrigley Field proved to be the final taste of defeat of the season.

3: The number of times Northwestern has stormed the field/court after beating a Purdue team in the 2023 calendar year

Okay, you caught me. This isn’t a football-only statistic, but it does help me make my larger point. Setting aside two unforgettable parties on the court at Welsh-Ryan Arena after wins against No. 1 Purdue in men’s basketball, let’s zoom in on football game number 11 against Purdue. This 23-15 win, which happened in an unnecessarily stressful fashion, not only marked the ‘Cats’ first win streak of the season, but it also clinched Northwestern’s ticket to a bowl game with a sixth victory on senior day. And perhaps most importantly, it provided a storybook ending for the current iteration of Ryan Field, due for a massive renovation in the upcoming years.

5-1: Northwestern’s record at Ryan Field

Florida at The Swamp. USC at LA Memorial Coliseum. Wisconsin at Camp Randall. Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium. All of these places with supposed massive home-field advantages witnessed more losses than Northwestern fans did at Ryan Field. With the exception of a top-10 Penn State team, the ‘Cats defended their home turf all season, including twice when they were an underdog. Despite its limited capacity, the oddly charming Ryan Field became one of the most unlikely home-field advantages in its final season.

1,000,000: Everyone’s estimated heart rate watching the end of Northwestern-Illinois

45-43? That’s not Big Ten West football. Sir, you must be lost. This is not the Big 12. When these two rivals collided for the Land of Lincoln Trophy on the final weekend of the regular season, nobody expected a barn-burner that would see 37 combined fourth quarter points and a record for the highest-scoring game in the 117-year history of the rivalry. But that’s what we got in an instant-classic that featured five lead changes and a controversial ending on an Illinois two-point attempt that would have tied the game (it was the right no-call). Not only did Northwestern shut Illinois out of bowl season, but the ‘Cats brought the HAT back to Evanston.

+13: Northwestern’s end-of-season turnover margin

A year after finishing -18 in the same category, Northwestern swung 31 turnovers in the positive direction, a major reason for this season’s success. With a handful of bowl results still pending, Northwestern sits third among all FBS teams thanks to both an opportunistic defense and an offense that prioritized ball security. The ‘Cats were one of two teams in the nation (Ole Miss) to lose just one fumble, and in the four-game win streak to close the season, Northwestern’s defense forced a whopping 12 turnovers.

5: The length of Cam Johnson’s end-of-season touchdown streak

The senior transfer from Vanderbilt and Arizona State was a revelation for the ‘Cats all season long. Johnson won the team’s triple-crown, leading the Wildcats in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. In his final five games, Johnson snagged a touchdown in each and posted a dominant line of seven catches for 124 yards and a score to propel the ‘Cats over Illinois. In just one season in Evanston, the sure-handed receiver left his mark and provided a juice to the offense that had been absent for the past few seasons.

110: The number of tackles that both Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller eclipsed

Gallagher (120 tackles) and Mueller (110) became the first pair of Wildcats in a season to each record triple-digit tackles since Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher in 2018. The duo of senior linebackers anchored a defense that truly hit its stride in the back half of the season, holding five of its final seven opponents to 17 points or fewer. Gallagher added a sack, a pick and two forced fumbles across the season, while Mueller stuffed the stat sheet with three interceptions, five sacks and a forced fumble.

10: The number of yards for Ben Bryant scrambled to clinch the Las Vegas Bowl for Northwestern

Bryant should never have to buy a drink in Evanston again after what he did in Vegas. After taking a truly nasty hit that briefly removed him from the game, Bryant stunningly returned to the fourth quarter of the Vegas Bowl where he subsequently dropped two seeds to A.J. Henning and Kirtz, leading what was ultimately the game-winning touchdown drive. On the next possession, on third-and-7 with Utah on the verge of getting the ball back, Bryant put his body on the line once again, diving for enough yardage to close out his college career with a victory. The transfer gunslinger provided stable quarterback play for the ‘Cats all season long, adding veteran leadership and a level of operation at the position the Wildcats have not seen since 2020.

5: Northwestern’s active win streak in bowl games

Following the win in Vegas, Northwestern has amassed hardware from a bowl game five times since 2016, capturing wins in the Pinstripe Bowl, Music City Bowl, Holiday Bowl, Citrus Bowl and, of course, the Las Vegas Bowl. For a program that lost all nine bowls it appeared in between 1996 and 2011, winning five in a row and six of seven is an impressive feat. The current streak is tied for third-longest in the NCAA.

+7: Northwestern’s win improvement from 2022 to 2023

1-11 to 8-5. Simply unbelievable. The seven-win difference is the largest by any FBS team this season. Only a handful of teams this century have seen a turnaround this fast, and it’s easy to make the argument that none faced the obstacles that this Northwestern team did. It’s why Braun was the easy choice for Big Ten Coach of the Year, as his eight wins are the most by a Wildcat first-year coach since 1903; Braun became the fifth Northwestern coach to win the award. Under Braun’s leadership, the offense improved its points per game by 8.33, while the defense allowed 5.79 fewer points per match. Braun’s incredible achievements and the team’s radical improvement were the only fitting way to end this piece.

With that, it’s time to end the number crunching and tie a bow on an unforgettable Northwestern football season. If I’ve learned anything about Coach Braun this season, the only number he cares about is 1-0 — making sure the ‘Cats come out with a win when Miami (Ohio) comes to town to kick off the 2024 season.