clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Northwestern’s home-opening win transcends a basic game result

For a program mired in controversy and little success, Saturday proved no ordinary win.

NCAA Football: Texas El Paso at Northwestern Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

Whether it’s football or any other sport at any level, coaches seem to adulate the mantra, “A win is a win.” Even if a team was outgained by 200 yards or recovered four of its own fumbles, the end result is largely what’s underscored of being either a successful or failed result. Intertwined with that philosophy is one that the victorious team has simply determined, often “willed,” a way to leave on top, no matter the circumstances or luck involved.

To be honest, I’m not a big proponent of a win simply being “a win,” neglecting the factors that played a role in determining the outcome. To boil down the result of a 60-minute contest into something that binary ignores necessary context and even the emotions involved.

Indeed, Saturday’s outcome for Northwestern football reinforced why a win is so much more than just a number added to the left tally of a team’s record.

For the first time in 694 days, the Wildcats won in America, and at Ryan Field. The team ended a 12-game losing streak, which many figured could have extended throughout the remainder of 2023. And, that victory was earned via a truly overpowering performance, with Northwestern throttling the UTEP Miners, 38-7.

It can be easy to dismiss what transpired in the game as NU simply having more talent and better coaching as a Power Five, Big Ten team compared to its Conference USA foe. But even earlier this week, the principle of a Wildcat advantage was legitimately doubted by pundits and fans nationwide. In fact, oddsmakers wondered whether an upset was in store, with the Miners beginning game week as favorites.

Northwestern not only answered those questions resoundingly, but also finally put together a complete performance that had eluded it for so long.

After allowing the Miners to trot 71 yards down the field effortlessly on their first possession, the ‘Cats’ defense became actively stingy. The team notched three total interceptions of UTEP quarterbacks, including one midway through the third quarter by Bryce Gallagher that set up the Wildcat offense at the 3-yard line. Additionally, NU’s defensive line had a significantly better showing than a week ago against Rutgers, permitting just three yards per carry and generating four sacks.

On top of a defensive shutout pitched after the 11:08 mark of the first quarter, Northwestern’s offense — which has looked much maligned for the better part of a full season — began to establish balance and rhythm. The Wildcats aggregated 184 rushing yards on 39 carries, punching the ball into the end zone with three different players (including, lo and behold, two quarterbacks). In the pass game, starter Ben Bryant was more accurate and effective than his purple-and-white debut; even when Bryant was forced to leave with an upper body injury, NU still made impact plays with the pass, as evidenced by Joseph Himon II’s electrifying 85-yard screen house call.

Frankly, the way Northwestern’s home opener unfolded was a bit of a shock, given the Wildcats’ languid play for over a year and a UTEP squad boasting legitimate NFL talent (five pro teams were in attendance). Effectively, it’s the first time the Wildcats have looked significantly superior to an opponent in every way since they dismantled Ohio 35-6 on Sept. 25, 2021, nearly two years ago.

Another facet of NU’s home-opening win that can’t be ignored is that, once and for all, those in and around the Northwestern football program have something to genuinely feel good and positively about.

Following the firing of Pat Fitzgerald and allegations of hazing and racism that rocked the team and institution in the last two months, there have scarcely been any headlines praising NU, let alone the product the Wildcats have displayed on the field. No matter if one were donning a “’Cats Against the World Shirt” — and there was no shortage of them in Evanston on Saturday — or simply there to watch their favorite team play again, everyone can find joy in a win of that caliber, in ending an almost improbable stretch that’s still tough to comprehend.

The Wildcats’ triumph over UTEP wasn’t typical, and not just because of the time elapsed between North American wins. It proved to be a game of firsts: the inaugural touchdowns of youngsters Himon and Jack Lausch, the first end zone trips as Wildcats for Bryant and A.J. Henning, the initial made field goal of Jack Olsen’s career, Anto Saka’s sack Number One. And, of course, it was David Braun’s first victory as a head coach.

Palpable excitement radiated from Braun as he both stepped to and exited the Welsh-Ryan Arena media room podium Saturday evening, with a smile almost impossible to conceal forever. High-fives and celebratory yells permeated the arena’s concourses. Even the deflecting Braun — calling it “our win” — recognized what the moment meant to him individually.

“Gratitude for the people we’re doing this with,” Braun said about his emotions. “Gratitude and a lot of humility for the opportunity. Soaking it all in. I know that I’m ready for this moment, but in a lot of ways, it still feels surreal.”

Despite the optimism emanating from Ryan Field Saturday, there are still a multitude of questions that the Wildcats will face throughout the rest of the season. Will Northwestern be able to reach a similar echelon of spotless performance, let alone win another game? Can this team make games competitive against marquee opponents, with No. 21 Duke, Minnesota and No. 7 Penn State on the docket in the next three weeks? What does fan and student support look like over the next two-and-a-half months?

As the sunset glowed serenely over Central Street and players exited with families in tow, Ryan Field’s scoreboard proudly put forth a graphic it hadn’t in eight games: “Cats Win.” At long last, that evasive sense of victory is finally associated with Northwestern football, all that matters for the next few days — and unquestionably something unifying all factions of a divided fanbase.