After a discouraging loss to open the season against Rutgers, the ‘Cats snapped their 12-game losing streak with a 38-7 victory over UTEP. In their first win in over a calendar year, the ‘Cats showed plenty of promise as a dominant second-half effort propelled the program to a much-needed victory. Here are five things we learned from Northwestern’s first win under David Braun.
Mike Bajakian isn’t scared of being creative
In Northwestern’s first contest, Bajakian’s play-calling was stale, opting to focus on throwing the ball early and often and not allowing the ‘Cats to sustain any offensive momentum when plays went astray. Last year, the offense was the Evan Hull show as Bajakian relied heavily on the now-NFL talent to move the chains. However, against UTEP, Bajakian’s offensive game plan showed that the Wildcats have the ability to be creative and successful in moving the ball downfield.
Not only was there better efficiency running the ball, but Northwestern’s 207 passing yards and 184 rushing yards against the Miners showcase a team that can beat opponents multiple ways. Finding ways to use the explosive running of sophomore QB Jack Lausch, who rushed for Northwestern’s first touchdown against UTEP, emphasizes that this offense’s bag of tricks is deep. Plus, designing jet sweeps for speedster AJ Henning, who also had a rushing touchdown, proves that Bajakian can find ways to get the ball into the hands of Northwestern’s playmakers — something crucial to any success the ‘Cats find this season. Although Northwestern wasn’t playing a Power-5 opponent, Bajakian’s offensive game plan was promising of what this offense can do moving forward.
The QB room’s pecking order isn’t as clear as we thought
Coming into the week against UTEP, coach Braun made it clear that even after a shaky performance against Rutgers, Ben Bryant was the man for the ‘Cats under center. And other than a bad sequence of plays following his four-for-four start, Bryant played well, completing 11-of-17 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown. The transfer also scored via a QB sneak. But after an upper-body injury Bryant sustained in the second half, Northwestern opted to input Ryan Hilinski, who calmly closed things out for the ‘Cats, even throwing a screen to RB Joseph Himon who scampered 85 yards for another Northwestern touchdown.
Northwestern also utilized the legs of Lausch, creating specific packages for the sophomore to showcase his running ability. Lausch carried the ball four times for 53 yards and a touchdown, adding a dynamic piece to Northwestern’s rushing attack. But in the flurry of QB moves Northwestern chose to use, Brendan Sullivan stayed on the sideline, making fans wonder about his place among Northwestern’s signal callers. Thought to be the backup to Bryant, Hilinski getting game action over Sullivan showed that Sullivan being the clear number two isn’t definite. Plus, Northwestern opting to utilize Lausch’s running ability, when Sullivan possesses a similar skillset seems strange; however, Northwestern fans shouldn’t be upset about giving the younger player opportunities to see the field. Nonetheless, amid all the positives from the win, Sullivan’s role on this team got a little bit murkier.
Bryce Gallagher is going to earn national attention with his play
Every time Bryce Gallagher steps on the field, he dominates the game. Against Rutgers, his career-high 19 tackles was a lone bright spot in a bad game for Northwestern. Against UTEP, Gallagher’s impact was a little different. Only amassing five tackles against the Miners, Gallagher hauled in his second-career interception, reading the eyes of UTEP QB Gavin Hardison and picking off the gunslinger over the middle of the field.
Gallagher’s ability to find the football and make impact plays makes him special. A true leader of this Northwestern defense by example and as a captain, Gallagher’s play through two games is worthy of national attention. And as the weather takes a turn for the cold, and hard-nosed Big Ten football comes back into the forefront of play, Gallagher’s physical style will only be more impactful. If the fifth-year continues to dominate the way he’s dominating right now, expect lots of recognition for the heart and soul of Northwestern’s defense at the end of the season.
Northwestern’s backfield has the talent to power this offense
22 rushes for 12 yards — that was the stat line against Rutgers. Thanks to the improved play from the offensive line against UTEP, the ‘Cats ran wild, running the ball 38 times for 184 yards and three scores. Lausch and Henning were big parts of the ground game, but Cam Porter’s impact opened everything up for the ‘Cats.
After dealing with injuries earlier in his Northwestern career and being stuck in the shadow of Hull last season, Porter showed he’s capable of being a focal point of Northwestern’s offense. The senior starter carried the ball 17 times for 90 yards, while also hauling in two passes for 14 yards. Porter’s burst and athleticism were on full display against the Miners as the Ohio native spun away from defenders. Porter’s success also opened up the offense as his six and seven yard runs allowed the ‘Cats to use the play-action passing game.
Don’t forget Joseph Himon either. The sophomore from Arkansas only carried the ball four times for six yards, but his one catch in the second half ended up an 85-yard touchdown — the cherry on top of a fantastic second-half performance. Himon’s speed and vision in the open field were on display as the Arkansas native raced away from defenders, putting the game even further out of reach. If it’s Porter or Himon, the win showed Northwestern has capable options out of the backfield as runners and pass-catchers.
The defensive line showed that its performance against Rutgers isn’t the norm
The defensive line had a brutal day against Rutgers in Week One: zero sacks, no pressure and a tough day stopping the run. But after a week to retool, the ‘Cats’ defensive front came back with an improved performance against the Miners. Northwestern finished the game with four sacks, but the biggest difference was the ability to pressure UTEP and get off the field, holding the Miners to 3-of-13 efficiency on third downs. Although Northwestern dialed up different looks to get pressure, Aidan Hubbard, Anto Saka and Sean McLaughlin stood out as playmakers up front. Hubbard and Saka, who continues to flash in his opportunities as a sophomore, both tallied sacks while McLaughlin’s effort throughout played a huge difference — even getting his hands on an errant pass, and batting the ball down at the line of scrimmage for an incompletion.
Perhaps more impressive was Northwestern’s ability to hamper UTEP’s dominant rushing attack. Although the Miners mustered 104 rushing yards, Northwestern did a good job getting into the backfield and disrupting plays, keeping the Miners in check after rushing for 329 yards against Incarnate Word a week before. Although it was far from a perfect performance, the defensive line played an improved brand of aggressive and physical football, allowing the ‘Cats to get off the field and transfer momentum to the offense, especially in the second half.