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Where are we Wednesday: On the verge of progress

The losing streak is no more. Now it’s time to prove it won’t happen again.

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

With the monkey off its back… A murky quarterback situation… Hoping to build momentum in continental contests — all of these things describe where Northwestern football sits on this Week Three Wednesday. Quite the trio of plotlines, isn’t it?

Six hundred ninety three days stood between the ‘Cats’ Saturday win against UTEP and their last victory on American soil: on Oct. 16, 2021. You would’ve thought that, at the very least, Northwestern had secured a bowl game appearance the way players and coaches described their shared ecstasy for finally notching a home win. Now, the stopwatch resets to zero, and the program has been liberated from the manacles of Twitter (now known as X) trolls and embarrassing television graphics.

NU entered its Week Two matchup against the Miners with plenty on the line. Aside from the obvious desire to smash the storied losing spell, the ‘Cats were focusing more granularly — aiming to right the ship after a season opener in which their top passer had a 0-to-2 interception-to-touchdown ratio, and the team was run out of the building by a less than impressive Rutgers team.

Intent on snatching the program’s first win on the continent in 23 months, David Braun and Co. made it known in the days leading up to the game that UTEP was going to get the ‘Cats’ best.

The team’s lofty plan was off to a rocky start, given that a methodical, three–minute, 52-second opening drive from the Miners ended in a touchdown pass from quarterback Gavin Hardison. What’s new?

Not to worry. Something truly was new in the UTEP game. Northwestern’s defense regrouped and tightened the screws. After a Northwestern touchdown courtesy of Jack Lausch (more on him later) evened the game, NU’s defense wired in. The unit forced punts on the Miners’ next two drives before captain Bryce Gallagher corralled an interception midway through the second quarter.

Tied at seven a piece going into halftime, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian dialed the gameplan up a notch in the third quarter — resolute that this was the team’s chance to reclaim Ryan Field. An onslaught of 21 points ensued.

A near seven-minute drive to open the period ended in an 18-yard, Ben Bryant touchdown pass to Thomas Gordon. Two plays into the Miners’ next possession, Hardison errantly threw another interception to Xander Mueller, who returned the pick to the UTEP three yard line. Ben Bryant capitalized again, that time on a QB sneak.

From there, then 21-7, the game got out of hand. Northwestern scored on each of its remaining drives, and UTEP achieved the opposite feat. The ‘Cats sealed a win — yes, a win — 38-7.

Rejoicing was the natural next step. Before Braun even made it to midfield to shake Miners’ head coach Dana Dimel’s hand, he was fist-pumping and mobbed by shoulder pats from his players. The post-game presser, featuring Lausch, Cam Porter, Anto Saka and Mueller, boasted a similarly jubilant atmosphere.

The win is, of course, not redemption for nearly 700 days of losing football (void an outlying trip to Ireland). And, of course, UTEP is far from the type of Power Five school that the ‘Cats aspire to beat. However, the team played the opponent in front of them and took care of business, which has been far from assured in recent history.

The defense looked phenomenal, demonstrating its resilience after giving up a touchdown on the game’s opening drive. The veteran pair of linebackers in Gallagher and Mueller never flinched and led their unit with conviction. Young guys, including sophomores Anto Saka and Kenny Soares Jr., contributed when it mattered. And Braun pitched a successful outing as the team’s defensive play caller.

On the offensive side of the ball, the men in purple never left a doubt. Bryant steamrolled his unit’s way to the endzone to offer a direct answer to the Miners’ first-quarter touchdown. From there, the offense never let its foot off the pedal. Between a respectable 55% third-down conversion rate and a clean turnover sheet, the victory marks the first time in a long time that the ‘Cats have had such a cohesive performance on that side of the ball.

These laurels aren’t without their caveats. The focus now turns to maintaining momentum. One win every 365 days isn’t exactly the goal. With a contest against No. 21 Duke awaiting the ‘Cats, the high of an emotionally charged win can’t impede diligence. All odds are still stacked against NU, and the probability of making the leap from winless in America over the last two years to beating a top-25 team in the nation is slim. But avoiding a curb stomping and proving that there are traits that can be built off of is still a worthwhile objective for Northwestern.

Then arrives the next stipulation. What’s going on at quarterback? Yes, Ben Bryant is the starter, but after going down with an injury in the later part of the UTEP game, it remains to be seen who will be under center on Saturday. Braun has said he thinks Bryant will be ready to go against Duke, but will there be a timeshare at quarterback to mitigate injury aggravation? Will Jack Lausch, who has been a Swiss army knife for the offense through two games, get real reps at the helm of the offense? If Bryant can’t go, will Braun and Bajakian opt for Ryan Hilinski like they did against the Miners — even though Brendan Sullivan was the proclaimed backup a few weeks ago (to be fair, Sullivan looks to be dealing with a minor injury that Braun hasn’t fully disclosed)?

All this is up in the air and leaves pundits and fans alike wanting answers. Only Saturday will tell. NU will be facing off against an elite quarterback and a stout defense; a win is far from expected.

What awaits in Durham is the opportunity for the ‘Cats to prove this is a new era — a new era under Braun, a new era under the transfers, a new era under the young players who are finally seeing the field.