The UTEP win allowed the fanbase to stop dwelling on the past and curb the pessimism that loomed over the program. Two weeks later, the Minnesota win allowed the fanbase to feel optimistic about the future of Northwestern football.
NU, at one point down 31-10, stormed back to seal a 37-34 overtime victory that marked the program’s first conference win at Ryan Field since October 2021. Not only did the win bring the Wildcats back to .500 on the season, but it showed signs of a team beginning to establish an identity. Here are five things we learned on Saturday night:
A tip of the cap to David Braun
I don’t know about you, but I find it impossible not to root for David Braun. Put in a situation that seemed headed for catastrophe, like a barrel hurdling toward the lip of Niagara Falls, Braun has not only salvaged a competent team but has doubled last year’s win total, making him an easy coach for Northwestern fans to get behind. It’s not unreasonable to claim that with the state of the program headed into the 2023 campaign, Braun has already outperformed expectations.
A lot of teams fold over when trailing by 21 in the fourth quarter, but all offseason Braun has told anyone who will listen about this group’s resilience and special character. It’s not just shtick. Saturday night proved that this team has a capable leader at the helm, one who can get every player on their roster to play their hearts out.
Of course, Braun still holds the interim label. And it’s not unrealistic to think that, considering Braun was a last-second promotion and the program awaits a multimillion-dollar stadium project, Northwestern higher-ups may still want to dole out the big bucks to bring in a head coach of their choice for the next era of Northwestern football. But over the next eight games, David Braun can make that decision awfully difficult for athletic director Derrick Gragg. A few more wins would seemingly go a long way for Braun’s long-term job security and prove that he is irreplaceable.
The wide receiver room is a strength
You can’t really talk about the wide receivers from the Minnesota game without starting with Bryce Kirtz. The senior wideout was B-A-N-A-N-A-S on Saturday night, catching 10 passes for a whopping 215 yards and two touchdowns. A few notes on Kirtz’s evening:
- Those two touchdowns were the first and second of his collegiate career.
- The 10 receptions represent 16.4% of his career total
- The 215 receiving yards represent 28.4% of his career total (this one is bonkers)
- Just three games into the season (Kirtz was out against Rutgers), Kirtz has already set a career-high for yardage in a single season
- This marks the first 200-yard game for a Northwestern receiver since Flynn Nagel in 2018 vs. Nebraska (running back Evan Hull eclipsed 200 last season)
You get the point. Bryce Kirtz is going to haunt the dreams of Golden Gopher fans for a long, long time. But it’s not just Kirtz that has me so excited about the receiver room.
Cam Johnson has been everything the team has needed and more, playing the role of the sure-handed perimeter weapon. He’s been dependable on anticipation routes and has quickly grown into one of Ben Bryant’s favorite targets. A.J. Henning has been the de facto playmaker for this offense through one-third of the season. He has been afforded opportunities to play out wide, rather than only being used as a gadget like he was at Michigan (although Mike Bajakian has found creative ways to use Henning too). His touchdown catch to send the game to overtime justified that confidence in his ability to be far more than a speedy jitterbug.
One of the biggest weaknesses from a season ago has now become a strength, and it is the prowess of the receivers that can help to open up the offense for other playmakers, just like we saw on the game-winning touchdown heave to Charlie Mangieri.
Ben Bryant: QB1
Victory lap time! In this same column one week ago, I suggested taking a patient approach with Ben Bryant, saying giving the signal-caller a little time would pay off in a major way in the long-run. Turns out, about a week of patience is all that was needed.
Against the Gophers, Bryant had, unequivocally, his best day as a Wildcat. The Cincinnati transfer compiled 33 completions on 49 attempts, tossing for 396 yards and four scores, and perhaps, most importantly, zero interceptions. What the box score won’t show you is the additional gall it takes to remain a confident and collected leader in the face of a 21-point hole. In the fourth quarter alone, Northwestern tallied 148 yards through the air and converted five-of-six crucial third downs. Bryant was poised, clutch and reliable when needed the most.
Unlike last week against Duke, Bryant was able to hit a few shots deeper down the field, but where he excels is in the short-to-medium range. On Saturday night, Bryant looked like a point guard with the way he was distributing the ball left and right. The gunslinger completed all 15 of his passes within five yards of the sticks and an admirable 67% of his passes between 5-and-14 yards. The emotion on his face at the end of the game showed it all. Bryant played his tail off, and he made it easy to see why Braun stuck with him even when his play had some fans calling for his benching.
Ryan Field... home field advantage?
David Braun has emphasized over and over the importance of protecting the Wildcats’ home turf. Through two games in Evanston, the ‘Cats have done just that, winning both games.
I get it, a lot of fans left when the team was trailing by three scores and missed the amazing finish; however, as it turns out, home field advantage isn’t just about crowd noise. Heck, Northwestern’s win over UTEP was before the student body had even arrived on campus. That being said, ‘Cats fans and students: show up and stay! It’s a small sample, but the home-road splits speak volumes:
This discrepancy probably won’t stick once Penn State comes to town, but with four home games remaining on the docket, the team has given the fanbase reason to make what is likely the final season at this iteration of Ryan Field a good one.
It sure would be cool if this team didn’t have to pull comebacks to win games
I love a comeback. You love a comeback. I’m never going to forget Saturday night. But even though the Cardiac ‘Cats are a real thing, comebacks aren’t sustainable, so it really would be nifty if this team stopped digging itself into such deep holes to climb out of.
Despite finally getting a stop on the opposing team’s opening drive, Northwestern has now been outscored in first halves 65-21. A minus-44 differential makes it genuinely impressive that Northwestern sits at 2-2 (the team is a glistening plus-37 in second halves and overtime). With a handful of very winnable games left on the schedule, a course correction for these ice-cold starts remains imperative so no second-half heroics are required.