“Bryant in the shotgun, Porter to his right, three receivers left. Bryant takes the snap, drops back to throw, looking downfield. He’s got...HE’S GOT A.J. HENNING. TOUCHDOWN NORTHWESTERN, AND THE WILDCATS ARE AN EXTRA POINT AWAY FROM TYING THE GAME UP.”
I have no recollection of saying those words on WNUR — to be completely frank, I blacked out — but I remember the emotions that fourth quarter and overtime brought out in not only myself, but of every NU fan in the crowd. Just 20 minutes before Henning found the endzone, you could hear a pin drop inside Ryan Field. Darius Taylor had broken out of Bryce Gallagher’s grip and scampered to the house to put the Golden Gophers ahead, 31-10, with two minutes left in the third quarter. Northwestern students headed for the exit, although a good chunk of the student section had already cleared out at halftime. As the clock ticked down, it felt like the Wildcats were destined for the blowout loss that had become a staple of the past two seasons. The first-team offense, which had only scored seven points against Power Five teams in 2023, had once again done nothing with the football outside of an 80-yard touchdown catch by Bryce Kirtz. Yet, as the game entered the final frame, something changed.
I could bore you with the play-by-play of the fourth quarter, but that was not the takeaway from the contest. In a game that felt gone, in a season that already felt lost, the Wildcats weren’t ready to throw in the towel. All of a sudden, a team that looked dead in the water came roaring back to life.
It feels like this game was the perfect encapsulation for the 2023 season. After an abysmal 2022 campaign and losing most of its offensive production to the NFL or the transfer portal, the expectations for the ‘Cats were at record lows. Add in a massive hazing scandal that saw the head coach of 17 years — and one of the best players in program history — abruptly terminated, it would have been easy, even understandable, if NU threw the towel in before the season even began. Yet, it didn’t.
Coach Braun had the impossible task of taking over the program and trying to keep it from falling apart. It was not the gig he signed up for, nor one he hoped for. It would have been easy for him to collect a paycheck and start looking for employment in 2024; instead, he has given everything to this team. Has he made mistakes? Of course, and he’ll admit to them; however, it is difficult to argue that he hasn’t been the right person to lead NU during this time. If you glance over at the sideline, you can see how his players respond to him — they love playing for him. Much like those players told Braun on Saturday night, “Coach, we got this,” he told them the same thing back in July when he became their leader. When he was interviewed after the ‘Cats walked it off, Braun was actively fighting back tears. He has given his entire being to this team, and on Saturday night, saw his work in full effect. I sincerely believe that in prior years, the Wildcats would have rolled over, but this squad has a newfound edge under its first-time leader. Braun summed Saturday up best — “pure joy.”
"The ultimate team win." pic.twitter.com/giTD88s5Xb— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) September 24, 2023
Saturday’s comeback would not have been possible without the heroics of Ben Bryant, a career college journeyman quarterback, who finds himself at his third university. To be blunt, No. 2 had not been good in 2023 entering the Minnesota game. It felt like every week, fans were clamoring to see Brendan Sullivan replace Bryant as the ‘Cats’ signal caller. Although Braun has publicly stood by the sixth-year, there were still plenty of questions about whether Bryant could successfully run the offense.
The first half this past weekend did not help his case, as he missed a couple of touchdown throws to Henning, and the Wildcats went to the locker room trailing 24-7; however, in the second half, Bryant showed everyone who he could be and earned the support of the NUFB community. For the clutch-time quarter, he was as dominant as any quarterback in college football, picking apart the Gophers' defense with surgeon-like precision. Even with the game on the line, he remained poised and executed a two-minute drill to perfection. His game-winning touchdown pass to Charlie Mangieri was the first time a Northwestern QB had tossed four TDs in a game since Trevor Siemian did it in 2013 (credit to Bradley Locker for finding this stat).
For someone who has bounced around as much as Bryant has, to have a career defining game in primetime — in front of his entire family — had to be a moment he’ll never forget
LOOK AT WHAT IT MEANS TO BEN BRYANT pic.twitter.com/LyXFGz2BRA— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 24, 2023
Listen here ‘Cats fans, you’ve earned this moment. For every Jim O’Neil falter, for the last two years, for all the ridicule over not winning a game on American soil, for everything that happened over the summer, there hasn’t been a lot to cheer about. Whether you were an alumni watching the game on TV, or a first-year taking in your first game at Ryan Field, Saturday night was a reminder of what fandom is all about. It is the highs and lows of sports that keep people invested: one minute you’re sitting in silence, frustrated by a team you care so much about, and the next moment you’re storming the field to celebrate. Those students who stayed, the true diehards who have sat through a number of brutal losses in Ryan Field, have a college memory that they will cherish forever.
I want to finish this Where are we Wednesday with this anecdote: following the game, Iggy, Bradley and I all headed to Bob’s Pizza to figure out what just happened and soak in an incredible moment. As we walked into the place, tables of football parents and players populated the restaurant. As I looked around, I couldn’t help but see the grins on everyone's faces, and the buzz in the air was palpable. For everyone in that restaurant, gnashing on a slice of pizza, Saturday turned into a moment that was unforgettable. 96 hours later, and I still feel that buzz as I walk around campus.
Sure, it wasn’t pretty, but neither was anything leading up to the 2023 season. When NU looked dead in the water, the Cardiac ‘Cats shocked themselves back to life. Revel in this moment ‘Cats fans because there is no better feeling in sports than pure bliss.