Northwestern fans, take a deep breath.
For the first time in what feels like an eternity, Northwestern has reason to celebrate. And man, was Saturday afternoon in Evanston a celebration.
The Wildcats (1-1, 0-1 B1G) put on a show in their home opener, treating the crowd to a 38-7 victory over visiting UTEP (1-2, 0-1 C-USA). In the process, Northwestern snapped a 12-game losing skid and 693-day streak without a win on American soil. The win also marks the first victory in David Braun’s tenure as head coach.
There was so much to applaud for on a picturesque day at Ryan Field, as the Wildcats put up 38 unanswered points, highlighted by a second half that saw Northwestern outscore UTEP 31-0 in the second half.
The defense led the charge early on, holding the Miners scoreless after their opening possession of the game. The unit looked cohesive and physical, racking up nine tackles for loss, four sacks and three interceptions.
Offensively, Cam Porter bulldozed his way to 90 rushing yards (104 all-purpose yards). A.J. Henning finished with 51 total yards, Jack Lausch and Joseph Himon II added 53 and 91 yards, respectively, and all three players found the end zone.
Ben Bryant, before being taken out of the game with an injury, looked solid, completing 11-of-17 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown. In his relief, Ryan Hilinski and Jack Lausch each saw time. Perhaps the most important stat for the offense: zero turnovers.
After winning the toss, Northwestern elected to defer. With the help of an offsides penalty on the kickoff, the Miners found themselves across midfield before a minute of the game had passed. UTEP gained chunk play after chunk play as quarterback Gavin Hardison showed off his arm and his legs, including a 16-yard run on a read option play that faked out the entire stadium. The drive was capped off with a four-yard touchdown pass to tight end Zach Fryar. Northwestern was not able to even force a third down on the drive as the Miners raced to a 7-0 lead before anyone in the stands could even take a breath.
In an early hole, Ben Bryant and the offense got to work, showcasing quick tempo with a Cam Porter run and Bryce Kirtz screen that gained a first down on the senior’s first snag of the season. A personal foul on UTEP put the ball into enemy territory, which was quickly followed by an A.J. Henning end around. The speed of the transfer receiver was on full display as the Wildcats marched into the red zone as quickly as their opponent had the previous drive. On second and goal, Jack Lausch took a direct snap and outraced the UTEP defense to the right pylon of the end zone to even the score. The play came from an odd formation that positioned quarterback Bryant in motion as a second quarterback and included a fake handoff up the middle, putting the Miner linebackers out of position.
On the following UTEP drive, Northwestern forced its first third down of the day, but with a clean pocket, Hardison had enough time to find Fryar once again for a conversion right at the sticks. Quickly, the home team was able to force another third-and-long situation, yet the result was the same: Hardison had plenty of daylight in the pocket and was able to convert via air with a 12-yard completion to Kelly Akharaiyi. Once more, the Wildcats forced a third-and-long, with the Miners needing 13 yards to convert. Hardison completed what appeared to be a first down completion to Jeremiah Ballard, but Ballard had stepped out of bounds in his route, making the completion an illegal touching play. UTEP subsequently punted in a much-needed stop for Northwestern.
The ‘Cats, unable to convert a third-and-long of their own, booted the ball back to the visitors. At the end of the first, UTEP neared midfield with the score knotted. Out of the break, the Wildcat defense held firm to force a punt, where a Northwestern holding penalty backed the offense up inside the five-yard line.
After starting with four straight completions, Bryant went cold, tossing four straight incomplete passes before finding an in-breaking Cam Johnson for a huge gain on third down. On the play, Johnson broke several tackles and sprinted across the field for a 43-yard pickup. Shortly after, a second-down sack all but ended a promising Wildcat drive as Hunter Renner punted for the second consecutive possession.
Yet again, the Miners were able to trudge their way to Northwestern’s midfield logo, but David Braun’s defense stiffened, on third and six, Bryce Gallagher read Hardison like a book, dropping into zone coverage and picking off the Miner passer for the defense’s first takeaway of the 2023 season.
Despite the favorable field position, Northwestern went three-and-out as Maurice Westmoreland bludgeoned through the right side of the Wildcat offensive line for a third down sack. The teams continued to mirror each other as Anto Saka burst through UTEP’s protection unit for a third down sack of his own, the first in the career of the highly-touted recruit.
After a Northwestern three-and-out, Gavin Hardison aired one out to Ballard just before halftime. The 6-foot-3 receiver came down with the ball with 17 seconds left right at the edge of field goal range. Another quick completion to Akharaiyi set the Miners up for a field goal attempt in the waning seconds of the second quarter. The 44-yard attempt off Buzz Flabiano’s right leg sailed wide right to extend the combined scoreless possession streak to nine. A kneel sent the two teams into the locker room tied up at seven apiece with the only scores coming on each team’s opening possession.
By half, Hardison had already completed more passes than he attempted in UTEP’s previous game against Incarnate Word, but Northwestern’s defense held the potent Miner rushing attack to 4.1 yards per carry, just one week after UTEP totaled 329 yards on the ground.
To start the third quarter, Northwestern picked up three first downs, utilizing the speedster Henning in a variety of ways. On one third down, Mike Bajakian motioned the receiver across the formation before running a slant that moved the chains. A few plays later, Henning took a jet sweep for a handful of yards to move the chains once again. From there, Northwestern pounded the rock on five straight snaps to enter the red zone. On second-and-10, Bryant found tight end Thomas Gordon wide open to put the ‘Cats on top. The touchdown pass was Bryant’s first in purple as Northwestern took its first lead of the season.
With the only scores coming on opening drives out of the locker room, UTEP looked to repeat the success it found in the opening minutes of the game and respond with a touchdown. On the first play of the drive, a 22-yard Hardison-to-Akharaiyi bullet was negated by a block below the waist penalty. Needing 22 yards to convert, Hardison attempted a risky pass to the far right sideline. Xander Mueller was in the right place at the right time, marking the second time in the afternoon that a Wildcat linebacker picked off Hardison. Mueller returned the ball all the way to UTEP’s three-yard line.
Two plays later, Ben Bryant took a QB sneak over the goal line to extend Northwestern’s lead to 14, firing up the crowd at Ryan Field and the home sideline.
On the ensuing drive, a personal foul brought UTEP close to midfield, but the drive petered out after a Coco Azema pass breakup and Aidan Hubbard sack.
With all the momentum in Northwestern’s favor, an unexpected hiccup arose. With news that Ben Bryant had suffered an upper body injury, Ryan Hilinski trotted out with the NU offense.
Yet even the continuing quarterback carousel could not stop the purple tidal wave, with Hilinski floating a third down screen to Joseph Himon II, who bolted untouched down the middle of the field for an 85-yard score that increased the score to 28-7.
In desperate need of a spark after giving up 28 unanswered, UTEP went for it on a fourth down from its own 33-yard line, completing the pass to keep the drive going. A would’ve-been touchdown pass was called back because of UTEP’s second illegal touching penalty of the day. Facing fourth-and-one in the red zone, the Miners attempted a QB sneak that was stuffed by Northwestern’s defensive line, which stepped up in a big way after a tough start to the season last week in Piscataway.
Hilinski stayed in for the Wildcats, but the offensive staff found more creative ways to use reserve quarterback Jack Lausch, as he sprung loose for a 46-yard chunk in the fourth quarter. The rushing attack was humming in the fourth quarter, capitalized by A.J. Henning’s first touchdown in purple on a jet sweep.
Now fully in garbage time, Ezell Jolly was stuffed on another fourth-and-one opportunity, giving the ‘Cats the ball on a turnover on downs. Jack Lausch took over at quarterback from there, shedding his gadget-only role. He led the team on a quick drive capped off by a 40-yard Jack Olsen field goal, the first make of his career. With under a minute to go, Joe DeHaan intercepted Jake McNamara to seal the win for Northwestern.
The Wildcats will return to action against the No. 21 Duke Blue Devils in Durham, North Carolina. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. CT.