After a rough 24-7 opening week loss against Rutgers, Northwestern desperately needed a bounce-back against UTEP. The Wildcats were able to do that, rallying behind a few fourth-down stops and turnovers forced by the defense to post a dominant 38-7 victory over UTEP. Everything looked better for Northwestern, which claimed the program’s first win since the 2022 season-opening win over Nebraska in Ireland, and the first win on American soil since a 21-7 victory over Rutgers on Oct. 16, 2021. Here’s what we learned from the contest.
Porter had a very quiet week against Rutgers, with just eight yards on six carries on the ground. Porter was involved in the passing game last week, tallying four receptions for 26 yards, but his overall impact was felt more in this game. Porter’s first six carries (all in the first half) gave him 29 rushing yards early, and he also hauled in two receptions for 14 yards as well. He stayed productive throughout the rest of the game, ending with 17 carries for 90 yards, as the main player in a Northwestern rushing attack that tallied 182 yards on 37 carries (4.9 yards per carry) with three touchdowns after only gaining 12 rushing yards on 22 carries against Rutgers. Porter will have to be effective if Northwestern is going to win more games this season, and this game was a sign that he is more than up for that challenge.
Bryant had a rough Week One performance, ending the game 20-for-36 with 169 yards and two interceptions. He bounced back against UTEP with much greater efficiency, ending the game 11-for-17 with 116 passing yards and a touchdown through the air, while also tallying a rushing touchdown on a sneak without throwing any interceptions this week. His yards per attempt improved from 4.7 to 6.8, and everything felt a lot smoother on the offensive end when compared to Northwestern’s Week One — where it always felt like the Wildcats’ offense was stuck in neutral all game. Bryant exited the game with an injury after his rushing touchdown, but his Week Two performance showed a lot of much-needed improvement after what happened in Week One.
Mike Bajakian’s gameplan
Last week, Bajakian found himself on the wrong end of the stock report as Northwestern failed to get points on the board until the game was virtually over already. This weekend, both of Northwestern’s first two touchdowns were well-designed trick plays. The first touchdown, which came on the opening drive of the game, was scored by quarterback Jack Lausch on a run with Ben Bryant also on the field in motion. The two-quarterback look caught UTEP sleeping, and Northwestern capitalized to get its touchdown. Also, the Wildcats ran a lot of screens for a good portion of the game, and NU played off of that at the end of the first drive of the second half. Bryant then pump-faked a screen to A.J. Henning, and instead threw to a wide-open Thomas Gordon — who started the play by lining up as a blocker, but then ran up the seam to make a touchdown catch. Overall, the offense looked a lot more balanced, as the ‘Cats scored more than 24 points in a game for the first time since the 2022 season-opening victory over Nebraska.
Honorable Mentions: the linebackers, the defensive line, A.J. Henning, Ryan Hilinski, Cam Johnson
Overall, this game will look like a good one defensively, but the two interceptions skew the optics a little bit. After being arguably the best Northwestern unit on the field in Week One, giving up just 163 yards to Gavin Wimsatt and Rutgers through the air in the season opener, UTEP quarterback Gavin Hardison was 14-for-19 with 147 passing yards in the first half. The two interceptions thrown in the game were also courtesy of linebackers Xander Mueller and Bryce Gallagher. Even when Northwestern’s pass defense had its better moments, the secondary was not at the heart of it like it was last week against Rutgers. This unit still showed a lot of promise in Week One; however, and a bounce-back week from the secondary in next week would not be a surprise.
This one is a little bit nit-picky, but Northwestern had a few opportunities to improve field position via special teams plays that were not made. The first of those plays came when Northwestern executed perfectly to position itself for a punt block, but then failed to actually come up with that block. A few UTEP returns also got farther up the field than they should have due to some missed tackles; if Northwestern makes those same mistakes against the Big Ten teams that are much more athletic than UTEP, those teams will likely make the Wildcats pay with some big returns.
Honorable Mentions: Home-field advantage (even though school has not started yet)