In a season marred by chaos from the outset, Northwestern football has been…fairly calm. The Wildcats, currently sitting at 3-3 (1-2 B1G), have honestly improved on what most observers expected of them this year. With the Pat Fitzgerald firing, Northwestern football seemed to be a rudderless ship. However, interim coach David Braun has already led the team to a .500 record and earned some really impressive wins. After a summer of nothing but bad headlines, Northwestern football might be turning a corner.
Sixth-year Ben Bryant transferred from Cincinnati to Northwestern in the offseason and earned the starting job over returning quarterbacks third-year Brendan Sullivan and fifth-year Ryan Hilinski. While he struggled to open the season, Bryant’s performance in the team’s second victory versus Minnesota was one of the better games by a Northwestern quarterback in the last decade.
3️⃣9️⃣6️⃣ passing yards, 4️⃣ touchdowns and an overtime win ‼️— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) September 25, 2023
Vote @benbryant_6 for Manning Award Quarterback of the Week.
Despite being down 21 points in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats never gave up. Bryant wound up winning the Manning Award for quarterback performance of the week and the remaining students stormed the field to celebrate. The transfer is completing nearly 60% of his passes this season and has thrown for six touchdowns, putting him one away from the highest single-season mark since Peyton Ramsey in 2020. Bryant did not play against Howard, but is expected to be available for the Nebraska game this weekend.
Bryant isn’t the only reason for the offense’s success. Fourth-year running back Cam Porter has provided 299 rushing yards this year, and Brendan Sullivan has added 96 and a pair of touchdowns in five appearances this year. One of those touchdowns was on a 35-yard scramble to open the scoring against Howard.
The Wildcats also have four players over 100 receiving yards on the season, including Michigan transfer fourth-year AJ Henning. The team averages 306 offensive yards per game, and their 17 touchdowns are ninth-most in the Big Ten.
On the defensive side, the team’s leaders are linebackers fifth-year Bryce Gallagher and fourth-year Xander Mueller. Both players are among the most prolific tacklers in the Big Ten, with Gallagher’s 55 tackles ranking third and Mueller’s 41 slotting in at 12th. Mueller also has 3.5 sacks this year, which ties for fifth in the conference. Additionally, Mueller is third in the conference in tackles for loss, and his seven tackles behind the line have cost opponents 34 total yards.
In the secondary, fifth-years Coco Azema and Rod Heard are the keys to shutting down opposing receivers. The two have combined for 61 tackles this year, and they’ve helped the Wildcats give up the fifth-fewest passing yards in the Big Ten. Special teams has also been excellent. Northwestern leads the Big Ten in net kickoff yardage, and Indiana is the only other school that has not missed a kick.
So far this year, Northwestern has performed as expected against ranked teams. It faced Duke on the road and Penn State at Ryan Field, and lost those games by a combined 52 points. However, it’s against unranked opponents that Northwestern has shown massive improvement from last year. Last season, the Wildcats suffered consecutive home losses to Duke, Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio). This season, they lost on the road to unranked Rutgers, but since then have gone 3-0 against the trio of UTEP, Minnesota and Howard. Admittedly, both the Minnesota and Howard victories were only by three points apiece, but winning close games is something Northwestern struggled with last season.
Northwestern’s best moment of the season (aside from the Minnesota comeback) was probably playing Penn State to a draw through two quarters. While the Wildcats lost that game, it showed that Northwestern was unafraid of competition with the best teams in the conference. However, the Wildcats won’t really have to prove that to close the season.
Northwestern finishes the year at Nebraska, versus Maryland, versus Iowa at Wrigley Field, at Wisconsin, versus Purdue and at Illinois. Of those teams, Iowa is the only one ranked in the most recent AP Poll, and none of the other squads are even receiving votes. Also, Illinois, Purdue and Nebraska are tied with or below Northwestern in the current Big Ten standings. There’s an extremely realistic path to a bowl game, but that’s not the most important thing right now. A team that some doubted would even touch five wins this year is already at three. And after an offseason of chaos, that is worth celebrating in and of itself.
"The second you start taking winning for granted, you have bigger issues. 𝙔𝙤𝙪 𝙘𝙚𝙡𝙚𝙗𝙧𝙖𝙩𝙚 𝙬𝙞𝙣𝙨." 🎙️⬇️— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) October 8, 2023
Thumbnail photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern