Welcome to the Cardiac ’Cats experience, on display for the first time in over a year. The Northwestern Wildcats (2-2, 1-1 B1G) rallied from a 31-10 fourth-quarter deficit to stun the Minnesota Golden Gophers (2-2, 1-1 B1G) 37-34 in overtime.
“For the first time since I’ve been here, you looked in their eyes, you looked at their body language and they weren’t flinching... There was belief. They expected victory tonight,” interim head coach David Braun said of his team’s resolve and ability to come back.
The game started slowly for the Wildcats as they found themselves down 21-0 early on and 24-7 at halftime. It looked like another blowout in the making, something Northwestern fans have grown accustomed to over the past few years.
When Minnesota first-year running back Darius Taylor ripped off a 43-yard run late in the third quarter to put the Golden Gophers up 31-10, Northwestern looked cooked. The student section was all but empty after halftime.
The loyal fans who stayed, however, were in for a treat – a heart-attack-inducing thriller, sure, but a treat nonetheless.
Trailing by three scores in the final quarter, Northwestern needed a miracle. The Wildcats started by driving 75 yards in five minutes and 10 seconds, capping it off with a one-yard touchdown run from fourth-year running back Cam Porter.
Northwestern’s next drive was short – just three plays in 39 seconds – but successful. They traveled 69 yards with no problem, cutting through Minnesota’s defense like a hot knife through butter. Fifth-year wide receiver Bryce Kirtz caught all three passes of the drive, including the 17-yard score to pull Northwestern within seven points. One stop and one score would send the game to overtime.
The ’Cats defense finally stepped up with not one but two stops, indeed keeping Minnesota off the board. As for that one score, well, it would be a great time for a miracle. 80 yards. 2:07 on the clock. Crunch time.
Northwestern moved swiftly down the field, passing the ball on every play. They got a little help from a facemask penalty on the Gophers, but still needed to convert three third downs on the drive, the final one being the most crucial. On third and 10, sixth-year transfer quarterback Ben Bryant surveyed the field and found fellow transfer A.J. Henning, the fourth-year wide receiver, from 11 yards out for the game-tying touchdown with two seconds remaining.
Northwestern carried that momentum into overtime. After winning the coin toss and choosing to go on defense first, the 'Cats held the Gophers to a field goal after Minnesota failed to convert on a Redzone third down.
Northwestern could now win the game with a touchdown, and they did just that. Bryant found graduate tight end Charlie Mangieri wide open for the 25-yard score, and what remained of the student section left the field in disbelief.
Poor quarterback play has plagued the Wildcats for the past several years.
Ben Bryant, in his final year of eligibility, transferred from Cincinnati to lead the Wildcat offense this season. He struggled in his first few games, overthrowing receivers in several lackluster showings and combining for only 408 passing yards in three games.
He also started slow against the Gophers, but by the fourth quarter, he seemed well-adjusted in the offense and was dealing, finishing with 396 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions.
Bryant’s favorite target of the night, Bryce Kirtz, had a career day with 215 receiving yards and two scores, including an electric 80-yard touchdown right before the half, earning Kirtz Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors.
“It’s a lot of emotions. As a team, we’ve been through so much… I’m very happy with our team and how we executed,” said Bryant on the performance.
Northwestern has had to overcome quite a bit of adversity from last season and this offseason. David Braun has now led this team to twice as many wins as last season, a dismal 1-11 finish that culminated with 11 straight losses. However, just like last season, the defense was not something to write home about, allowing 34 points, tallying zero sacks, and making a mediocre Big Ten quarterback look competent.
The schedule only gets harder as Northwestern hosts #6 Penn State on Sept. 30 at 11:00 a.m. CDT, but if Bryant continues to play up to his potential, more wins could be in this team’s future.
Now there may finally be a ray of optimism in Evanston after a long period of dark clouds.
Signing off ✌️💤 pic.twitter.com/S1I5tcuUIR— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) September 24, 2023
Thumbnail photo by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern.