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Interviews with Frenemies: Northwestern

The ‘Cats are a surprising 2-2, how are they feeling about it?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 23 Minnesota at Northwestern Photo by Ben Hsu/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Penn State travels to Northwestern on Saturday for its second Big Ten road game of the year. The Nittany Lions will be trying to slow a Wildcat passing attack that got going in a huge second-half rally against Minnesota last Saturday. Ignacio Dowling of Inside NU dropped by to answer some questions about the ‘Cats.

After what can only be described as the most tumultuous offseason of any Big Ten team, what’s your take on the Wildcats’ 2-2 start to the season?

Northwestern’s 21-point comeback to beat Minnesota for its first Big Ten West win at Ryan Field since 2020, I’d probably say that the emotions surrounding the program are as high as they’ve been since at least July. Ben Bryant might have had the best performance of his six-year career against the Golden Gophers, throwing for 396 yards and four touchdowns. Bryce Kirtz, the team’s No. 3 receiver, erupted for 215 yards and one of the best receiving performances in NU history. With those two and transfer receivers A.J. Henning and Cam Johnson in the fold, the offense has definitely shown flashes of aerial explosiveness that have been missing for years.

Obviously, the team has its holes that Penn State should expose. It has struggled in the trenches on both sides of the line of scrimmage, and really only got going on the ground in its 38-7 win over UTEP. However, the secondary is pretty strong, and hasn’t gotten heavily gashed through the air on big plays. Younger players like Devin Turner have shined. All in all, for a team that many predicted would not win a single Big Ten game all year, 2-2 fresh off a comeback win isn’t the worst place to be.

Northwestern and Rutgers was a standalone broadcast on Labor Day weekend, so many saw the struggles that the Wildcats had in Piscataway. What changed Saturday night as Northwestern came to life with its passing game to rally and beat Minnesota?

Well, Kirtz didn’t play against Rutgers due to injury, so there’s that. The real turning point of the Minnesota game came on Northwestern’s penultimate touchdown drive in regulation to cut its deficit to 31-24. Bryant connected with the senior receiver on three straight plays to drive 69 yards in 40 seconds thanks to some great route-running and precision passing.

Bryant was able to showcase that accuracy with some protection, which he wasn’t afforded at Rutgers. In his Northwestern debut, he was constantly pressured because the Scarlet Knights overwhelmed NU’s smaller, reshuffled offensive line. One of his two interceptions in that game came as a direct result of heavy pressure.

While the ‘Cats racked up a ton of penalties in the trenches against Minnesota, they at least held up. Of course, that’ll be much tougher to do against the Nittany Lions, but the line’s improvement could make some of the upcoming Big Ten West games much more interesting.

What can you tell us about the NU defense and how it might try to force mistakes from sophomore quarterback Drew Allar, who has yet to commit a turnover this season?

While Northwestern has struggled to generate pressure as a whole, sophomore defensive end Anto Saka has been a pass-rushing force off the edge on third downs. He leads the team with two sacks, and if anyone were to force an Allar turnover on Saturday, it’d probably be him. Behind Saka, NU’s inside linebacker duo – Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller – each have an interception in coverage. Although they’ve tended to struggle against faster tight ends during their careers, both have made some athletic plays in open space. Gallagher recorded a leaping pick in the UTEP game, and Mueller made a game-saving tackle in the open field to wrap up Minnesota’s Darius Taylor on a third-down play. Both could make something happen if NU can pressure Allar consistently.

What are your thoughts about Northwestern’s coaching situation moving forward? Is there any way that David Braun can do enough to remove the interim tag or will there be a full national search to bring in a new face of the program?

It’s a very intriguing question. From the looks of it, Braun has done a terrific job of stabilizing the team given his lack of Power Five coaching experience and the situation he was thrown into, both on the field and in his conversations with the media. The Minnesota win definitely helped his case for the full-time job. However, with Northwestern having retained its entire coaching staff for the 2023 season (even staffers named in lawsuits), there’s a real chance that the administration hits the reset button entirely and parts ways with Braun no matter what happens. Reporters covering the team really don’t know.

If he can get to five wins, though – beating Howard and two Big Ten West teams – then I think there’s a serious conversation to be had. It’s feasible, too; the Wildcats have at least a fighting chance against Nebraska and Purdue. If Northwestern somehow goes bowling, then it’d be safe to say that not bringing Braun back would enrage a fanbase that’s already very critical of AD Derrick Gragg and president Michael Schill.

Oh yeah, and if Braun were to somehow pull this game off, then the job’s his to lose.

What are some keys that you’ll be looking for on Saturday and any predictions for what might happen at Ryan Field?

For Northwestern to keep this somewhat close, let alone pull off an upset, it’ll need to stop the run and get off the field on third downs. The ‘Cats have surrendered 184.5 yards a game on the ground, and gave up 244 against Minnesota. Penn State just showed what happens when it can dominate time of possession, and NU will need to keep Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen in check to prevent that from unfolding. Ultimately, given NU’s struggles in that area and Penn State’s talent on both sides of the line of scrimmage, I don’t think this one won’t be close. PSU wins 45-10 in an uneventful game heading into its bye week.

We thank Iggy for his time and encourage you to head over to Inside NU for their coverage of Northwestern athletics and Saturday’s game against the Nittany Lions.