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The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Epstein: Northwestern fell into a hole that it couldn’t escape

Micah Sandy/The Daily Northwestern
Senior defensive back Garnett Hollis Jr. attempts to wrap up Rutgers receiver Isaiah Washington on the sideline. Hollis tallied three tackles against the Scarlet Knights on Sunday.

Nine months ago, the Northwestern football team walked off Ryan Field after suffering a 41-3 drubbing to in-state rivals Illinois, cementing an 11-game losing streak to close out the 2022 season. 

In the wake of the program’s worst record since 1989, Athletic Director Derrick Gragg addressed the Wildcat community in an open letter.

“I am confident that next year we will once again rise to our standard of excellence,” Gragg said.

The coming months — that seemed to separate the season’s end by years — launched the program into a national controversy, ousting longtime head coach Pat Fitzgerald and leading the conversation far from the gridiron.

Surely, this season would look like no other, and the proverbial pursuit of excellence was all the more necessary accompanying a culture shock.


With a new chief at the helm in interim head coach David Braun and the offense’s keys handed to graduate transfer quarterback Ben Bryant, the Wildcats stepped onto the SHI Stadium turf on a sweltering Sunday against Rutgers, looking to write their own story and stifle the Scarlet Knights.

The day provided a golden opportunity to silence the noise that permeated through every corner of the program for four quarters of football. Above all else, the Cats could issue a statement of their intent in front of a national audience.

“This is the lightest I’ve been since I took over — just from a standpoint where we’re playing football,” Braun said of the pressure he felt going into Sunday. “It was a relief to get to a game day to get an opportunity to compete.”

As senior punter Luke Akers booted the opening kickoff into the Piscataway Sky, the season’s preparations all came down to this moment. 

But after several shots at an early statement, the Scarlet Knights still drew first blood, punching in the contest’s opening score on a 16-play, 75-yard drive. At the other end, the Cats’ primary possession fell flat despite a flash of brilliance from senior wide receiver A.J. Henning and his newly minted signal caller.

Rutgers coach Greg Schiano’s bunch quickly captured momentum with a series of third and fourth down conversions, and seldom looked back en route to 24 unanswered points.Whether by air or via the ground, the Scarlet Knights countered most looks thrown their way and left their opponents stumbling on their heels.

From a failed fake punt to handoffs to Henning in the backfield, very little seemed to jumpstart NU’s sputtering offense. Coupled with limited pressure forced on Wimsatt and an inability to get off the field on defense, NU fell into a hole that it couldn’t escape.

“We’re not happy with the result — we’re competitors, we want to win and obviously that didn’t happen today,” redshirt senior linebacker Bryce Gallagher said.

Braun’s team began the matchup relatively flat, got punched in the mouth and hardly recuperated. The spark never came, and no fire would follow. Fortunately for the interim head coach, he possesses plenty of time to right the ship. 

With a chance to bounce back in their home opener against UTEP next Saturday, the Cats can’t afford to dwell on the result. 

“We’ve dealt with a ton of stuff and losing game one isn’t going to stop us from where we want to go,” Bryant said. “It’s only up from here — we have a long season ahead.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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