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

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

The Daily Northwestern

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Epstein: Northwestern finds extra edge, emphasizes collective strength against UTEP

Daily file photo by Micah Sandy
Northwestern regroups during a stoppage in play against Rutgers.

Minutes after notching his first win at Northwestern’s helm, interim head coach David Braun trotted through the short pathway that separates Ryan Field and Welsh-Ryan Arena, preparing to address the media.

As surrounding supporters erupted into emphatic cheers, letting loose their frustrations after seasons of disappointing displays, Braun triumphantly raised his fists into the September sky. 

Once he arrived in the media room, the coach said there’s very few occasions that have made him speechless, but Saturday’s statement victory over UTEP certainly fit the bill.

The Wildcats went nearly 100 weeks without a victory inside the United States, having a lone victory over a sputtering Nebraska in Dublin, Ireland to show for their efforts in the 2022 season.

Last Sunday’s season opener at Rutgers left much to be desired — and seemed to paint a deeply dark picture for the team’s ensuing slate. 

“It’s no secret that last Sunday was a tough day for us (and) a tough start to the season,” Braun said. “We really challenged the group to immediately flush it before we even left New Jersey.”

While UTEP kicked off the contest hot on an eight-play, 70-yard drive — echoing scenes from the group’s piling Piscataway problems — the Miners wouldn’t find paydirt for the rest of the contest.

Once senior quarterback Ryan Hilinski hit sophomore running back Joseph Himon II on a screen pass for an 85-yard touchdown that punched the lead up to three scores, that ever-elusive winning feeling crept back into Ryan Field. 

On a day where his team scored 31 unanswered points after the halftime break, nobody needed a victory more than Braun, and the former North Dakota State defensive coordinator received a raucous recognition on his trek adjacent to Ashland Avenue. 

Exhaling as the 12-game losing skid he inherited had finally snapped, the moment he helped manufacture finally sunk in.

“In a lot of ways it still feels surreal,” Braun said. 

This past January, Braun arrived in Evanston expecting to handle defensive duties for a team he’d watched growing up. Instead, he was handed the dual tasks of mending a stricken culture and producing a positive gridiron product in one of the nation’s premier conferences.

Sophomore defensive lineman Anto Saka, who tallied the team’s first sack, the first of his college career on Saturday, described Braun as a “players’ coach.”

“He was thrust into a position he was not expecting to be in,” Saka said. “For us to go out and get this done for him means the world. The only thing we can do is keep on supporting him — hopefully keep on winning.”

While it’s a small step on what will be a difficult journey, featuring formidable opponents and hostile crowds, landing in the win column grants the program an essential reprieve — a step in the right direction for a program that seemed to make all the wrong moves this summer.

Now, what went into the fateful day that allowed a team to refresh and inhale a desperately desired breath of fresh air? 


From the moment he made his introduction as the Cats’ sole representative at Big Ten Media Days in July, Braun credited his wife, Kristin Braun, and their children with guiding him through the most turbulent of times. On Saturday, he made sure to shout out his “rockstar” –– his wife.

With the “unwavering support” of his off-field family, Braun helped bring a football family that lost its longtime chief back into the winning column, and the team did so as a unit.

“We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs throughout the offseason, but we stuck together,” said senior running back Cam Porter, who recorded a game-high 90 rushing yards on 17 carries. “We found a way to win. We came together and we made a choice that we were gonna come out victorious.”

Playing complementary football, the offense fed off the defense’s fury, while the defense answered the offense’s firepower by cracking down with additive tenacity. 

Three different quarterbacks tallied touchdowns, three defenders snagged interceptions and four Cats registered sacks. 

Above all, a team united to put forth its most impressive display in recent memory. While there’s still a mammoth of a mountain to climb, especially heading into a Durham duel at Duke next Saturday, NU finally hit the reset button on one of its most difficult stretches in decades.

“We know who we are — we know our character,” senior Linebacker Xander Mueller said. “(We) try to block out the outside noise, and focus on the task at hand, which is winning games. Sticking together is a huge part of that.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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