“Alright, I’m back”: Quarterback Ben Bryant returns from injury, leads Northwestern to 24-10 victory over Wisconsin

Sixth-year quarterback Ben Bryant celebrates with junior offensive lineman Josh Thompson. Bryant finished with three total touchdowns in his return.
Sixth-year quarterback Ben Bryant celebrates with junior offensive lineman Josh Thompson. Bryant finished with three total touchdowns in his return.
Angeli Mittal/Daily Senior Staffer

MADISON, Wis. — Northwestern’s slugfest against Iowa on Nov. 4 meant many tuned into the Wildcats’ battle against Wisconsin this Saturday from the get-go. It was a chance to see how the ’Cats (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten) defensive group would hold up against a more dynamic Badgers (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten) offense.

For others, though, the focus went elsewhere. 

Eyes jetted toward Wisconsin’s 25-yard marker on NU’s sideline — where the ’Cats starting offensive unit awaited its first drive. There, for the first time in four games, stood graduate student quarterback Ben Bryant near the front of the pack.

The early-season starter had finally returned from his upper-body injury sustained against then-No.6 Penn State on Sept. 30.

“What I saw was a young man that didn’t miss a beat,” interim head coach David Braun said. “Even when he was injured and coming back from injury, staying locked in, staying focused and knew that his opportunity was going to come at some point and he was going to be great.”

Before Saturday, questioning Bryant’s availability each week was a murky subject — a broken record, even. Every Monday since the quarterback’s injury, Braun received questions about Bryant’s status and relayed similar answers of progress and an uncertain timetable.

Yet, Braun’s response was slightly different this past Monday. Besides the typical “day-to-day” and “incredible progress” memos, Braun hinted at the quarterback’s potential return.

“I’m not willing to sit up here and say that (Bryant)’s not going to be available,” Braun said. “With the progression that he’s shown over the course of the last couple of weeks, I think there’s a possibility that he’s ready to go.”

Braun said that “ready to go” moment came at Tuesday’s practice, when the sixth-year was dialed in from the jump. From his on-timeliness to poise, Bryant’s gradual confidence on the field resulted in the coaching staff’s belief in his readiness for Saturday.

And it wasn’t just the midweek practice that checked all the boxes. Besides consistent work with the training and strength staffs, Bryant returned to the practice field last week — throwing progressions of 20 passes here and there.

He knew he was ready to suit back up physically a week ago.

“Last weekend was kind of when I was like, ‘alright, I’m back,” Bryant said. “Not being able to be out there with my teammates, injuries suck…but it was so nice to get back out there.”

Bryant’s aura of excitement and confidence emanated throughout Camp Randall Stadium on the first drive, overriding the red and white’s increasing noise following Wisconsin’s field goal to start the game. The La Grange, Illinois native completed 7-of-8 passes during the possession, hitting multiple wide receivers on the money inside and outside the numbers. 

Coupled with strong rushes by senior running back Cam Porter, Bryant and the offense capped off the 12-play, 79-yard drive with a 23-yard reception to senior A.J. Henning alone in the end zone. Not to mention, the ’Cats converted all three of its third down attempts.

Bryant knew he was locked in after that.

“We had a lot of success throwing the ball and running the ball,” Bryant said. “Even that first drive and those first couple completions really gives you the confidence to go out there and keep doing it for the rest of the game.”

And neither the veteran nor the offense skipped a beat for the rest of the first half. On the following drive, Bryant continued his streak of completions and scrambled into the end zone. 

While Bryant knew he was back to top speed following the offense’s first possession, Braun recognized how locked in his quarterback was during the team’s third drive. After threading the needle to senior wide receiver Raymond Niro III for 17 yards, Bryant perfectly placed a pass over graduate wideout Cam Johnson’s right shoulder for a touchdown two plays later.

On top of the 24-yard reception that upped NU’s lead to 18, their 21 unanswered points represented the domination and momentum the ’Cats had over the Badgers. Bryant’s dime to Johnson was only one highlight that legitimized his long-awaited return. 

By the end of the first half, Bryant was 14-of-20 for 169 yards and three total touchdowns. Additionally, the ’Cats continued their third down masterclass, converting 10 of their 11 attempts.

Bryant’s halftime passer rating was at 174. 

“That was a moment that was pretty neat just to see (Bryant) operate and execute,” Braun said regarding Bryant’s second passing touchdown. “His mechanics at the line of scrimmage, recognizing the coverage, lifts a fade ball up to the end zone, just really locked in.”

Injuries aren’t foreign to Bryant. The quarterback suffered a season-ending fractured foot last year at Cincinnati. And with this season being his last year of eligibility and third time in the transfer portal, a successful campaign was of the essence.

For many, defeat and fear would’ve set in. Bryant’s mindset, though, in Braun’s eyes, never wavered from his goal of returning to gameplay. Although he couldn’t be the vocal leader on the field, he became one off the field.

But now that he’s back under center, Bryant’s mission is clear: help NU finish the season on a high note and make a bowl game. Saturday proved that, as the starter ended with 195 passing yards and three touchdowns. It was unquestionably his second-best performance in the purple-and-white and against his former head coach at Cincinnati, Luke Fickell.

The ’Cats are now one win away from bowl eligibility for the first time since 2020 — a chance most NU players haven’t had the chance to experience yet.

And, behind Bryant’s top-notch performance at Wisconsin, that dream came one step closer to becoming true.

“I never expected to go through all that I’ve gone through when I came into college football,” Bryant said. “I’ve learned so much, like I’ve grown into a man, I’ve matured a lot. But I think it’s all just a great story to my career and I’m just really excited to finish it off strong with this team.”

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