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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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Football: Epstein: Northwestern’s resurgence, home-field success a promising sign for a program and coach on the rise

Daily file photo by Angeli Mittal
Coach David Braun celebrates with redshirt senior linebacker Bryce Gallagher postgame. Braun was named Big Ten Coach of the Year, while Gallagher earned second-team all conference honors Tuesday.

A hop, a skip and a jump from a year ago, former Gameday Editor John Riker penned a season-ending piece titled “Everything we needed to know about the 2022 Wildcats, we learned on their home field.” Northwestern had just dropped its final game of the season in blowout fashion to in-state rival Illinois, drawing a dismal demise to an 0-6 home campaign.

For then-head coach Pat Fitzgerald, change was on the horizon following a 1-11 season. His team suffered losses to FCS and Group of Five opponents, prompting a shakeup to his coaching staff. From a leadership standpoint, captains Adetomiwa Adebawore, Evan Hull and Peter Skoronski departed for the NFL draft.

He’d look beyond his traditional hires with NFL ties, instead bringing in a bevy of promising coaching names, regardless of FBS or Power Five experience. Gone were defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, defensive line coach Marty Long and wide receivers coach Dennis Springer, and in came David Braun, Christian Smith and Armon Binns.

While Braun, Smith and Binns came from FCS programs, they’d each play an integral role in the Wildcats’ 2023 resurgence — even with the seismic shift that shook up NU’s coaching staff less than two months before the team’s opening kickoff at Rutgers. 

Taking the podium at Big Ten Media Days in July, Braun promised the team was ready to make a statement.

“Through one-on-one meetings with a majority of our team, I have found a team that has come together, that truly loves one another, and has an incredible resolve to attack the 2023 season and write their own story about overcoming adversity,” Braun said.

Braun galvanized his group from his interim tenure’s crux, producing results that landed him the permanent head coaching gig. Smith transformed the defensive line that appeared as the team’s achilles heel into a juggernaut, and Binns led a dynamic receiving corps and rallied offensive troops from the sideline.

Under Braun, the ‘Cats sparked a renaissance in their final season at the old-Ryan Field, proving Riker’s words rang true once more. During a 7-5 regular season that marked the largest win improvement in the FBS from last year, NU fortified its 97-year-old stadium back into a fortress and punched its first postseason ticket since the 2020 season.

With the monumental turnaround from last season and after weathering a proverbial category-five internal storm this summer, Braun received consensus Big Ten Coach of the Year honors Tuesday.

“It’s a credit to our players — it’s a credit to this staff,” Braun told Big Ten Network after receiving the award. “It’s a credit to the resolve of the entire program.”

After a lackluster season opener in Piscataway against Rutgers that resembled much of the team’s struggles from a year before, the ’Cats took care of business against UTEP, snapping a 693-day losing streak on US soil. Still, defeating a C-USA opponent didn’t sound any alarm bells.

Two weeks later, NU found itself in a 21-point fourth quarter hole against Minnesota. Much like its past display at Duke, the ‘Cats struggled to contain the Golden Gophers’ rushing attack. Past NU teams would’ve surely rolled over — but this year’s squad had a way of making the improbable a reality. 

By the time graduate student tight end Charlie Mangieri hauled in the game-clinching touchdown grab in overtime, an aura of shock had already overtaken Ryan Field. A three-score comeback complete in the blink of an eye — something special was brewing in Evanston.

Splitting their next two games against then-No. 6 Penn State and Howard, the ‘Cats held a 3-3 record at the bye week, with everything on the line in the latter half of the season.

“I really challenged the group entering the second half (of the season), all the goals and aspirations that this group has for themselves, the story that they hope to write… (is) still right in front of them,” Braun said.  

Although those goals appeared an ocean away last season, and perhaps drifted even further off the map this past summer, NU is now a program reborn. 

It seemed that the purple and white were in for a dull dilemma from the basement of the Big Ten throughout the year. Instead, the ’Cats compiled a 5-1 record inside their stomping grounds, recaptured the Land of Lincoln Trophy in enemy territory, secured a bowl bid and found a leader to guide the program into the new wave of collegiate football.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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