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Northwestern Wildcats Football: 2023 Postmortem

A new era dawned in Evanston, and we liked what we saw.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 23 SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl - Utah vs Northwestern Photo by Steve Nurenberg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A number of chapters ended, a number of books closed.

The 2023 Northwestern Wildcats football season was many things; it was not boring. Take an interim head coach, lawsuits stacking up by the day, a jaded and staying-away fanbase, rock-bottom expectations, mix them all together, and...

LincolnParkWildcat: The 2023 Northwestern football season had the potential for being a complete disaster and a return to the dark ages the program experienced between the early 70s up until the mid 90s.

Longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired by NU President Michael Schil as a result of the hazing scandal in the Northwestern football program.

Fitzgerald, being the most decorated defensive football player in Northwestern history, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, and the winningest coach in school history with a 17 year tenure, was out of a job and this fall ended up being a volunteer assistant coach at Loyola Academy in nearby Wilmette where one of his sons plays football.

One of the last things that Fitzgerald did in the offseason was replace extremely maligned defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil with David Braun, the defensive coordinator for the 2019 and 2021 FCS Nation Champion North Dakota State.

President Schil made Braun the interim head coach before the season started.

I was pessimistic for the season, hoping at least we could at least beat lower division Howard University.

Plop down on your tufted leather chair in your wood paneled sun-lit drawing room, and ring your butler to bring you a glass of the finest spirits, because it’s time to dig in to the season.

The Predictions:

Northwestern Wildcats

  • Predicted: 2.4-9.6 (0.5-8.5)
  • High: 4-8 (2-7) — GoForThree, MNW
  • Low: 1-11 (0-9) — HWAHSQB, WSR
  • Std. Dev.: .91 (overall), .74 (B1G)

Yeah, we predicted a shitshow, but....

The Results:

The Wildcats went 8 and 4!!

Remember how I mentioned earlier that I hoped we could at least beat Howard??

Not only did we beat Howard University, we defeated UTEP, Minnesota, Maryland, Wisconsin, Purdue, Illinois, and even beat Utah in a bowl game!!

We only lost to Rutgers, Duke, Nebraska, and Iowa,

I think we should have beaten Nebraska and Iowa.

Schill elevated Braun to the full-time job after we beat Wisconsin.

What went right?

MNW: Northwestern’s defense rebounded under DC-turned-HC Braun. A duct-taped defensive line of Jaylen Pate, Richie Hagarty, Aidan Hubbard, and [pinches fingers together] Carmine “Ay, I’m Walkin’ Here!” Bastone, and athletic freak Anto Saka did just enough to elevate Northwestern’s much-maligned run defense of years past. Linebackers Bryce Gallagher and Xander Mueller both proved me wrong about their athletic abilities and most people right that Jim O’Neill should never coach a second of football ever again. Often bending without breaking, the defense rated above average in most metrics, with a talented secondary of Rod Heard II, Devin Turner, Garnett Hollis Jr., Coco Azema, and Theran Johnson forcing quarterbacks to throw into tighter windows.

Oh, and a heavy amount of Ben Bryant. Despite not quite playing to the levels of 2020 Peyton Ramsey and battling injuries throughout the season, the grad transfer showed moxie galore. His stats don’t wow you, but he was a stabilizing hand on the wheel of a Mike Bajakian car careening into the ditch. Northwestern went nowhere fast with the ball in 2023, but they took care of it a whole lot better.

Also we have a kicker in Jack Olsen. That seems pretty cool.

The Future

Players

Northwestern declined to add any players in the transfer portal as of Wednesday, January 24. Some people would call that a mistake. I call it Innovention.

Key Players Gone:

  • QB Ben Bryant (graduated)
  • LB Bryce Gallagher (NFL Draft???)
  • G Josh Priebe (transfered to Michigan?!)
  • DB Rod Heard II (transfered to fuck Notre Dame)
  • WR Cam Johnson (graduated)
  • TE Charlie Mangieri (graduated)
  • RB Anthony Tyus III (in portal)
  • T Alex Doost (transfered to Arizona)
  • T Zachary Franks (in portal)
  • DB Nigel Williams (in portal)

That’s a decent amount of talent to replace for an at-times talent-starved program. The offensive line exodus has to do with the firing of OL coach Kurt Anderson (see below). The Heard transfer is disappointing, but what can you do; it’s not like that Greg Newsome II guy did anything for the Cleveland Browns. But Notre Dame gets you drafted spots higher; good luck to him.

Other Things to Note

WR/PR/KR AJ Henning is staying in purple for one more year, which is great news. Not sure who will throw him the ball; maybe Brendan Sullivan is just Joe Bidening.

Perhaps more concerningly, Northwestern has no major players transfering in as of yet. Some folks #online had hoped South Dakota State quarterback Mark Gronowski would follow new OC Zach Lujan to Evanston; no dice (which could change, I guess). There will surely be a few offensive line transfers, perhaps in the April portal window.

The Stadium

This week, Northwestern will begin the demolition of Ryan Field, which has stood at Central and Ashland since 1926.

It was a beautiful, old dump that vaguely resembled an outdoor park lazily falling into disrepair. Its rust and age had really become noticeable in 2023, and it was certainly time for renovation or demolition.

The university, with half a billion reasons from Pat Ryan to do so, elected the latter, and after all sorts of NIMBYist kvetching and bribe-demanding from Evanstonians, got what they wanted. The new field, which you can see here, more closely resembles the size and profile of a modern MLS stadium:

MNW: This’ll be fine. Hell, it’ll probably be really cool. I’m just still processing that one of the things that has made Northwestern such an absolute pain—the fact that absolutely no one liked coming to play there at 11am on a Saturday morning with 25,000 people in attendance and no atmosphere—one of the things I absolutely loved about a piece of the university I loved that I cheered at, marched on, and graduated in—will be gone. College football continues apace.

Northwestern will play at locations, more than likely, across the Chicagoland area: there will surely be another money-making and player-safety racket at Wrigley Field. Northwestern will undoubtedly rent out Soldier Field for a couple games on weekends where the Bears are out of town and we want that Ohio State fan money. Perhaps Guaranteed Rate Stadium gets in on the action. And it’s likely the ‘Cats will head to SeatGeek Park—formerly the home of the Chicago Fire—down in Bridgeview for some non-conference snoozers.

That all would have een a real damn tough sell for an incoming head coach, had 2023 gone completely pear-shaped. Thankfully...

Coaching

Hey, look! Northwestern found an untested defensive coach who took the reins on short notice and delivered promising results!

Northwestern’s head football coach Pat Fitzgerald stands in Photo by Jim Prisching/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Wait.

No.

Not that one.

NCAA Football: Las Vegas Bowl-Utah at Northwestern Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

There ya go.

The housecleaning has begun under David Braun: out is much-maligned OC Mike Bajakian, in is South Dakota State guru Zach Lujan. Out is special teams coordinator and Friend of Fitz Jeff Genyk, in is Washington special teams quality control coach Paul Creighton. Out is offensive line coach Kurt Anderson, in is former Colorado OL coach Bill O’Boyle. Out is AHC, safeties coach, and Named in Reports Matt McPherson, in is...well, we don’t know what.

Braun also promoted NU alumnus, possibly problematic-for-the-same-reasons-as-McPherson, and Chainsaw User Tim McGarigle to defensive coordinator:

Now we wait to see: will some or all of these work? Will Braun jump ship to a bigger job with a year or two of success in Evanston? Could he be the next Pat Fitzger Randy Walke Gary Barne Ara Parseghian? Is it depressing to realize that Parseghian is likely the last Northwestern coach to win AND not have any major public sexual assaults or deaths happen during his coaching tenure?

These are all hypotheticals that could be solved by Northwestern crashing quickly back to earth under Braun in 2024 and beyond. But, in the short-term, Northwestern has found its answer as it walks into a new kind of self-imposed wilderness.

Poll

What grade would you give Northwestern’s 2023 season?

This poll is closed

  • 56%
    A
    (26 votes)
  • 23%
    AB
    (11 votes)
  • 8%
    B
    (4 votes)
  • 2%
    BC
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    C
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    CD
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    D
    (0 votes)
  • 4%
    F
    (2 votes)
  • 4%
    Assigning a grade after a season like this does not possibly account for the wide range of experiences, challenges, and problems that such a grade would endorse or punish.
    (2 votes)
46 votes total Vote Now

Poll

How do you feel about your answer to the question above?

This poll is closed

  • 45%
    Good.
    (17 votes)
  • 2%
    ...huh, I think I just adopted ungrading as my classroom policy.
    (1 vote)
  • 51%
    I’m just mad you used an AB scale instead of a +/- scale.
    (19 votes)
37 votes total Vote Now

Poll

In 2024, Northwestern will finish...

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    ...on the cusp of a College Football Playoff appearance! [author note: please blow into this device]
    (1 vote)
  • 3%
    Something impressive like 8-4/9-3, with a Citrus or Outback Bowl-type reward
    (2 votes)
  • 44%
    A solid 6-6/7-5, but nothing overwhelming
    (23 votes)
  • 30%
    A 5-7 type season that’s reflective of the ‘Cats place in the new Big Ten
    (16 votes)
  • 15%
    4-8 or 3-9, with some problems in the Braun model
    (8 votes)
  • 3%
    Welcome back to the Dark Ages
    (2 votes)
52 votes total Vote Now