PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Northwestern interim coach David Braun on Sunday had the usual disappointment, frustration and self-critiquing that stems from a largely non-competitive loss to open a season.
But Braun felt something else after a turbulent summer that forever changed the program, the university and his own life: A sense of relief.
The result vs. the Rutgers was unacceptable, Braun said, but the competition brought familiarity for a team that has had few normal days since Fitzgerald’s firing.
“This the lightest I’ve been since I took over, just from a standpoint where we’re playing football,” said Braun, who was promoted from defensive coordinator to interim coach on July 13. “It’s an opportunity to look around, look at these guys. They’ve been working so hard to get to this point. Are there plenty of things that I need to work on that are very apparent that I’m taking notes on as the game goes? Absolutely. I need to be so much better in this role and look forward to being much better.
“But in terms of the heaviness of it, if anything, it was a relief to get to game day.”
Braun made it clear that Northwestern came to Rutgers to win and “fell well short” of its goal. He also remained confident that the team would respond, despite no wins on U.S. soil since Oct. 16, 2021, and the coaching change in July.
Other than Fitzgerald, no coaches or players have faced discipline from the hazing allegations, and athletic director Derrick Gragg told ESPN that he didn’t anticipate further personnel changes unless new information surfaces.
Northwestern only lost a few players to the transfer portal in the month after Fitzgerald’s firing. Fitzgerald’s son, Jack, a freshman tight end, has remained with the team as a student assistant and attended Sunday’s game.
“This group’s resilience … a loss, we’re not going to accept the result. We’re frustrated and totally not OK with the result,” Braun said. “But the way that our guys will be moving forward, I have no doubt about that.”
Northwestern allowed 16-play touchdown drives on Rutgers’ first two possessions, with the Scarlet Knights possessing the ball for 21:44 en route to 17-0 halftime lead. The opening half for Northwestern featured a successfully executed pass on a fake punt that came up short of the first-down marker, and a late interception by quarterback Ben Bryant, who didn’t appear ready for the snap before rushing his throw.
The Wildcats prevented big plays on defense but struggled to get off the field, as Rutgers converted 8 of 18 third-down chances and all three of its fourth-down opportunities.
“At the end of the day, it all comes back to me,” Braun said. “I’m excited to look at the film and see where I can be better. We’ve got enough talent on this team. People are going to tell us otherwise, but we’ve got enough talent on this team to go win football games. There’s going to be no excuses or explanations.”
Backup quarterback Brendan Sullivan‘s 1-yard pass to running back Caleb Komolafe prevented the shutout, but Northwestern finished with only 201 yards, committed three turnovers and needed the final drive to achieve a positive net rushing total (12). Northwestern’s offense also struggled in 2022, finishing 127th nationally in scoring at 13.8 points per game — worst among power conference teams — and 123rd in average yards per play (4.54).
Rutgers had five different players record sacks and finished with eight tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and interceptions by Max Melton and Robert Longerbeam. Northwestern’s yards total marked the lowest Rutgers has allowed in a Big Ten game.
“There were plays out there that we just didn’t make, and to keep sustaining drives, we didn’t have the ball much today,” said Bryant, a transfer from Cincinnati who made his Northwestern debut and had 169 passing yards and no touchdowns.
Linebacker Bryce Gallagher, who had a game-high 19 tackles, echoed Braun in saying that the game was “very relieving” after the summer. But he added that simply reaching the season wasn’t the goal for a team that has dropped 17 of 19 Big Ten regular-season games since reaching the conference championship game in 2020.
“Unfortunately, with football, some things happen and you don’t always get the results you want to, but I know we have a winning football team in that locker room,” Gallagher said. “We have winning attitudes, and we will come back and turn this season around.”
Braun, who had never coached in the FBS before joining Northwestern in January, made his head-coaching debut while also serving as defensive coordinator. He said he regretted several calls, especially in the first half, but praised the defensive staff for communicating well and helping him when his attention had to be on Northwestern’s offense.
Last month, Braun talked about how the team was “worthy of doing something great” after what it had endured. Asked Sunday if Northwestern simply needs a good day, he said, “That day’s coming, can’t wait for it.”
The Wildcats open their home schedule Saturday against UTEP.
“It’s really easy to get emotional and passionate about, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ You start talking about this linear growth, but that’s not the way any season looks,” Braun said. “It doesn’t matter if you win a national championship or you’re scratching for your first win on the season. There’s got to be ups and downs. We just happened to start off the season on a disappointing loss.
“Our guys will rebound, they’ll bounce back.”