PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — Interim coach David Braun has been the point man for Northwestern football since a hazing scandal led to a coaching change, investigations and multiple lawsuits.
He was the guy most people approached for answers about what went wrong at the Chicago-based Big Ten university. The past two months have not been easy, but Sunday was a rare exception as Braun got to coach in the team’s first game since the scandal.
Despite losing to Rutgers 24-7, Braun said, “I’ll be honest with you, this is the lightest I have been since I took over.”
“At this point, we’re just playing football,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to look around with these guys. They have been working so hard to get to this point. There’s plenty of things I have to work on, but in terms of the heaviness of it, it was a relief to get a game.”
Braun replaced longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald, who was first suspended and then fired after allegations of hazing surfaced in the summer and spread to other programs at the university.
Rutgers quarterback Gavin Wimsatt threw a touchdown and ran for another as the Scarlet Knights dominated the time of possession, controlling the ball for almost 38 minutes, while limiting the Wildcats to 22 yards rushing and 201 yards in total offense — the least they have allowed in a Big Ten game.
The loss was Northwestern’s 12th straight dating back to last season.
“There was certainly frustration, it’s coming from a competitive standpoint, this team came out here to win a football game and they are frustrated that they didn’t, they fell short. We fell well short,” Braun said.
Wildcats linebacker Bryce Gallagher, who led the team with 19 tackles, said no one was hanging their heads after the game.
“It was very relieving to get out there and just do what we do best, which is play football,” Gallagher said. “So it’s a great experience to get out there and be able to play.”
Northwestern, which finished last season 1-11, had one positive moment — scoring with about 20 seconds to play on a 1-yard pass by backup quarterback Brendan Sullivan to Caleb Komolafe. Cincinnati transfer Ben Bryant started and finished 20-of-35 passing for 169 yards and two interceptions. He was sacked five times.
The Scarlet Knights (1-0, 1-0 Big Ten) scored on their first two drives, with Wimsatt (17 of 29 for 163) hitting Ian Strong on an 11-yard pass to cap the first and running six yards for the second. The first TD was initially called incomplete but a review showed Strong had a foot down in the end zone. Jai Patel added a 32-yard field goal on the third drive after Braun gambled on a fake punt. Kyle Monangai scored on a 15-yard run in the third quarter.
Coming off a 4-8 season that included a 1-8 mark in the Big Ten, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said his team played a clean game.
“Big Ten wins are tough to come by,” said Schiano, who is in the fourth season of his second tenure at Rutgers. “No doubt it’s absolutely different, conference win. Wins are all good, but conference wins, they are better.”
With their team down 17-0, many of the Northwestern (0-1, 0-1) fans at the game said they expected more from the Wildcats.
“Not a very impressive first half,” said 18-year-old Ellis Zuckerman of New York, who will be starting his first semester at Northwestern next week.
Zuckerman, whose father Andrew attended the Chicago school, said hearing about the hazing scandal the past two months was concerning but did not impact his decision to attend the university, saying he was not going there for football.
Jared Breslaw, who grew up in Chicago and attended Northwestern games with his father and two brothers, flew up from Miami to see the game.
“I thought it was going be a little more competitive,” the 35-year-old said. “I thought we would rally around this. Then again we’re a second-half team, Cardiac Cats.”
Northwestern: Bryant showed flashes at quarterback and the receivers are surehanded. The offensive line struggled, especially in the running game. The defense was on the field way too much but has promise.
Rutgers: Schiano felt his defense was very good coming into the season and it more than lived up to his expectations on all three levels. The biggest surprise was the maturity and confidence Wimsatt showed. There were only a couple of throws that were slightly questionable and most of his passes were on target. The only knock is his handoffs are not fluid at times.
Northwestern: Hosts UTEP in home opener on Saturday.