Northwestern claims first victory in post-Pat Fitzgerald era

The already-scarce crowd petered out after halftime, and the announced attendance of 14,851 was 9,771 less than that of the home opener last year.

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Interim Northwestern coach David Braun celebrates with Bryce Gallagher after the Wildcats beat UTEP on Saturday at Ryan Field.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Northwestern fans and supporters, dressed in purple jerseys and shirts, gathered outside the entrance to Welsh-Ryan Arena to applaud their Wildcats.

The football team needed a bounce-back performance after its dismal effort last Sunday against Rutgers and delivered a 38-7 victory against UTEP.

It was interim coach David Braun’s first victory as the man in charge.

‘‘I’ll tell you right now, this is our win,’’ Braun said. ‘‘This is our win. It means so much to me because it was with an incredible group of people. I appreciate the way that they’ve navigated [the fallout of the hazing scandal], so pretty special to do with this group.’’

On the strength of a stout defense that came up with three interceptions, NU (1-1) claimed its first victory in the post-Pat Fitzgerald era.

The Wildcats’ defense was flying to the ball on all levels, making sound tackles and stuffing the run. UTEP averaged three yards per carry (35 rushes, 104 yards).

‘‘One of the big things coach Braun preached was that we need to be more passionate and play with passion,’’ said Wildcats linebacker Xander Mueller, who had a sack and an interception. ‘‘That showed on the sideline and on the field.’’

Ryan Field was barely filled on a sunny, 70-degree day. Many of those in attendance wore purple — the color synonymous with NU — and one father-son combination even sported No. 51 jerseys, the number former coach Fitzgerald wore during his playing days. The already-scarce crowd petered out after halftime, and the announced attendance of 14,851 was 9,771 less than that of the home opener last year.

‘‘The support from our alumni, our supporters and the greater community, that’s what we’re paying attention to,’’ Braun said.

The Wildcats relied on a power running game and quick, short passes as the foundation for their offense, scoring 31 unanswered points after halftime.

After having their running game stifled against Rutgers, NU stuck with it against the Miners. Senior Cam Porter finished with 17 carries for 90 yards.

‘‘It was a commitment to it and utilizing all of our guys,’’ Braun said about why the running game was clicking. ‘‘You saw Jack Lausch out there today and Cam Porter running the ball just relentlessly.

‘‘The way that we saw Cam Porter run the ball today, he embodied what a Big Ten back should look like.’’

The Wildcats’ physicality was a theme on both sides of the ball in the second half. The offensive line created holes for the running backs, and the defense played with intensity.

‘‘A lot of ups and downs throughout the offseason, but we stuck together and just found a way to win,’’ Porter said. ‘‘That’s not easy.’’

For a team that went 1-11 last season, NU has to win the winnable games on its schedule. That was particularly true before visiting No. 21 Duke next weekend.

It wasn’t quite the 61-23 rout of Illinois in the last game the Wildcats played without Fitzgerald on the coaching staff, but the victory felt good, particularly with an uncertain future for the coaching staff.

‘‘We don’t know what the long term looks like,’’ Braun said. ‘‘That’s indicative of the title I’m carrying right now [interim coach], and that’s OK. At the end of the day, regardless of how this plays out, my wife and I, this group, are going to hopefully look back and say, ‘You know, we’re proud of the way that we did that when we started the program.’ ’’

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