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Northwestern accepted an invitation Sunday to play Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl, which will mark the culmination of a year that started with a hazing scandal that cost the Wildcats' longtime coach his job and ended with a surprising run under an interim coach who had been on staff only since January.
“This group is hungry to continue to improve and finish this thing together and understand what an incredible opportunity is in front of us,” said David Braun, who had the interim tag removed when he was named head coach Nov. 16.
The Wildcats (7-5) will make their first bowl appearance in three years when they play the Utes (8-4) on Dec. 23 at Allegiant Stadium in Vegas.
Three months ago, a bowl would have seemed an impossibility.
Days after last season ended, Northwestern's administration received a complaint of players being hazed by teammates. An investigation found there were significant opportunities for coaches to know hazing was occurring and longtime coach and alumni Pat Fitzgerald was fired in July, with Braun named interim coach.
Braun, 38, had been hired as defensive coordinator Jan. 17 after four years in the same position at North Dakota State. Northwestern was his first job at the Bowl Subdivision level.
The Wildcats won just three games two years ago and went 1-11 last season. They were picked last in the West in this year's preseason media poll. Ben Bryant and Brendan Sullivan split the quarterback job because of injuries to Bryant, and the Wildcats ranked in the bottom half of the Big Ten in most statistical categories.
Still, they won every other game before reeling off three straight victories to end the regular season 7-5 overall and 5-4 in Big Ten play. Braun was named Big Ten coach of the year in media and coaches' voting coordinated by the conference office.
Northwestern has been bowl eligible since Nov. 18, so a postseason game has been on the horizon for a while. But Braun said he could tell from his text traffic Sunday that it hit home with the official announcement.
“You can tell through the buzz on these group chats that we have a group that is excited about where we’re going, who our opponent is and getting to work,” he said.
Braun said he hasn't been able to enjoy the moment, at least not yet.
“I think it's really important that myself and others that have been involved in this reflect on what this group has achieved and the story they've written together,” he said.
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