Northwestern’s Run “D” Test Stretch Begins Saturday

The horrors of the last three games from last year sit nestled in the back of our minds as we move forward through the early part of this season. The first play of the 2011 season was a painful reminder that fundamentals and concentration can be lost and big plays still had against this Northwestern defense.

The run defense has been strong through the first two games of the season, giving up a total of 236 yards, including an astounding 104 against the run-heavy team from Boston College (what Chase Rettig did to the secondary might be for another post… if that problem continues). What this run defense can actually do though is still a bit of a mystery.

The Cats hung tough after giving up a 69-yard run to open the Boston College game, conceding only 35 yards on the ground the rest of the game (that would include seven yards of sacks). Admittedly though, the Eagles were shorthanded as they were down their star running back and using a third string back. Plus, Boston College managed only 57 rushing yards at UCF last weekend in a 30-3 loss.

Against Eastern Illinois, Northwestern gave up 132 yards on the ground, with 76 coming on the Panthers’ final offensive play from scrimmage with many of the team’s backups in the game and the outcome already decided. Still, it is worth mentioning that there is not a lot to take out of a game against a team like Eastern Illinois and that threat of a big run does exist against this defense.

While Boston College may have seemed like it would be a good test for a defense that famously gave up 1,031 yards in the final three games of the season, we are still figuring out what kind of team Boston College is and what that win actually meant.

Only the future, it seems, will tell us how much we can trust this run defense. And that future is the immediate future, beginning this weekend at West Point.

Northwestern’s defense is going to get its test now. Is this a team that learned its lessons from the final three games of last season or not? The test is coming in the form of Army’s triple option and in the form of the mobile quarterbacks at Illinois and Michigan. By the end of September/early October, we will know a lot about where the run defense is.

Mikal leshoure makes Bryce McNaul miss a tackle.As good as the unit has been — both the defensive line and the linebackers — the ghosts of last November still haunt this team. It was the calling card for the defense all summer and the message for the group returning in the locker room following the Ticket City Bowl.

The Boston College game was very encouraging, even considering who was out for the Eagles and what the Eagles have done in the week since. The linebackers, except for one play, looked ready and the team gang-tackled and flew to the ball very quickly.

Positioning and discipline have not been a problem and now the team is making the sure tackles they were missing throughout last year.

Those two especially will be tested now as Northwestern faces Army. Army, along with Northwestern, lead the nation in rushing attempts and are not shy about attacking defenses on the ground.

The Wildcats have been preparing for the Knights’ triple option in bits and pieces throughout the summer. It is a unique offensive attack, but the mobile quarterback and options he has are going to be very similar to the kind of skills Nathan Scheelhaase of Illinois and Denard Robinson of Michigan.

We linked to this post earlier, but it is worth reading. Triple option offenses, like Paul Johnson’s flexbone that he used at Navy and now at Georgia Tech, are very difficult to defend. You cannot simply put a “hat on a hat” and have one guy cover each of the potential runners. It takes some discipline to stay in your lane, stretch the runner further toward the sideline and then ball hawking and gang tackling when the offense runs out of options.

Army does not have quite the same explosive players as Illinois or Michigan, but it is very much the same concept for the next three games. Northwestern must worry about mobile quarterbacks and keeping them in the pocket. If they escape contain they can all do a ton of damage.

Broken tackles, as we learned last year when Nathan Scheelhaase had 104 yards rushing out of the quarterback position and did not really need to pass the ball after Jason Ford and Mikal Leshoure had their field day at Wrigley Field, can make even a well-positioned defense look bad.

For the next three games, Northwestern is not going to be able to have very many broken tackles or lost chances to bring runners down. Scheelhaase and Robinson can turn any missed play into a touchdown.

Army does not have the same kind of explosive athletes, but if NU is caught out of position, Army will make NU pay — especially if it comes during the rare times Army passes.

This is very much the kind of game Northwestern needs to make sure the run defense is ready for the games ahead — especially the ones immediately ahead. The Wildcats will have to be focused and disciplined to slow down the Black Knights’ attack.

If they can do that, then we will really know that the run defense is on its way back.

Wildcat Recruits in the 2013 Scout Top 100

Believe it or not, the 2013 recruiting class is already shaping up to be as good, if not better than the 2012 recruiting class. Northwestern has five targets among the Top 100 on Scout.com’s list of 2013 prospects.

This includes three four-star quarterbacks, two from the Chicago area, and two four-star running backs — Ty Isaac and Adam Taylor. The quarterbacks NU is targeting are Park Ridge’s Matthew Alvitti, Bollingbrook’s Aaron Bailey and Wayne, N.J.’s Kevin Olsen.

It is a long time before these guys sign on the dotted line and commit to Northwestern, but keep an eye on them.

Austin McNaul Cheering for NU

This is a little thing, but Army alumnus, Army Ranger and Bryce McNaul’s brother, Austin, will be cheering for the Wildcats. Bryce McNaul told Sal Interdonato of the Times Herald-Record in New York that his brother, who will be following the game from Afghanistan, will be cheering for the purple against his alma mater.

Of course, I think we all can agree it is us who will be cheering for Austin and his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan and around the world.

Sailgate Reminder

Don’t forget to read up on all your Sailgate info. We cannot stress how exciting this event is going to be. IT IS GOING TO BE SUPER AWESOME AMAZING!

So once again, here are the full details.

The event is soldout and by now the person who ordered your tickets should have received their E-ticket with your boat assignment. You will get your game tickets upon check-in at Pier 59 at the appropriate boarding time. If you had tailgate only and/or tailgate/game ticket only you will pick them up at the LTP Tailgate. A REMINDER THERE IS A CHANGE IN BOAT LAUNCH BOARDING & DEPARTURE TIMES. THEY ARE:

Boat Launch Times – ALL BOATS DEPART FROM Pier 59 (Between 19th/20th Street):

7:30am – 8:00am – Boarding for “Fitz” (name on boat says “Tropical Adventure”)

7:45am – 8:15am – Boarding for “Barnett” (name on boat says “Bandit IV”)

8:00am – 8:30am – Boarding for “Ara” (name on boat says “Miss Belmar Princess”)

8:15 am – 8:45am – Boarding for “Walker” (name on boat says “Brooklyn VI”)

FOR ALL OF THE DETAILS ON SAILGATE PLEASE LINK HERE TO THE SAILGATE PAGE!!!

Photos via DayLife.com.

  • pnut

    Central Florida is likely a better team than us, and is likely better than the average big ten team. So let’s not continue to dismiss BC on account of them getting crushed by UCF.

  • Philip Rossman-Reich

    I agree, UCF is a lot better than they get credit for. It is still early in the season, but the way BC got routed just gives you some pause. The Eagles could come in and just run over the ACC and make us and UCF look really good. The point is right now we just don’t know. And that is what the next three games for NU will tell us. We will know by the end of the month what Northwestern’s run defense is like.

  • pnut

    fair enough :)