The Difference is the Defense

Northwestern’s defense heard the questions all offseason. They were unavoidable.

Even the typically isolated Pat Fitzgerald could not avoid the media storm (or what counts for one at Northwestern). And predictably everyone for the Wildcats used it as motivation to get better. Still fans were skeptical that things would change.

After all, Northwestern was losing about half of its defense including leaders in its much-plagued secondary — starting safety Brian Peters, and starting cornerbacks Jordan Mabin and Jeravin Matthews. To say that there was not a ton of confidence from the fan base would be selling it short. Particularly after the communication issues that plagued the team throughout the 2011 season. Then there was the defensive line’s struggles to create pressure consistently and get to the quarterback.

Again, there was not much reason to believe. Especially with Pat Fitzgerald sticking with his entire coaching staff. Secondary coach Jerry Brown and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz got plenty of criticism in the meantime.

All the while, Northwestern was working on fixing the problems, not pointing the fingers or looking for excuses or blame. Through two games, it is hard to say that the problems are completely fixed. But it is not hard to say that the problems have not been addressed.

Even against Syracuse, a game where the Wildcats gave up more than 400 yards passing and lost a 20-plus point lead, the defense had a different attitude and look about them. Albeit, that difference still with plenty of flaws.

Northwestern’s defense was swarming to the ball in that game and doing a great job stuffing the run. Ryan Nassib was very uncomfortable in the first half, keeping him to 16-for-26 passing and 148 yards with an interception. Even early in the third quarter, Northwestern was able to score off a fumble thanks to pressure up the middle and in the backfield capped off with Chi Chi Ariguzo scooping up the fumble and returning it for a touchdown. Then obviously things fell off the wagon a bit. Whether that was the heat inside the air condition-less or a final step in technique (turning to look for the ball), is a debate that searches for excuses.

What was important is what changed against Vanderbilt and what everyone hopes will become the norm as the team heads into Boston College this week and the Big Ten schedule beyond.

The Wildcats held Jordan Rodgers to 217 yards passing and held the Commodores to 318 total yards. Considering where the team was the previous week this was a big step forward. Vanderbilt wanted to test the secondary on the very first play of the game and Rodgers’ pass to Jordan Matthews was broken up by Nick VanHoose and Jared Carpenter. And the second half was an even bigger step forward with the Wildcats holding the Commodores to just three points and 86 total yards.

So what has really changed with the defense through two games from last year?

The pressure on the quarterback is certainly a big step forward. In two games, the Wildcats have recorded four sacks and 13 tackles for a loss. Last year, Northwestern had 17 total sacks (1.3 per game) and 59 tackles for a loss (4.5 per game). Quite clearly, Northwestern is already pretty far ahead of their pace from last year with 2.0 sacks per game and 6.5 tackles for a loss per game in the two games this year. Again, two games is not a huge sample size. But even against Syracuse, a game most would say the defense struggled in, NU recorded one sack and five tackles for a loss. Obviously, a lot of NU’s work in these defensive statistics came against Vanderbilt.

The question for Northwestern is which defensive team will show up Saturday against Boston College?

There were plenty of shades of the defense that have frustrated Northwestern fans in the Vanderbilt game. With the dominance of the second half, it is easy to forget that Northwestern gave up two fourth down conversions on the opening touchdown drive of the game. It is also easy to forget that there was a stretch in that first half where the defense, particularly the cornerbacks, seemed to be playing too far off the ball allowing Vanderbilt to gain huge chunks of yards on bubble screens. The three-man rush was in full effect on third downs and the frustration was going.

That was in the first half and Hankwitz and the defense made adjustments. They made a ton of adjustment and they all seemed to work. The result certainly suggested that.

Quinn Evans looked a bit overmatched going up against Jordan Matthews early but settled in and made some great plays to bolster the secondary. Tyler Scott, Chance Carter, Drew Smith and Quentin Williams started to get push up front and shut down running back Zac Stacy. Linebackers David Nwabuisi, Damien Proby and Chi Chi Ariguzo were all over the field making plays, supporting both the pass rush and the pass defense.

It was a very encouraging effort.

For Northwestern, the difference between a Week One disappointment and a Week Two thrill was the defense. It will have to continue to be as this team finds its identity and determines what kind of season it will have.

  • Henry in CT

    The last win was one questionable call by the officials away from being a loss and Siemian had to once again come in to save the day. The defense did step up but Vanderbilt self destructed and for some reason got away from their game plan that worked so well initially. And there was plenty of good fortune like that Vandy fumble in the red zone in the first half. If every opponent ignores our problems in the secondary and allows us to sell out against the run then it could be a very good season but I don’t think this will happen.

    • timc

      I couldn’t agree more! And we were one questionable call on 3rd and long from a loss vs Syracuse as well. We could easily be 0-2. We just don’t know what we have yet. When we start dominating teams on both sides of the ball we can start to look ahead on the schedule. This is a work in progress. Lots of positives, and lots of concerns. Just beat BC.

    • Cletown Joe

      Well, Negative Henry, I guess we will find out about our secondary this week as BC hates to run.

    • wcgrad

      I agree with the skepticism about the defense having been “fixed”. I think throughout this season it will be a Jekyll and Hyde unit, with Dr. Jekyll getting pummelled by ‘Cuse and Vandy (1st half) and Mr Hyde making an appearance to haunt Vandy in the second. As our team goes up against more talented offensive units, I expect our defensive deficiencies in the secondary to continue to be exposed.

      The one takeaway that is unequivocally encouraging from both games, is that Hank is making adjustments to the opposing offensive schemes. He won the chess match against Vandy, but was losing it against ‘Cuse until Siemian saved the day. But I see him trying new things to frustrate the opposing offense (bringing blitzes, changing personnel) which is a good sign. Or maybe I’m just noting this through rose-colored glasses.

      For future years, I am optimistic: If the defense can be passable this year, guys like VanHoose, Odenigbo, Ariguzo, Lowry, Campbell could form the base of a legit defensive front.

    • David

      While we may have benefited from a call on that pass….Vandy got calls too. Lawrence was interfered with in the end zone on a certain TD pass. Also Vandy wined 80 yards in the second half. 54 came on on screen pass. Stacy was aided by a blatent block in the back at the 40 yard line. If Vandy gets moved back to there own 45…they don’t even get a FG. Also, the review official ruled that the call was confirmed…he did not just let it stand.

    • Doug

      Yeah. Our defense did not step up. Vandy coaches didn’t exploit our weaknesses (or perhaps their QB was unable to), but really, mostly, their offensive line rolled over and died in the second half. Lisening to people say that we played well because the other team sucked is getting old.

  • LondonAlum

    I hope the defense will continue to come together as it did against Vandy; if so, we should have a successful season.

    While nearly everyone talks about the secondary, I am delighted that the run defense appears to be solid after two games (I would have expected Vandy to fare far better on the ground than they did). I remember the bad old days when teams never had to risk a pass against the Cats because they knew that they would consistently average 5-7 yards a carry. I hope those days are over for good.

  • vaudvillain

    “But it is not hard to say that the problems have not been addressed.” I don’t think this sentence says what you were trying to say. Double negatives and all.

    Good article, though. If our defensive showing against Vandy is the norm rather than an isolated event, this could shape up to be a very good season. BC should definitely give our secondary a test. If we can hold them under 20 points, I’ll start feeling much more confident.

    Now…can the offense and the defense start clicking at the same time?

    Go Cats!

    • wcgrad

      the sentence looked funny to me, I read it as “But [THAT] is not to say…”

      In the same vein PRR, I demand a refund! :P

  • CliffG

    Off topic, but I’m at NU for the annual NAA Leadership Symposium and we had as speakers last night Kelly Amonte Hiller and Mike Polisky. Amonte Hiller gave a nice talk–including a short film about last year’s championship season–and Polisky moderated the Q&A. (Would like to have heard more from Polisky, but time was short.)

    We’re also getting hints that the Board of Trustees, also meeting this weekend, may have something to say about the facilities plan very soon.

  • Dan Persa Q&A coming up at 11:40 am et this morning…stay tuned!

  • GreenLantern411

    off topic: I’m heading to the Maine South at Niles North game this evening. My main reason for attending is that my dad is an assistant coach on Niles North (2-1). The main reason you might be interested is that Matt Alviti, big time recruit committed to Northwestern is the quarterback on #1 Maine South (3-0). If you’re interested, Niles North is nestled between the Edens and Old Orchard Mall (easy to get to from Evanston/Chicago/North Shore), kickoff is at 7:00. I’m sure Alviti will shred the Vikings (who wear purple and wear shirts that say North, sort of NU-ish) who are not quite in the same class right now (not many are). Maine South runs a very NU-esque offense and I think you’ll like what you see.

  • CatFanSeattle

    I hate to be a grump but saying that “holding” the opposing QB to 16-26 for 148 yards for a half is successful is a pretty sad commentary on how bad the pass defense has been. Seriously, that projects out to 296 yards and 61% completion. How many teams would complain about that production from their QB? It’s fair to say that the defense at least looked like they had a clue in the first half vs. Syracuse with better pressure and running with the receivers but it is hardly a high bar for success.

    I’m cautiously optimistic about BC. They are going to get a lot of yards but I am hopeful that there will be enough improvement in coverage and pressure to at least stop them multiple times. Go Cats!

    • Very fair point. Baby steps, for sure. The defense, even in the Syracuse game was not getting completely beaten up. There were some pass interference calls and a few guys tripped. Definitely different from last year.

      The Vandy game too there were a lot of open holes in pass coverage in the first half. Team made some great adjustments.