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.