No unit had more questions facing them entering this season than the defense. Northwestern struggled against the run and struggled against the pass. These players had to answer for those mistakes this year. And eight games, it is safe to say they largely have.
The numbers are not super despite this apparent improvement.
The Wildcats are giving up 393.8 yards per game (10th in the conference) and 272.4 passing yards per game (11th in the conference). The saving grace has been a rushing defense that gives up a comparatively paltry 121.3 rushing yards per game (fourth in the Big Ten). Compared to last year, those numbers are improved — last year, NU gave up 177.3 rushing yards per game, 230.4 passing yards per game and 407.7 yards per game. And, in the most important number, Northwestern is giving up 22.3 points per game this year compared to 27.7 last year.
The defense is better. Our eyes can tell us that.
Yes, the Wildcats are giving up more passing yards, but the communication issues that plagued the team last year in the secondary are non-existent to this point in the season. The team is stout against the run and doing a better job getting pressure on the quarterback. Northwestern has 19 sacks and has forced 15 turnovers this season compared to 17 sacks and 20 turnovers last year.
This defense is making more impact plays this season.
Yet, the Wildcats are not quite at the point of relying entirely on the defense. The defense remains half the reason the Wildcats have lost two double-digit leads in their two losses this season. Perhaps that is unfair with some of the struggles the offense has had, but you cannot come back if you do not score.
After all, it was even against Syracuse where Northwestern’s defense seemed to shut off and allow Syracuse to pass its way back into the game. Even in the win over Iowa last week, there was discomfort after Northwestern failed to score in the fourth quarter and fumbled at the goalline about how the defense would respond.
The constant criticism of the defense, especially when playing with a lead, is that it goes into the soft zone making tackling quickly more important while conceding medium-range yards. And there is no denying that the Wildcats are getting beat in the fourth quarters — officially, by a score of 70-48.
Defensive play-calling aside, the Wildcats have shown a tendency to struggle late in games. Whether that is conditioning or the offense being on the field for too long the Northwestern defense has consistently hit a wall at some point in several games this year.
If there is one thing this season has taught us as football fans it is the link between the offense and defense and their performance. The Wildcats say they want to run 80-plus plays per game. By running their fast-paced offense and staying on the field it is Northwestern hoping to wear down the defense themselves.
However, this year, Northwestern has found itself on the wrong end of the play counter. Opponents have run 682 plays (75.8 plays per game) to Northwestern’s 656 (72.9 plays per game). In Big Ten play, the Wildcats have run only 339 plays (67.8 plays per game) and opponents have run 399 plays (79.8 plays per game). That disparity is pretty large and significant and we have seen it play out on the field. This is especially when you consider opponents hold an advantage in time of possession.
Things have gone horribly wrong in the fourth quarters of several games this year. The chart below is a game-by-game look at the plays run through three quarters and the fourth quarter defensive stats for Northwestern in fourth quarters this year:
|Opponent||Plays/Yds. through 3 Qrtrs.||4th Qrtr. Plays||Yards Gained||Points Scored||Final Score|
|@ Syracuse||73 plays/445 yards||25 plays||171 yards||14 points||42-41 NU|
|vs. Vanderbilt||52 plays/264 yards||17 plays||65 yards||3 points||23-13 NU|
|vs. Boston College||47 plays/265 yards||20 plays||82 yards||3 points||22-13 NU|
|vs. South Dakota||52 plays/170 yards||4 plays||10 yards||0 points||38-7 NU|
|vs. Indiana||54 plays/303 yards||14 plays||102 yards||7 points||44-29 NU|
|@ Penn State||65 plays/272 yards||35 plays||186 yards||22 points||39-28 PSU|
|@ Minnesota||55 plays/263 yards||19 plays||103 yards||0 points||21-13 Minn.|
|vs. Nebraska||61 Plays/385 yards||23 plays||149 yards||13 points||29-28 Neb.|
|vs. Iowa||60 plays/238 yards||19 plays||117 yards||7 points||28-17 NU|
|Average||57.7 plays/289.4 yards||19.6 plays||109.4 yards||7.7 points||—|
A few things to note that are not displayed in the chart.
Syracuse began its comeback in the third quarter and had four consecutive drives that ended in a touchdown. Obviously, the Orange ran a lot of plays before the fourth quarter, surpassing the Wildcats’ current average. Before that run of scoring drives, Syracuse ran 56 plays with only one drive of more than 10 plays and gained only 277 yards. Those numbers, if they had stayed consistent in the fourth quarter, do not seem so bad.
Obviously, the two losses stand out where big fourth quarter drives led to Northwestern’s demise. But the seeds were laid before that in the first three quarters and particularly in the third quarter of these games. There seems to be something of a tipping point if Northwestern allows around 60 plays through three quarters. Particularly if the offense is not staying on the field and sustaining drives.
This is where the offense needs to play a role in stemming the tide. Taking a look at the fourth quarter in the last four games, Northwestern’s offense has been on the field for 68 plays (17.0 plays per game), gaining 245 yards (61.3 yards per game) and scoring 7 points (1.8 points per game). This includes the offense running 14 plays for 20 yards against Minnesota and 12 plays for 29 yards against Penn State.
Those numbers simply will not maintain a lead and will not give the defense the rest they need. Particularly if they are on the field a substantial portion of the game. This leads to the feeling of “it’s a matter of time” before the lead dissipates.
The Wildcats defense is much improved. They are playing better. They are not an elite defense and the Cats cannot be characterized as a team dependent on their defense. The offense has to pull its weight, sustain drives and give the defense rest. And that goes for the entire game.
It was clear in the two losses that the defense was tired. It is not an excuse necessarily for the way the Wildcats loss, but it makes the task difficult. It was hard to ask the team to do much more than it had, and, as you can see in the chart, Northwestern was playing with fire some when it came to its defense. Fortunately, in those games, the offense came through.
If there is something Northwestern has learned in the first nine games it is the delicate balance it needs to find of offense and defense to keep its defense fresh and maintain not only leads but maintain strong, sometimes dominant play, from this defense.