Pat Fitzgerald has overseen some of the best defensive units in Northwestern history as both a player and a coach. When he took over as coach a decade ago, Northwestern’s defense was seen as a hindrance. It always did just enough to let NU eke by. At some point, everyone knew he would force a change to the roster and make the team’s defense its calling card.
And now, as the Wildcats have seemingly reached the peak of their program, the defense has led the way. In winning 10 games in two of the past three seasons, it was Northwestern’s defense leading the way.
That is exactly what Fitzgerald always imagined. That was exactly how he played and exactly how his teams were going to play. Now it feels like it is the offense holding the defense back.
That is not to say this is a perfect unit. The Wildcats struggled to keep their secondary healthy and would give up huge chunks through the air.
But this team also did something no one though a Wildcats team would be able to do consistently — plug up the line and control the line of scrimmage. Through disciplined gap control and rushers off the edge who can get to the quarterback in obvious passing downs, the Wildcats created a stingy defense that will bend but rarely break. They get turnovers when they absolutely need it and always give their team a chance to win. Even in sometimes gritty ways.
Coming off another 10-win season where the Wildcats ranked 23rd overall in Defensive S&P+ and 20th against the run, giving up 107.7 rushing yards per game, Northwestern will again rely heavily on its defense to push it into Big Ten contention.
While the team loses some key players in the secondary, this will again be a strong front seven that will make it hard to establish a ground game and force precision in the pass game to break the defense down.
Biggest Question Mark:
Who steps up in the secondary?
Northwestern’s big weak link on defense was its passing game. The “Sky Team,” as they have dubbed themselves the last two seasons, has plenty of talent. Injuries have depleted that talent each year. Crushing injuries stretched the group thin.
And the stats showed it. Northwestern gave up 249.5 yards per game in the air. Time and again, the Wildcats gave up huge chunks on the ground. They stopped Saquon Barkley for much of the game against Penn State, but Chase McSorley threw for 245 yards. Brian Lewerke of Michigan State threw for 445 yards.
Northwestern gave up boatloads of points in both games. Still, this group stepped up every time. With senior leadership in Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro graduating, the question remaining is who will step up in this group that was already struggling.
Northwestern’s front seven should be strong once again (although filling the large hole Tyler Lancaster leaves will be a major question). This team and create a decent pass rush with Joe Gaziano and Sam Miller coming off the edges. The question is whether the secondary will give them enough time to build that pressure.
Reason to be Optimistic:
The front seven returns
At the beginning of last season, the big question facing Northwestern was whether its front seven would be able to create pressure. The linebackers were all new after the Wildcats graduated stud Anthony Walker. And the team had some struggles building a consistent pass rush.
Those struggles seemed warranted after it struggled out of the gate. The Wildcats were getting zero push.
But the coaching staff made adjustments and the defense stepped up throughout the year. Especially the front seven. Northwestern totaled 32 sacks by the end of the year. Paddy Fisher emerged as one of the best first-year players in the country at linebacker. Players throughout the defensive front seven stepped up with big games time and time again, whether it was Fisher, Sam Miller, Joe Gaziano, Nate Hall or Tyler Lancaster.
And the team loses only Lancaster from the front seven. The Northwestern No. 1 is going to be a tough player to replace. He filled a big hole in the middle of the line. But Fitzgerald has turned the front seven into the centerpiece of his program.
And that usually means a team will have a strong defense.
Reason to be Pessimistic
Depth is always a concern
Northwestern is still a team that has concerns about depth. The players the team hits on are really good and it can usually rely on a rotation of players to fill in. But injuries to the wrong position or the wrong impact players, and the quality of play decreases dramatically. Just look at the team’s talented secondary the last few years.
The team is not always the deepest and could rely on several first-year players to step up. That is always a risky proposition. Northwestern usually works hard to protects its incoming freshman, choosing to redshirt many of them. There will still be plenty of freshmen who see the field.
Northwestern will rely heavily on the starting rotation though to produce. And any slow down could lead to a significant downgrade.
Just look at the Music City Bowl. When Nate Hall and Paddy Fisher went out, Northwestern’s defense opened up like a sieve. The passing game became far worse against a team that had struggled to throw the ball all game. The Wildcats were flailing a bit defensively and went for it on fourth down and one largely to keep its own defense off the field (a gamble that is worth its own debates and posts).
The team came up big on the two-point conversion as it always seemed to. But the team went from strong defensive unit to struggling defensive unit very very quickly.
This is an obvious problem for many teams. But it seems especially prescient for Northwestern.
Projected Starting Lineup
DE: Sam Miller, So.
DT: Jordan Thompson, Sr.
DT: Ben Oxley, Sr.
DE: Joe Gaziano, Jr.
WILL: Nathan Fox, Jr.
MIKE: Paddy Fisher, So.
SAM: Nate Hall, Sr.
CB: Montre Hartage, Sr.
S: Jared McGee, Sr.
S: JR Pace, So.
CB: Trae Williams, Jr.
This Northwestern defense will again be the bedrock for the team next year. With Justin Jackson graduating and Clayton Thorson’s status uncertain after tearing his ACL in the bowl game, the team will need its defensive unit to be strong and give the team good field position and low scores.
The defense has the potential to be a solid Northwestern group. This is an experienced group with a lot of veteran leaders. They have solid young players who should continue to grow in Paddy Fisher and Sam Miller. And they return nearly every impact player in the front seven.
The secondary will replace some key players too. But they have experience as both newcomers to the secondary saw time on the field last year.
That does not mean this group will not have to step up. Is this unit capable of carrying the load fully? It might have to.
The Wildcats have built their program up to rely on this bedrock. And the 2018 season could further cement that identity.