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Northwestern Wildcats defense has come to the fore

The Northwestern Wildcats have carved out a strong defensive identity in the last three weeks and in the last three years. It was at the fore against Nebraska.

Kyle Queiro, Alonzo Mayo, Northwestern Wildcats, JD Spielman, Nebraska Cornhuskers

The previous 60 minutes were out the window, as they had been the last two weeks in Evanston. There were mistakes for sure with the Northwestern Wildcats defense before. Tanner Lee winged some big plays and picked up some huge chunks.

But the defense always stood tall. When Nebraska drove deep into Northwestern territory with a seven-point lead, Godwin Igwebuike came up with the interception.

They did their job. And Northwestern drove 84 yards on 13 plays to tie the game.

That set up overtime. A last stand for the defense. A situation where the defense has its backs against the wall and has to get a stop or else put everything in the offense’s hands, out of their control.

The Wildcats did their part, scoring a touchdown on a 4th-and-1 quarterback sneak from Clayton Thorson. That was typical of Northwestern’s offense all day and all season. It does just enough and needs every inch and every down to squeeze past. The defense has to stand tall.

On second down, Samdup Miller came around the edge and sacked Tanner Lee for a 10-yard loss. The Cornhuskers got some of it back on third down, but by the time Kyle Queiro knocked the ball away on fourth down, Northwestern’s defense had done what they knew they could do and what they are showing game after game and year after year is becoming consistent.

All the hiccups and frustrations from earlier in the year have disappeared very quickly. In the midst of a three-game overtime win streak and a four-game win streak overall, the Wildcats have become the team everyone predicted they could at the beginning of the season. Those two losses to Wisconsin and Penn State were never terrible, but ultimately disappointing for knocking this team out of the Big Ten race so early.

And they have become that team defensively as much as anywhere.

On Saturday in a 31-24 overtime win over Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., the defense gave up 337 yards of total offense. Included in those were some big plays through the air from Tanner Lee. But also included in there were three interceptions and that crushing sack in overtime.

The Wildcats defense has simply found a way.

Last week it was finding a way despite giving up 445 passing yards to Brian Lewerke and the Michigan State Spartans. That came from making big stops to force field goals — two of them going off the upright. And even after giving up the game-tying drive in the final moments of regulation. But it was that same defense chasing Lewerke around the pocket and forcing the errant throw that Nate Hall intercepted to seal the victory.

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Nebraska found similar success at moments. They got the ball moving and had some quick-strike drives. Through the air, Northwestern remained a bit vulnerable — injuries again cutting into the NU’s ability to defend. But they stepped up when they had to.

That has been Northwestern’s m.o. for several years now. The team has shifted away from the explosive offenses of the mid-2000s and transformed into a defensive stalwart.

The 2015 season was the first year of the run when the Wildcats were dominant defensively. A freshman Clayton Thorson was a mere game manager as the offensive playcalling was extremely conservative and the team just played field position. The defense won games on their own.

Since then, Northwestern has not been as stellar defensively as they were that year. But they have more than held their own. It is clear the Wildcats are a defensive program now. That is their program identity.

It is the reason why even after losing Anthony Walker, the team has the talent to replace him. Paddy Fisher has been a revelation and again was solid with a team-high 13 tackles for the Wildcats on Saturday.

The defensive line has gelled and dominated, stopping the run and forcing teams to become one dimensional. The Wildcats are still a bit thin in the secondary. And the team still has to play everything in front, but this is a disciplined group. They find the big plays they need.

If anything, Northwestern’s problems are how the offense holds them back. Clayton Thorson continued to show inconsistency — far more than any team would want from a three-year starter. His numbers ended up fine at 19-for-35 for 243 yards. But his two interceptions loomed large, including a go-ahead pick-six early in the third quarter.

Thorson can get into an incredible rhythm, as he showed on the game-tying drive that ended with his scamper for the end zone. But the Wildcats seem always afraid of Thorson’s next big mistake. That is an unsettling place to be. And there are only so many games left for the Justin Jackson security blanket.

Northwestern’s offensive questions have not gone away. Fans continue to ask it and the numbers never look good for the Wildcats’ offense.

But Northwestern is 5-3. The team is second place in the Big Ten West and playing some fantastic football. They may have needed overtime in each of the last three weeks, but the Wildcats came through each time.

That counts for something. And teams coming to play Northwestern know they have to prepare for a hard-hitting, disciplined defense that is tough to crack.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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