Gameday: Lockdown

Tania Ganguli

It’s not about the chain, it’s about the attitude behind the chain.

After a year in which it gave up an average of 41.1 points and 502.3 yards per game, Northwestern’s defense was lifeless. It was young, it couldn’t stop anyone and it couldn’t figure out why.

Defenders realized they needed something — anything — to spark emotion. That’s when Torri Stuckey presented the chain.

Stuckey became part of the defense in 2002, after switching from running back. During summer workouts Stuckey wore a heavy metal chain around his neck — with a Master Lock clamping it together. It was partly punishment for allowing himself to become tired and partly motivation to work harder.

“Torri came to Kenosha walking around with a swagger, bringing that chain around and carrying a boom box around and that just became our theme for defense,” defensive end Loren Howard said. “We want to lock offenses down, we want to lock them down so they can’t do nothing or go nowhere.”

There have been times this year when they’ve done just that. They held Wisconsin and Penn State to seven points and only allowed Ohio State to score 20.

The chain symbolized “lockdown” which became their motto and was something that was purely their own. The chain gave the Wildcats’ defense an identity.

It’s on the sideline at every game. Stuckey holds it when he isn’t playing, and defensive line coach Jay Peterson gets what he calls “the honor” of holding it and jangling it when someone makes a big play. It’s just a reminder that the defense needs to shut offenses down and that the players are capable of it.

DISASTROUS DEFENSE

The chain is a reminder that these aren’t the same players that made up the worst rushing defense in the country in 2002.

Last year they didn’t swagger, they could barely hold their heads up.

They remember how it felt to be ranked 116th out of 117 Division-IA teams in total defense. They remember being lost and confused, without leaders. Most of all they remember opponents embarrassing them week after week.

Penn State running back Larry Johnson said he was “licking his chops” in anticipation of running against NU. Purdue’s tailbacks played rock, paper, scissors on the sideline to choose who would play — it didn’t really matter.

NU didn’t have anything to be confident about last year. The Cats were 29th nationally in pass defense, because opposing offenses rarely needed to go to the air. Iowa’s quarterbacks attempted only 12 passes, Purdue’s 10 and Minnesota’s nine. In its 52-3 blowout of the Cats, Air Force attempted only eight passes.

Then there were the scores. 52-3. 49-0. 62-10.

“Nobody on the defense feels like, ‘Oh, we suck, we’re bad players,’ but to look up at the score and see 60 points up on the scoreboard it’s like, ‘What happened?'” Stuckey said.

Without knowing their positions well or understanding the scheme, the players did little to fix existing problems. They all shied away from making big plays, hoping someone else would do it.

When the offense turned the ball over, the defense assumed opponents would score, without even thinking they could be stopped.

“They had no confidence last year,” defensive coordinator Greg Colby said. “They wanted to believe, but they had no evidence.”

It wasn’t just that last year’s squad was young, it was inexperienced. Its lack of leadership was emphasized when linebacker Pat Durr went down with an injury in the first game of last season.

“He was like a mother duck and all the ducklings were wandering around going, ‘What do we do? Who are we going to follow?'” Peterson said.

PLUGGING THE HOLES

This year they aren’t at the top of the Big Ten and they aren’t even in the top half of Division-IA schools. But in one year the Cats jumped 29 spots to 78th in total defense.

“I don’t think we’re great, I don’t think we’re bad, we’re just right in between,” Durr said. “And I feel like we’re getting better.”

Their run defense went from allowing 313.6 yards per game to 170.6.

This year the defense is bigger, more experienced and more confident.

It hasn’t shut down every offense it’s played this season. Sometimes, like in the game against Minnesota on Oct. 4 when NU gave up 42 points, it hasn’t even come close.

“I think in the back of my mind when we had the breakdown against Minnesota I said ‘Here we go, it’s just like last year,'” defensive coordinator Greg Colby said. “When you think that way you start playing that way.”

The situation didn’t get any better against Indiana, and it started to look like the vastly improved defense that held Ohio State to 20 points in the Cats’ Big Ten opener was a fluke.

But then NU dominated Wisconsin, a team few expected it to beat.

In its 16-7 win over Wisconsin, NU’s defense held a Big Ten team to seven points for the first time since it shut out Wisconsin in 1995.

“Last time we played Wisconsin it was an offensive showdown,” defensive end Barry Cofield said. “Once we made it a defensive battle, that gave us a lot of confidence.”

Colby said that game was the first time he saw a complete defensive effort from his team.

“You could see it from when they walked into the locker room that they were different,” Colby said. “Everything they did you could see they were right on track.”

TANGIBLE CHANGES

A year ago the Cats had nine defensive starters who were underclassmen.

“In this league you come up against such mature, strong lineman and running backs, you can’t be young, you can’t be weak, you can’t be small and do well,” Colby said. “Now we are a little bit bigger, stronger and we can play better.”

Every position is more grounded this year, but Colby says he saw the biggest improvement in the defensive line.

Last year’s line featured a freshman on either end, Howard and Cofield, and two sophomores at tackle, Colby Clark and Luis Castillo. The players were young and undersized.

A year later the defensive line has grown in size and strength and has improved its technique.

Defensive line coach Peterson said he sees the team growing together, and that synchronized growth has cultivated chemistry.

“Everyone clicks when we play,” sophomore linebacker Tim McGarigle said. “We talk a lot more and everyone takes responsibility. We’re just closer to the guys, closer on the field, and it makes it more comfortable.”

Safety Dominique Price noted that most players relied heavily on athletic ability in high school and realized once they got to college that athleticism alone wasn’t enough. With another year of coaching, the defense’s technique has improved across the board.

“There’s so much you can learn in a year,” Price said. “I look at tape of myself last year and it’s awful.”

The coaches were able to add blitz packages and be more diverse with the defensive scheme. At the same time, the system became easier for the players because they understood it better.

“One of the biggest things we did was removing the thinking from the game, the coaches trusting in our ability to execute and us going out with passion,” outside linebacker John Pickens said.

With Durr’s return to middle linebacker, Pickens moved to his natural position outside. Linebackers coach Pat Fitzgerald said it’s not a glory position, but it’s where Pickens can make the biggest impact. The other outside linebacker just needed a year.

“Timmy McGarigle, he’s on the cusp of an All-Big Ten season,” Fitzgerald said.

Among the technique that desperately needed improvement was tackling.

“We don’t have as many missed tackles as a year ago,” Colby said. “We still have more than we should have though.”

Last year’s defense was tired from being on the field incessantly in games and practices.

With the old no-huddle offense, NU’s defense was on the field an average of nine more minutes per game than its offense. With the current, more traditional offense, the Cats have more time to rest between defensive stands.

“It
used to go so fast,” cornerback Marvin Ward said. “You could never get a second wind.”

They’re also better rested going into games. Punishment was a big part of practice for the defense last year. Ward often found himself focusing more on what punishment he would receive after practice than how he could improve during practice.

This year the intensity of practice tapers as the week goes on. Tuesdays the Cats practices in full pads, Wednesdays they wear shoulder pads and shorts and Thursdays they only wear helmets. That’s something that hasn’t been done in the four years Ward has been at NU.

“We used to run 10 hundreds after practice every day, so obviously going into games you didn’t have as much energy to play,” he said. “It’s definitely helped to turn it down a little.”

TAKING CONTROL

Lockdown might be the Wildcats’ defensive motto, but “swagger” is the buzzword. When explaining the difference between being a running back, as he was last year, and a cornerback, as he is this year, sophomore Jeff Backes said the defense plays with a swagger.

Before that could happen, the players needed confidence. The coaches worked to give them that during the offseason.

“After what happened last year we wanted to come out here and prove something,” McGarigle said. “We still do, we want to be the best in the conference.”

And they don’t lack leadership anymore because there are several players who step up. Ask Loren Howard and Barry Cofield which defensive players have emerged as leaders and between them they’ll name every starter.

“Before we take the field each time you look around at everybody’s eyes and compared to last year it’s unfamiliar,” Pickens said. “You don’t see Loren Howard, you don’t see Torri Stuckey, you see men possessed. All of the people taking the field are just hungry.”

The defense wants the attention and it loves the fact that now it can control games.

“I almost feel like we owe it to the offense for the past two or three years, because, to be honest, we were terrible,” Clark said.

It’s always been the offense’s job to win games by moving the chains.

But now the defense is shaking its own chain and keeping other teams on lockdown.