Defense leads Cats to solid victory over Orange: NU 30, Syracuse 10

Andrew Simon

Syracuse quarterback Andrew Robinson dropped back, looked left and with his eyes fixed on his receiver, fired toward the sideline.

Northwestern safety Brendan Smith read the play all the way. The redshirt junior swooped in, picked off the throw and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown, putting the Wildcats ahead 23-10 with 2:13 left in the third quarter of their 30-10 victory.

But the play meant more than just a 13-point-cushion. It symbolized something bigger – that the Wildcats defense might show some teeth this season, thanks to the hiring of highly respected defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz.

“I love Coach Hankwitz,” Smith said. “His defense allows me to be a playmaker. If they run a certain route, I’m allowed to just read the quarterback and be a robber….I think as a defense as a whole, we have a different energy level. Guys just feel more confident, and I expect big things from us this year.”

While the Orange are not expected to be an offensive powerhouse this season, the Cats clearly are taking to Hankwitz’s more aggressive, attacking style. They gave up just 10 points, with the lone touchdown coming on a drive that started at their 9-yard-line after a Tyrell Sutton fumble.

Syracuse managed only 225 yards of total offense, and NU recorded an interception, five tackles for loss and two sacks. With the Orange backed up against their own goal line early in the second quarter, linebacker Quentin Davie forced Robinson to panic and throw the ball away in the end zone resulting in an intentional grounding penalty and a safety, cutting Syracuse’s lead to 3-2. Davie got credit for the sack, the first of his career.

“This year it’s a more attacking style under Coach Hankwitz, and that allows the (defensive line) to get in the backfield a lot more than in previous years and the linebackers to come downhill and flow and make plays,” said defensive end Corey Wootton, who recorded three tackles and a sack on the day. “I really like the way the scheme has allowed everyone to make plays and get in the backfield and disrupt the running back and quarterback.”

Hankwitz is not the only newcomer in Evanston this season. Coach Pat Fitzgerald also hired Mick McCall to be his new offensive coordinator, and the former Bowling Green coordinator installed a no-huddle scheme to complement NU’s spread offense.

The offense, operating at warp speed thanks to the no-huddle, scuffled a bit in the first half, as NU moved the ball effectively but mostly failed to punctuate their drives with scores. One drive ended on a C.J. Bachér interception, another was derailed on a holding penalty, and a few more petered out when NU failed to convert manageable third down plays.

“We had a tough time on third downs, and that’s something we stressed throughout camp, to convert on third down,” said Bachér, who completed 23 of 35 passes for 215 yards on the day. “I think it took a little while to get the jitters out, and they came out and did some stuff we didn’t see on film.”

The offense finally got on the board when Bachér capped off a 55-yard second-quarter drive with a 16-yard touchdown strike to freshman wide receiver Jeremy Ebert, who found a gaping hole in the Syracuse coverage.

After Syracuse took advantage of Sutton’s fumble and opened the second-half scoring on Curtis Brinkley’s two-yard touchdown run, NU’s offense responded with a backbreaking 13-play, 76-yard touchdown drive of their own. Making up for his costly mistake, Sutton racked up 38 all-purpose yards on the drive, including his 12-yard touchdown reception that put NU back in front.

Sutton finished the contest with 144 yards on 21 carries, passing 3,000 career yards along the way, and added 41 more yards on four receptions.

“The offensive line did a great job opening holes and not letting me get touched until I was five or seven yards down the field,” Sutton said. “I think the best thing I do is I read the blocks.”

After Smith’s interception, the Cats finished off their scoring when Bachér connected with sophomore superback Josh Rooks on a 2-yard touchdown, the first score of Rooks’ career.