Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Notebook: NU perplexes Big Ten’s best offense

After experiencing mixed success against running quarterbacks, Northwestern’s defense faced one of its biggest challenges of the season Saturday in mobile Illinois quarterback Juice Williams. The Illini signal-caller burned the Wildcats last season, racking up 357 total yards and three touchdowns.

This year, Corey Wootton and the Cats’ defense made sure Williams was kept under wraps – and out of the end zone.

The junior defensive end added to his team-leading sack total, leading a ferocious pass rush that kept the Illini offense on its heels and spurred the Cats to a 27-10 victory.

“I can’t say enough about the improvement our defense has made,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We play pretty well together, as a team, on defense.”

The defense, which implemented coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s attacking style all season, employed a disciplined game plan to contain Williams.

Leading the charge was Wootton, who has emerged as a leading candidate for all-Big Ten by striking fear into opposing quarterbacks all season. Despite facing double teams throughout the game, the junior repeatedly got into the backfield, recording three tackles and a half sack.

While Wootton kept multiple players busy, senior Kevin Mims attacked Williams from his blind side. In his final game at Ryan Field, Mims terrorized the Illini offense, forcing a key fourth-quarter fumble and finishing with seven tackles and two and a half sacks.

“He is playing the best football of his career right now,” Fitzgerald said.

When Williams or running back Daniel Dufrene got past NU’s front four, linebackers Prince Kwateng and Nate Williams were there to bring them down. The duo finished with 21 tackles, helping limit the Illini offense to just two plays of more than 20 yards.

“The preparation behind the scenes, what you don’t see, it really paid off for them today, ” junior safety Brendan Smith said of the linebackers.

Despite the desire to cheat up on the mobile Williams, the defensive backs stayed with their men and limited Illinois’ ability to throw down the field. The Cats’ lone interception of the day came when junior cornerback Sherrick McManis outjumped wideout Will Judson to corral a deep ball.

KEY TAKEAWAYS, BIG PAYOFFMims’ forced fumble was one of two turnovers caused by the defense, and it ended Illinois’ last chance at a comeback. While the Cats scored only three points off turnovers, they seized the momentum back with each takeaway.

Fitzgerald said he discussed turnovers before the game with his counterpart on the Illini sideline.

“It’s critical that you take care of the football, because everyone is so evenly matched in this league,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s what (Illinois coach) Ron (Zook) and I were talking about before the game.”

Both coaches had dealt with turnover woes this season. NU came into the game with 24 giveaways, two less than Illinois’ 26.

Fitzgerald had ample reason to stress taking care of the ball to his team. With the win, the Cats improved to 7-0 this year when they win or tie the turnover battle.

TAKING IT TO THE HOUSE… ALMOSTSmith’s 52-yard punt return in the fourth quarter was the longest of his career and the team’s longest of the season. After the game, the junior said he was one move away from a touchdown.

“I was looking to cut back, and I just wanted to set up one more block to see what we could do,” he said. “But I’m not greedy.”

The play set up wide receiver Eric Peterman’s 18-yard touchdown reception that all but sealed the victory.

And in a game that was a nail-biter entering the four quarter, Smith’s return proved to be the game-changing play.

“It was huge,” senior quarterback C.J. Bachér said. “At that point, nobody really had the momentum, and that punt return really seized it for us.”

GAME NOTESWith the win, the Cats improved to 9-3. It was their first nine-win season since 1996 and only the fifth in school history… Both polls moved NU up after the win. The Associated Press poll ranked the Cats 24th, while the USA/Coaches’ Poll ranked them 20th, one spot ahead of Michigan State… The team will learn its bowl fate on Dec. 7. Smith, who came to the postgame press conference sporting a handlebar mustache, said he would have some creative facial hair for the bowl game. “It’s gonna be something nice,” he said.

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Notebook: NU perplexes Big Ten’s best offense