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

The Daily Northwestern

75° Evanston, IL
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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Football: Defense buckling down in the red zone

Last week against Michigan State, Northwestern’s defense allowed four scores, only one of which came when the Spartans were in the red zone. In fact, Michigan State made its way inside the 20-yard line three times but only came away with three points.

“The guys have risen to the occasion and made some plays,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’ve played well down there.”

NU’s stout play in the red zone is nothing new – the Cats have had success all season when defending a short field. Opposing teams have come away with points 16-of-22 times they have been inside NU’s 20-yard line. That mark is good enough for third in the Big Ten.

“The field condenses a little bit,” Fitzgerald said. “And the playbook sometimes changes based on your opponent. Last week against Michigan State, we knew they we’re going to throw it to the end zone when they got in the red zone.”

This week the Cats host a Hoosiers squad that has struggled in the tight zone. Indiana has been there 26 times this season, but has come away with just 11 touchdowns. In comparison, NU has notched 16 touchdowns in 23 trips to the red zone.

Many of the Hoosiers’ stalled drives have resulted in field goals – Indiana leads the conference with 11 red-zone field goals, which is four more than the next-closest team.

“Down there, keeping (the offense) out of the end zone is the biggest thing, to leave them with three points or less,” sophomore safety Brian Peters said. “That’s the way you find out what defense you’ve got, down in the red zone.”

STARTING WITH THE ENDSIndiana’s defense may struggle against the rush and the pass, but they excel in getting to the quarterback. The Hoosiers have racked up 18 sacks for a conference-leading loss of 135 yards. Much of the production is coming from Indiana’s defensive ends, Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton.

“They’re two of the best defensive ends in the Big Ten right now,” sophomore left tackle Al Netter said. “They’re real explosive, they’ve got the speed rush and they’re powerful. They’re both veteran guys with NFL potential.”

Kirlew and Middleton blend explosiveness with experience – together the seniors have notched 45 sacks in their careers.

“They’re both very talented players that play hard,” offensive line coach Adam Cushing said. “And that’s what makes them such good players, they play with good effort. They’re explosive and very experienced.”

NU’s offensive line has struggled to protect senior quarterback Mike Kafka, ranking second-to-last in the Big Ten with 17 sacks allowed.

Netter said watching tape helps the line identify different moves, but much of the preparation has to occur on the practice field.

“In practice everything’s got to be a step faster,” he said. “You’ve just got to mentally prepare the entire week for what they’re going to bring.”

PLAYING SOME RUGBYThe Cats punt differently from most Big Ten teams. Instead of punting out of the traditional, straight-away formation at all times, junior punter Stefan Demos will mix things up and boot a rugby punt. As part of the strategy, Demos rolls out to his left and kicks the ball much lower than normal. One of the objects of this special punt is to force the returner to play the ball on a bounce.

But this year, the ball hasn’t bounced NU’s way.

“Right now in our rugby punts we’re 0-for-a good bounce,” Fitzgerald said. “The whole year we haven’t gotten a good bounce on it.”

The Cats’ failed rugby punts are hurting their net punt average. NU ranks last in the Big Ten with an average of 35.1 yards per punt.

“I’m as frustrated as anybody right now,” Demos said. “It’s got nothing to do with stats, it’s got to do with helping the field position battle.”

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Football: Defense buckling down in the red zone