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

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

The Daily Northwestern

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The Week Ahead, June 17-23: Juneteenth, Summer Solstice and Pride Celebrations in Chicagoland
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Lacrosse: Northwestern’s Izzy Scane wins 2024 Honda Sport Award

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Football: D-line ‘cavalry’ finally healthy for NU

In the offseason, coach Pat Fitzgerald asked his defensive linemen to do something they’ve always tried to take away from quarterbacks.

“I just told them to be patient,” he said.

Junior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant suffered a season-ending ACL injury against Michigan last year. Senior defensive end Corey Wootton tore his ACL in Northwestern’s loss to Missouri in the 2008 Alamo Bowl. Then, on the second day of spring practice, senior defensive tackle Adam Hahn broke his foot. All three injuries required surgery, landing three of NU’s four starting defensive lineman in rehabilitation.

“It’s a really hard road to go down when you battle to come off of a major injury,” Fitzgerald said. “(Recovery) is going to come probably two or three weeks later than you want it to.” Fitzgerald knew exactly what his players would be going through from experience. During his junior season in 1995, the All-American linebacker suffered a broken leg two games before the Wildcats’ Rose Bowl appearance. In 1996 he returned from his injury, leading NU to a second straight Big Ten title.

Despite Fitzgerald’s guidance, the road to recovery was rougher than expected for Hahn. He said he anticipated missing eight weeks with his foot injury but ended up being out more than five months. He was even inactive during NU’s first two games this season.

“(The most important thing is) trusting that your body is going to be all right and not second-guessing it,” Hahn said. “Staying focused is the hardest thing when you’re not on the field.”

Wootton’s injury gave NU faithful its biggest reason to worry. The 6-foot-7, 280-pounder racked up 10 sacks during his junior season, earning the team’s Most Valuable Player award. He was also an honorable mention selection to the Sports Illustrated All-America Team.

Wootton returned to football after the expected six months of rehabilitation. It was clear he wasn’t the same player at the outset of the 2009 season. He also suffered another leg injury early in the year.

“I just want to be able to do everything I can for my teammates, and that’s why it was a little frustrating for me at first,” Wootton said.

Although he was named a preseason All-American by Playboy, the senior looked reluctant to test his knee early in the year. He recorded only eight tackles and was held without a sack in the Cats’ first seven games.

But things look to be shaping up for Wootton and the rest of the defensive line. The unit helped hold Iowa to only 65 yards rushing on Saturday, matching its lowest total given up in 2009.

Wootton, Bryant, Hahn and sophomore end Vince Browne had all started together just twice all season – against Indiana and Penn State. On Saturday, though, the unit played most of the game together and dominated the trenches. For Fitzgerald, the line’s performance last weekend shows what the group can do when healthy.

“It’s good to have the cavalry coming,” he said. “It’s great to have those guys playing at their highest level of the year right now when it’s most important, when it’s November.”

The Wootton-led line also gave the Cats what might be regarded as this season’s signature play. With Iowa’s offense backed up on its own 6-yard line, quarterback Ricky Stanzi dropped back from under center into his own end zone. Wootton ran untouched outside the Hawkeye line on playaction and closed on Stanzi as he tried to evade the rush.

Wootton laid a huge hit on the Iowa signal caller, forcing a fumble. Senior defensive tackle Marshall Thomas recovered the loose ball to give NU its first points of the day. Wootton threw up his arms as he ran off the field, looking like he had never injured his knee.

“(We can) go out there and play hard and worry about what’s on the field and not necessarily what’s wrong with your body,” Hahn said.

The defensive line is as healthy as it has been all season, healthy enough to forget about patience. Now their only concern is the [email protected]

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Football: D-line ‘cavalry’ finally healthy for NU