Football: Defense still a major stumbling block for Northwestern

Colin Becht

As a team, Northwestern can rest easier this week, knowing that its five-game losing streak is over.

As a defensive unit, the Wildcats could still use some work. Their slide increased to six games after they failed to tackle and keep Indiana off the board in Saturday’s 59-38 win.

“It’s unacceptable the way that we’re playing right now,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to play better, got to coach them better. That’s pretty obvious.”

Indiana exposed a porous NU run defense, hammering away at the Cats for 319 yards on the ground, including 151 by running back Stephen Houston and 121 by quarterback Tre Roberson.

Fitzgerald said senior defensive tackle Jack DiNardo was “the lone bright spot maybe in the front seven” on a defense that has now given up more than 500 rushing yards combined in its past two games.

“We didn’t fit well on a couple of plays,” Fitzgerald said. “Obviously missed tackles in both the Penn State and Indiana games hurt us a little bit.”

The Cats’ tackling was especially poor in Bloomington, Ind., as the Hoosiers routinely picked up extra yards after first contact. NU’s inability to bring the ball carrier down was a key part of why Indiana was able to average 6.5 yards per carry and pick up four touchdowns on the ground. The Hoosiers were averaging just 3.6 yards per carry, good for ninth in the Big Ten, entering Saturday’s contest.

“It was just some guys overthinking things,” senior cornerback Jordan Mabin said. “(Indiana) kind of up-tempoed us a little bit. Some guys tried to overthink, tried to get in perfect position, tried to make the perfect call instead of just going out and reacting.”

Though NU (3-5, 1-4 Big Ten) was fortunate to cruise to an easy victory despite surrendering 38 points to Indiana, they will almost surely need to improve – and improve quickly – in order to avoid a loss at No. 10 Nebraska (7-1, 3-1) Saturday.

The Cornhuskers boast a far more intimidating pair of runners than Roberson and Houston, with quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead each averaging more than 80 yards per game on the ground.

“We’re going to see the same thing this week not only with Taylor, who’s a very gifted, gifted quarterback, but Rex embodies everything that their program is all about,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s physically tough … He does the dirty work. He’s a fun guy to watch.”

Burkhead ranks third in the Big Ten with 110 rushing yards per game and is second in the conference in scoring thanks to his 14 touchdowns this season.

In Martinez, the Cats face an elite dual-threat quarterback not unlike what NU saw in Michigan’s Denard Robinson.

“Both (Martinez and Robinson) are dynamic quarterbacks, very athletic, have a lot of speed, can make you miss in the open field,” Mabin said. “I’m sure we’re going to have a spy on (Martinez). I’m sure we’re going to be doing some things to confuse him a little bit, some blitz packages, things of that nature. But at the same time, he can break contain and then he can also throw it downfield to his receivers.”

Though Robinson has put up more yards on the ground than Martinez ­­- the Michigan signal-caller has 825 to Martinez’ 659 – the Nebraska sophomore has thrown just seven interceptions to Robinson’s 11 this season.

If NU can force Martinez to beat the Cats through the air, they may have a better chance of success considering the improvements the secondary made against Indiana. Albeit they were facing a true freshman in just his second start, but NU still impressed, holding Roberson to 169 yards passing and forcing an interception. It marked the best statistical performance for the Cats’ pass defense since they held Army to just six yards through the air.

“We played one of our best games as a secondary,” Mabin said. “But we have to play as a unit, a full 11 guys.”

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