Football Sidebar: Reborn defense revives Cats’ postseason hopes

Colin Becht

Pat Fitzgerald said it was “a business-like performance.” David Nwabuisi said the defense was “on the same page.”

Whatever generality one uses, there’s no denying that the Wildcats have posted two of their best defensive performances of the year in as many weeks.

Northwestern shut down a Rice offense that scored 75 combined points the past two weeks, as the Cats won their third straight game, 28-6.

“Obviously the difference in our team is the defense, hands down,” senior quarterback Dan Persa said. “They’ve really stepped it up the past couple of weeks, and they are the reason why we’re winning now.”

The Cats held the Owls scoreless on their first 10 drives, only allowing a touchdown after the outcome had been secured and Fitzgerald elected to give some second-stringers a few snaps.

NU held Rice to 254 yards of offense and just 135 yards passing, the fewest yards the Cats surrendered through the air since they played Army in September. The much-maligned secondary that surrendered more than 350 yards passing each in losses to Illinois and Michigan proved just how much it has progressed.

“They’ve definitely come a long way,” junior linebacker David Nwabuisi said. “We learned how to communicate better, and now everyone’s on the same page and running the same coverages, running the same blitzes.”

The communication issues that doomed NU in its 41-31 loss to Iowa have been solved in part by simplifying the decision-making asked of the defense.

“We used to have a lot more in our gameplan early on in the season,” Nwabuisi said. “It’s a little bit simpler of a gameplan. There are fewer checks in blitzes or coverages.”

Thus far the abridged defensive strategy has paid off, as the Cats didn’t give up the explosion plays that plagued them throughout their five-game losing skid. With the exception of a trick play late in the game on Saturday, NU didn’t allow a play longer than 16 yards, a near complete reversal for a defense that had given up 31 plays of 20 or more yards entering Saturday’s contest. Among Big Ten teams, only Indiana had given up more plays of 20 or more yards.

In addition to simplifications in its coverage, NU got in the backfield much more successfully on Saturday, forcing errant throws. Senior linebacker Ben Johnson recorded three quarterback hurries of his own.

“We were just coming with it on some of those blitzes,” Nwabuisi said. “We brought more guys than they could block.”

When the Cats did that, good things happened, such as when a six-man rush late in the second quarter resulted in an interception.

With both Johnson and Nwabuisi coming on blitzes and getting to Nick Fanuzzi, the quarterback’s attempted pass floated out of his hand right to sophomore defensive end Tyler Scott.

“A few guys got loose in a bunch of one-on-one battles,” Nwabuisi said of the play. “We got to the quarterback really effectively.”

The Cats picked up four tackles for losses on Saturday and held the Owls to 119 yards on the ground in 30 carries. NU kept its run stoppers fresh by rotating in a crew of defensive linemen and linebackers to keep up with Rice’s up-tempo offensive style. A combined 10 linebackers and linemen recorded tackles.

“We’re pretty deep,” Fitzgerald said. “You want to have a couple of waves if you can so those guys don’t get worn out. We set a rotation preparation for Rice because of its tempo that we anticipated.”

As its offense got off to a rough start, NU’s reborn defense came up with clutch stops early in the game. The Cats scored on just one of their first four drives, but held strong defensively by forcing punts on each of the Owls’ first five drives.

“When we see that our defense has stepped it up and brought it to a higher level, it just gives us more motivation to do what we need to do,” junior wide receiver Demetrius Fields said. “It definitely helps when we’re not executing at a high level like we should be.”

As it turned out, the first touchdown the offense posted was all NU needed, though the extra three scores certainly made the outcome more comfortable.

“It doesn’t matter what the offense does,” Nwabuisi said. “Technically if they score one touchdown, they did their job for the game. We need to keep them to zero because our job is to keep them out of the end zone.”

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