Defense tops offense 47-43 in Northwestern football spring game

Kevin Trahan

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Offense has been the hallmark of Northwestern football in recent years, and though it’s likely to be a strength again this season, the Wildcats’ defense had a strong showing in Saturday’s Spring Exhibition.

The game is essentially a scrimmage, and both units could score points in unique ways: the offense for touchdowns and first downs, and the defense for interceptions and sacks, among other categories. The defense was able to edge the offense 47-43 with a defensive stop at the end of the game.

The defense jumped ahead early thanks to two sacks on the first possession, but the offense stormed back with big passing plays from second-string quarterback Trevor Siemian. However, just when the offense had started to pull away, defensive tackle Chance Carter intercepted a pass from redshirt freshman Zach Oliver and returned it for a touchdown, a 17-point play – 12 points for the touchdown and five for the interception.

The offense fought back but could only get within 4 points. However, though the defense got bragging rights on the scoreboard, both units used the day as more of a learning experience than a competition.

“(There are) a lot of things we have to clean up from little details – pre-snap issues, alignment issues – but I thought both sides had some real positives,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I thought the defense has shown improvement all spring long and I think they’re going against a pretty good offense.”

The offense struggled to find a rhythm throughout the game, receiving costly penalties and dealing with poor execution. Kain Colter said the penalties and other self-inflicted wounds made it hard to keep drives alive.

“It was tough (to sustain momentum),” the sophomore quarterback said. “We put ourselves in a lot of third-and-long situations, which is always going to be difficult. A couple penalties and, you know, a couple mental errors out there and a couple missed assignments.”

Colter did not have a great day statistically, with only 56 passing yards in addition to being sacked five times, the latter due in part to a weak performance from the offensive line. However, Colter said he isn’t worried about Saturday’s results, and Fitzgerald echoed that sentiment, saying Saturday’s small sample size isn’t representative of a good spring.

“The spring game, it’s a big deal, but it’s just another practice and another opportunity to go out there and get better,” Colter said.

On the other side of the ball, the defensive line was very solid, coming up with six sacks and holding the offense to just 47 rushing yards on 36 attempts.

“All spring we’ve been working hard, and it showed up,” Carter said. “A couple practices we sort of dominated the offense.”

In addition to seniors Brian Arnfelt and Quentin Williams, who did not participate this spring due to injury, and junior Tyler Scott, NU has some young linemen who have stepped up, including redshirt freshman Deonte Gibson, who has been praised by his coaches and teammates throughout the spring. Gibson had two sacks Saturday to wrap up his impressive spring.

“It’s awesome (to) see this young guy coming in,” Carter said. “We didn’t really get him last year in summer camp because he had an ACL (injury) and he was coming off of that, but now getting him back with him coming off the edge, he’ll be an integral part in our pass rush this season off the edge.”

The defense still has a long way to go – particularly in the secondary, with so much youth – but Fitzgerald said he is proud of how that unit has handled criticism and fought back after a tough season.

“That side of the ball was very grateful for the negative comments said about them, and they’ve used that as fuel,” he said. “As they said starting the spring we didn’t play very well last year at times, and what are you going to do about it, how are you going to respond – that’s something that we value here and they take that kind of external motivation a little bit and band together and I like our chemistry right now on defense.”