Football: Northwestern dominates other side of ball against Vanderbilt

NUs defense kept the team in the game against Vanderbilt, a week after giving up 482 passing yards and 41 points to Syracuse.

Rafi Letzer/The Daily Northwestern

NU’s defense kept the team in the game against Vanderbilt, a week after giving up 482 passing yards and 41 points to Syracuse.

Rohan Nadkarni, Assistant Sports Editor

A week after giving up nearly 500 yards through the air, the Northwestern defense rebounded against Vanderbilt. The Wildcats kept the Commodores in check for most of Saturday’s game, stuffing running back Zac Stacy on the ground and holding up in the secondary after a shaky start.

“When you look at the performance of our defense today, I think it was indicative of how we played for about 45 minutes a week ago,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I thought today there were some things we needed to correct, but for the most part we did a great job of playing team defense.”

In addition to turning around their third-down defense, the Cats held their ground on run plays. Stacy only managed 36 yards on 13 carries, for a paltry 2.8 yards per carry. As a team, Vanderbilt finished with a 3 yards per carry average.

The defensive line served as the catalyst for the performance against the run and kept the Commodores passing attack in check. Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers faced constant pressure, suffering three sacks.

Rodgers finished with only one touchdown and a completion percentage just above 50 percent. His favorite target, Jordan Matthews, gained only 9 yards on one catch in the second half after a hot start.

“It’s always nice to come out there and limit them to a low-point total,” defensive end Quentin Williams said. “Our defense is playing very well right now. We’re just happy to get this win.”

In a reversal from last week’s game, the defense carried the NU offense, which only managed 3 points in the first half. Critical stops in both halves gave the Cats an opportunity to complete the comeback.

“Obviously it was a huge effort from our defense,” sophomore quarterback Trevor Siemian said. “They kind of saved our butts for a good part of the game there. It’s really encouraging when you see the defense getting stops, getting off the field and giving you a chance to score.”

The secondary overcame adversity, with redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose leaving for good after the game’s second play with a lower back injury. VanHoose stayed on the ground after breaking up a 2nd-down pass and did not return despite being listed as questionable.

Senior cornerback Quinn Evans filled in capably for VanHoose, performing more strongly as the game wore on.

“It was probably the most football Quinn Evans has played in three, four years,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m really proud of him.”

Like last week, the defense helped their own cause with opportunistic turnovers. The Cats came up with two fumbles that both changed the tenor of the game.

Vanderbilt’s first fumble of the game came with 40 seconds left in the first half. The Commodores held a 10-3 lead and fumbled in the midst of an 11-play, 57-yard drive that took them deep into NU territory. Instead of going into the half down by two scores, the Cats stayed within seven points.

Vanderbilt’s second turnover led to NU icing the game.

After a Jeff Budzien field goal put the Cats ahead 16-13, the Commodores started a drive at their own 28-yard line with two minutes and one second remaining. Junior defensive end Tyler Scott sacked Rodgers, forcing the quarterback to fumble, and the Cats scored a touchdown three plays later.

Scott finished with one of the best stat lines of his career: Six tackles, including one sack and two tackles for loss.

“It was exciting,” Scott said. “It was nice to finish as a defense. Coach (Fitzgerald) tells us to focus on yourselves and focus on our brothers, our chemistry and our fundamentals. We didn’t really listen to any of the criticism and it seemed to work.”

Ultimately, the NU defense frustrated an offense that demonstrated big play ability last season.

“They’re a great team,” Vanderbilt’s Matthews said of the Cats. “They have a great defense and they have a good coach over there.”