Football: Defense steps back in conference play

Rohan Nadkarni, Assistant Sports Editor

The performance of the Northwestern defense reads as a tale of two schedules.

The unit, credited with carrying the team in wins against Vanderbilt, Boston College and South Dakota, returned to last season’s woeful ways at the onset of this year’s conference slate.

After a three-game streak during which the defense allowed no more than 13 points, the Wildcats surrendered 29 points against Indiana and 39 points against Penn State, including 22 in the fourth quarter.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald highlighted the areas the defense must improve on to regain its earlier form.

“(We need) third-down stops. Number one, we need to tackle better,” Fitzgerald said. “We had some things where we made some mistakes on, so clean those up and correct those.”

The Cats struggled mightily in the passing game against the Nittany Lions, one of the recurring themes from the past two seasons. Indiana and Penn State both successfully attacked the Cats on play-action fakes, screen passes and deep throws down the sideline.

Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin shredded NU’s secondary, finishing 35 of 51 for 282 yards. Despite all of his dropbacks, the Cats only managed to sack McGloin twice. The senior quarterback even found room to scramble against NU, running in the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter on a broken play.

The struggles of the defense trace back to the second half against Indiana. NU allowed 29 points in the latter half of that game, as well as 29 points in the last two quarters of the Penn State game.

In the past game and a half, the Cats’ defense surrendered 68 points. That total more than doubles the 33 points NU gave up in the Vanderbilt-Boston College-South Dakota stretch of their schedule.

Indiana and Penn State also racked up yards at will against NU defenders. Penn State notched 443 yards of offense, and Indiana managed 425. The 868  yards allowed in the start of Big Ten play approaches the 874 yards given up in the three games before Indiana.

The Cats’ run defense must also improve for them to have any success in the Big Ten. In the first four games of the season, NU held teams to 291 yards on 107 carries, including a stellar game against Boston College, where the Golden Eagles ran 21 times for a paltry 25 yards.

But the run defense evaporated in the past two weeks.

Indiana and Penn State combined for 320 yards on only 76 carries, a 4.2-yards-per-carry-average, well above the season average of 3.3. The Cats also allowed five scores in the ground the past two weeks, compared to two in their first four games. However, Fitzgerald still believes in the run defense that flashed potential during non-conference games.

“We’ve been pretty good up front,” Fitzgerald said. “Up until Saturday we’ve tackled really well. We need to get back to what we did in the first five weeks. We’re in position on all those plays; we just didn’t run our feet on contact.”

Ultimately, it will come down to the collaboration between the coaching staff and the players for NU’s defense to challenge conference opponents. In addition to execution problems on the field, the only noticeable scheme change in Big Ten play seemed to be more blitzing linebackers.

“The first thing we look at — was it the right plan? Did we teach it right?” Fitzgerald said of his team’s defensive schemes. “We’re going to always start there and have a critical eye on ourselves as coaches.”