Gameday: Northwestern defense looks to get back to ball-hawking ways

John Paschall, Assistant Gameday Editor

It’s been a spooky past two weeks for the Northwestern defense.

The unit has allowed only three offensive touchdowns in two games against Minnesota and Iowa — but only has two losses to show for its efforts.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald has been singing the praises of the defense for most of the season and especially during October, a month that has haunted the Wildcats in past years. But NU has only been able to force one turnover in the previous two games, an alarming number considering the group forced 13 interceptions and three fumbles in its first six games.

Safety Traveon Henry said defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has been preaching turnovers this week in practice leading up to their game with Nebraska.

“Our coach has been on us,” Henry said. “We set a goal every practice. We need this many turnovers, this many picks, this many strips. That’s what we really want to get accomplished.”

The offense hasn’t helped the defense much as of late by putting together long, sustained drives and points on the board. Since its 30-point outburst against Ohio State, NU has scored only 33 points in its past three games. In the four games they’ve won, the Cats scored 4 defensive touchdowns off of interceptions. When the defense couldn’t run it back into the end zone, NU’s offense used to be one of the better teams at turning turnovers into points.

Henry said the defense hopes to be the force that gets a once powerful NU offense rolling again.

“It definitely helps to put points on the board,” he said. “If we get the ball back, it gives them a little spark. If we can get them the ball in good field position, we can set them up to be successful.”

Tackling has become an issue for the Cats during conference play, especially with bigger running backs. It started with Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde and reared its ugly head last week with Iowa’s Mark Weisman.

Even though defenders can’t tackle players to the ground in practice, Henry said as long as the defense is sound at the point of attack, the unit will be okay.

“We all want to make those big plays and big tackles,” Henry said. “We have a few periods in practice where we work on tackling. When it comes to Saturday, we will be ready to make those plays.”

The Cats will have their hands full with Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah, who is seventh in the nation in rushing yards. Senior linebacker Damien Proby said he’s a major part of the Cornhuskers’ versatile offense.

“He’s a very talented player,” Proby said. “As a defense, we like to have an opportunity to shut down an opposing running back if possible. We are really going to go out there and look to compete against him and that offensive line.”

Nebraska’s quarterback situation has been somewhat of a circus of late. Taylor Martinez began the year as the Cornhuskers’ starter but injuries have sidelined the senior as of late, giving way to Tommy Armstrong Jr. and then Ron Kellogg III.

Henry said he believes the team will have to prepare for the unknown and study more film. But regardless, Fitzgerald said the Cats will be ready for whoever Nebraska decides to throw out there.

“There’s a lot of similarities with what they are doing schematically,” he said. “Taylor’s success speaks for itself. I’ve been very impressed by what he’s done throughout his career. If he can’t go, those other young men have stepped up pretty well early. They’ve filled in admirably.”

One scenario that could help the Cats get off on the right foot would be an early turnover by the defense. Henry said that will be a focus once the team hits the field in Lincoln.

“Once you take the air out of the stadium, you get momentum going your way,” he said. “That’s huge. It’s something we all really strive for.”

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