Football: Defense falters in Outback Bowl loss


Jacob Swan/Daily Senior Staffer

Sophomore Godwin Igwebuike tackles Tennessee tight end Ethan Wolf. The Northwestern defense faltered against the Volunteers on Friday, losing the Outback Bowl 45-6.

Claire Hansen, Reporter


TAMPA, Fla. — If one puts faith in predictions, Northwestern’s loss to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl was unsurprising. Tennessee was the heavy favorite; ESPN gave the Volunteers a 77 percent chance of victory.

What was surprising, however, was the absence of NU’s defense, a squad that has been the backbone of the team’s 10-3 season thus far.

The Cats allowed the Volunteers more than 400 yards of offense, including 226 yards rushing — notable because NU’s rush defense was 13th in the nation before Friday’s game.

“We had a couple opportunities where we had to make plays,” sophomore cornerback Keith Watkins II said. “Our defense pretty much leads our team and our (defense) just wasn’t there today.”

This is not to say that NU’s defense was the sole reason for the defeat. The offense faltered badly, tallying just 261 total yards of offense. Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson went 8-for-20 with two interceptions, and, after Thorson was benched, senior Zack Oliver threw another two picks.

In fairness, the defense was on the field for more than 34 minutes. But the offense has struggled all season, a consistently inconsistent squad that the defense has bailed out many times. So what was so astounding on Friday was just how severely the defense faded.

Perhaps the most pivotal, and telling, play of the game came in the middle of the third quarter. NU was trailing 17-6 and the Volunteers had fourth-and-one on NU’s 7 yard line. A Tennessee touchdown would almost certainly guarantee a Vols victory.

Running back Jalen Hurd walked through the NU defensive line for the first down. A play later, he skipped into the end zone untouched, giving the Volunteers a lead that proved impossible to usurp.

Hurd produced all over the field on Friday, racking up 130 yards rushing — just two yards shy of NU’s total rushing yardage.

“(Hurd is) a strong back. He’s longer limbed, so when you wrap up you have to wrap him dry because he’s a big guy.” senior defensive end Deonte Gibson said. “He’s a great back.”

The Cats also faced trouble in the middle of the field, blowing coverage and giving up long passes, including a 42-yard pass in the first quarter that gave the Volunteers an early lead.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said in the post-game press conference that NU’s troubles started at the line of scrimmage.

“There were three games this year that we didn’t win the line of scrimmage. It was today, Iowa and Michigan,” Fitzgerald said. “So I think there’s a theme there. For us to be successful, we have got to win on the line of scrimmage.”

Gibson chalked up the defeat at the line of scrimmage to, again, a failure of fundamentals.

“It was a little bit of technique and fundamentals that we missed out on, after being off for a while, stuff we should know how to handle,” Gibson said. “We just didn’t execute the way we have been the past few games. Sometimes you come out like that. Against a great team, you see what happened.”

The defense as a unit and particularly the cornerbacks also struggled in the red zone. The Volunteers scored each of the six times they were in the red zone. Five of those scores were touchdowns.

Fitzgerald said that preparation had little to do with the loss and there were only a handful of plays that the Cats did not expect to see.

Watkins agreed that execution, not preparation, was the downfall of Cats.

“We had a lot of little mental errors that cost us the game,” Watkins said. “We should have been off the field multiple times on third down and we had a couple of exposure plays that cost us some touchdowns. That’s what did it.”

Yet despite the monumental disappointment of the game, the success of the season and next year’s outlook bode well for the Cats.

First team All-Big Ten linebacker Anthony Walker is just a sophomore, as are Watkins and safety Godwin Igwebuike. Linebacker Nate Hall is a redshirt freshman.

Gibson said the performance is not representative of the 2015 Cats, or of the future.

“It’s disappointing, it’s disheartening, but there’s a lot of hope in this team,” Gibson said.

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Twitter: @clairechansen