Football: Time of possession gap wears down once-vaunted Northwestern defense for second straight week


Zack Laurence/The Daily Northwestern

Montre Hartage (24) lunges for an Illinois State receiver. Northwestern’s defense was on the field for more than 34 minutes against the Redbirds on Saturday.

Max Gelman, Gameday Editor


Northwestern’s defense was the team’s backbone in 2015, but so far this season that hasn’t exactly been the case.

Despite losing by just three combined points in their first two games, the Wildcats (0-2) have given up 416 and 372 yards to Western Michigan and Illinois State, respectively, after finishing with an average of 318.9 yards allowed in their 10-3 campaign last season. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

NU’s defense has struggled in part because it’s been asked to do too much. While the Cats’ offense has failed all too often to stay on the field, the overworked defense has been unable to help itself out by consistently getting stops and third and fourth downs.

“Any defense can’t stay out on the field for that long,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said after Western Michigan possessed the ball for just over 39 minutes in the Cats’ Week 1 loss.

The offense has largely failed to sustain drives, Fitzgerald said, leading to lopsided time-of-possession results. In order to rest its defense, NU needs to convert more on third and fourth downs.

“We held them to 4-of-14 on (third and fourth downs); you’ll take that performance from your defense every time,” he said following the defeat to Illinois State. “Then offensively, we went, what, 5-of-18 on third downs? … We can’t have that type of production on critical downs.”

NU’s defense was on the field for a slightly more manageable 34 minutes against Illinois State —far from ideal but an improvement nonetheless.

Fitzgerald didn’t go into much detail about what the offense specifically needs to do in order to fix its poor third down rate and time of possession. But both Fitzgerald and senior guard Connor Mahoney said the improvements will start with the offensive line.

“When you get in a lot of third-and-six-plus, it makes it tougher to convert,” Mahoney said after the loss where the O-Line was flagged four times for holding penalties. “Up front that starts on first down with people getting some positive yardage and putting ourselves in better situations.”

But the offense’s inefficiencies don’t get the defense off scot free. Senior cornerback Matthew Harris was penalized three times Saturday for pass interference, NU gave up at least 25 first downs for the second straight week, and the defense allowed the Redbirds to drive 71 yards at the end of the game, giving them the opportunity to kick the game-winning field goal.

In Saturday’s contest with Illinois State, the defense’s biggest problem came against short- and mid-range passes, Fitzgerald said.

“The issues were on first and second down,” Fitzgerald said. “They really picked up some chunk yards on some easy throws where we’ve got to challenge some routes, and the same thing from the standpoint of fitting some gaps and making some move-back tackles. We weren’t able to get that accomplished.”

Although Fitzgerald has praised his defense’s work on third downs, junior linebacker Anthony Walker seemed to disagree. Walker, who has recorded a modest 14 tackles through two games, lamented the game’s final drive above all else.

“Defensively, we put ourselves in those positions to be on the field that long. We have to be able to get off the field on third down,” Walker said. “The constant winning on third down is what we pride ourselves on and we haven’t gotten that figured out yet.”

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