Football: Despite missed tackles, Northwestern defense rises to the occasion in loss

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Football: Despite missed tackles, Northwestern defense rises to the occasion in loss

Travis Whillock stares down a Stanford running back. Whillock tied for the team lead with 10 tackles.

Travis Whillock stares down a Stanford running back. Whillock tied for the team lead with 10 tackles.

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Travis Whillock stares down a Stanford running back. Whillock tied for the team lead with 10 tackles.

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Alison Albelda/Daily Senior Staffer

Travis Whillock stares down a Stanford running back. Whillock tied for the team lead with 10 tackles.

Peter Warren, Reporter

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Football


STANFORD, Calif. — With less than five minutes and Northwestern down 10-7, Stanford quarterback Davis Mills mismanaged a handoff, and senior defensive end Joe Gaziano recovered the ball.

It was not the first time the Wildcats defense stepped up and made a game-changing play.

Throughout the game, the NU (0-1) defense kept the Cats in the game, despite a woeful offensive performance that saw the the defense spend over 38 minutes on the hot Stanford Stadium Bermuda grass in the No. 25 Cardinal’s (1-0) 17-7 victory.

“They were out there for about six and a half hours it seemed like,” Fitzgerald said. “I think a team in lesser condition that has to be on the field 40 minutes would have gotten killed. Those guys rose to the occasion.”

Stanford’s (1-0) offense was on the field for 38 minutes and 12 seconds, including over 13 minutes in the first quarter. And while the NU defense did allow 365 yards, the Cardinal only entered the red zone twice.

On one of those possessions, Stanford started at the Cats’ 38 yard line following a Hunter Johnson interception. Mills had one big pass play to drive the team to the 12 yard line but the Cats managed to hold the Cardinal to a field goal attempt. The attempt was blocked, and once again the defense made a play to stay in the game.

In total, the team forced three fumbles and recovered two of them. Other than Mills’ fumble in the fourth quarter, the backup also fumbled on his first possession in the third quarter during a botched read-option fake. It was a big momentum swing for the Cats, as sophomore cornerback Greg Newsome II recovered the fumble and returned it to the 21 yard line.

But the NU offense didn’t capitalize as Charlie Kuhbander missed a field goal.

The defense was far from perfect though. With ten seconds remaining in the first half, K.J. Costello scrambled and began to slide. During his slide, junior defensive end Earnest Brown IV hit Costello with his forearm.

The play garnered a 15-yard penalty, setting up a 51-yard field goal attempt, which kicker Jet Toner nailed to end the half.

Fitzgerald said the team knew Costello — who did not return to the game — liked to slide, and that the defense should learn from the mistake.

“That’s a play that obviously can’t happen,” Fitzgerald said. “Earnest owned it right away like I knew he would.”

Missed tackles were the biggest weakness for the defense. Multiple times, especially outside the numbers, NU defenders were unable to bring their opponents to the ground. When these Stanford players got past the isolated Cats players, they found themselves in space.

Sometimes these plays resulted in first downs. Other times, they set up big plays. Junior safety Travis Whillock — who had a game-best 10 total tackles — recalled a 2nd-and-Long play where he came on a safety blitz and missed a tackle. Instead of keeping Stanford on a 3rd-and-Distance play, the Cardinal had a much more manageable third down.

Stanford converted the third down, and Willock said little things like that make the difference.

“If I tackle him and it’s third and long, we may give our offense an extra minute and a half or two minutes,” Whillock said. “That’s on me… I know I’m a player that can make those plays.”

In regards to the plethora of missed tackles, Fitzgerald referenced an old defensive saying during his post-game presser: “If you can’t make a tackle unblocked, you really hurt the defense.” He said there was a lot of that during the game.

During Monday’s media availability, Paddy Fisher said tackling was going to be a big emphasis for the team heading into the game. After Saturday’s game, he said the team can do better.

“We need to do better,” Fisher said. “I know that we missed a few critical tackles that resulted in explosive plays, that resulted in big plays on conversion downs.”

While Willock said he didn’t think the defense did its job and Fisher said there is plenty of work for the defense to do, the reason the Cats had a chance to win was because of their effort.

With Stanford’s final touchdown coming off a turnover, the NU defense gave up only 10 points all game. Most of the time, that will be more than enough. Unfortunately for the Cats on Saturday, it wasn’t.

“I thought our defense gave us every opportunity to stay in the game,” Fitzgerald said, “but credit Stanford. Their defense was better.”

Email: peterwarren2021@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @thepeterwarren

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