Football: No. 14 Northwestern’s defense clamps down after shaky start versus Illinois

Adetomiwa+Adebawore+celebrates+after+a+big+stop.

Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Adetomiwa Adebawore celebrates after a big stop. The Northwestern defense held Illinois to only 262 yards.

Peter Warren, Gameday Editor


Football


Two weeks ago, Rocky Lombardi and the Michigan State offense exploited the highly-touted Northwestern defense behind quarterback draws, third-down conversations and a well-planned rushing attack. The Wildcats never were able to sustain adjustments to shut them down.

On a very wet Saturday afternoon against rival Illinois, the No. 14 NU (6-1, 6-1 Big Ten) defense made all the right adjustments against a ground-minded Fighting Illini (2-5, 2-5 Big Ten) offense. Illinois scored only three points over the first three quarters before adding a garbage time touchdown in a 28-10 loss to the Cats.

NU’s defense faced its biggest challenge of the contest just a few minutes in. Sophomore running back Drake Anderson fumbled inside the five-yard line on the first Cats play of the game, giving the Fighting Illini outstanding field position.

Although an unsportsmanlike penalty backed Illinois up, it still started in the red zone. The defense pushed back, and forced James McCount to kick a 32-yard field goal into the wind, which he missed.

“I love the way our defense rose up,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “That was a big-time response by our defense.”

But Illinois still got on the scoreboard first on its next possession, which was its only scoring drive before NU sent in the backups. The Fighting Illini held the ball for over seven minutes and tracked down the field to the tune of 14 rushing plays.

Chase Brown led the attack, with his five carries and 47 yards sparking Illinois drive into the red zone. But an ill-advised backwards pass from Peters pushed the Fighting Illini seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, resulting in a field goal from James McCourt.

The Cats defense lucked out. They knew it, and they responded by giving up 44 total yards on the next five drives before the starters rested in the fourth quarter.

“The guys came over and they were really mad at themselves,” Fitzgerald said. “They just fixed it. Instead of taking one extra step, we gotta take two or three extra steps when we go tackle because the field was so slick.”

In the third quarter alone, Illinois ran only six plays, gaining four yards. Starting quarterback Brandon Peters finished 3-for-14 for 21 yards, while Brown had only 12 yards after McCourt kicked the field goal.

NU held the Fighting Illini to 3 of 12 on third down, with two of their conversions coming after the game was decided.

Before garbage time, Illinois faced third-and-long four times and third-and-medium three times. No matter the distance, however, the Cats shut the Fighting Illini attack down. Over nine third-down plays in the first three quarters, Illinois gained only six yards.

“I think the best thing we did was get off the field,” senior linebacker Paddy Fisher said. “Third downs and fourth downs, we got off the field and gave our offense the opportunity to go score and make some drives happen.”

It will go down as another great performance for a defense that will finish the regular season giving up under 15 points and 314 total yards per game. Both of those are the lowest they have ever been since defense coordinator Mike Hankwitz was hired before the 2008 season.

Having one side of the ball play so well reverberates throughout the squad. Graduate quarterback Peyton Ramsey said the defense has been awesome the entire season, and that their success rubs off on the offense.

“It’s been a blast, it’s been a joy playing with those guys,” Ramsey said. “They’ve been a lot of fun.”

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