Football: Northwestern defense’s sound performance versus No. 2 Ohio State raises question of struggles against less-talented teams


Kimberly Espinosa/The Daily Northwestern

Adetomiwa Adebawore attempts to get past his defender. The defensive lineman was causing problems for No. 2 Ohio State’s offensive line all game, forcing quarterback C.J. Stroud out of the pocket multiple times.

Lawrence Price, Audio Editor

They always say that the best players, and coaches, rise to the occasion in big games. 

And after three straight contests of giving up over 31 points, and coach Pat Fitzgerald’s simple  ‘no’ comment when asked about the team’s positives after last week’s loss to Iowa, the odds of success against No. 2 Ohio State (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten) seemed nearly impossible.

Yet, even with ESPN’s 1.5 percent odds against them, and a double-digit 21-7 defeat to the Buckeyes, surprisingly, Northwestern (1-8, 1-5 Big Ten) showed up in one aspect — the defense.

“Had a lot of good happen today,” coach Fitzgerald said. “I thought our defense, you know, for the most part did a pretty darn good job of keeping the ball inside and in front.” 

A contest filled with 25 to 35 miles per hour winds stripping both teams of confidence in field goals, and downpours of rain in spurts leading to passing attack struggles, NU took advantage of these blessings. But it wasn’t just mother nature steering the ship, the Cats played their tails off — especially in the first half. 

It was all three levels of the defense, too. Consistently, senior defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore and the trenches crew, or least Adebawore, finessed their way into the backfield to pressure Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud. And with the help of the weather, it led to multiple third down stops and many incomplete passes.   

“We didn’t have kind of the one man breakdowns that we’ve had, really until the end,” coach Fitzgerald said. “We got off the field on third down, which was really big, especially early.” 

The junior linebacker trio of Bryce Gallagher, Xander Mueller and Greyson Metz made their rounds in both the run and pass game, highlighted on third and fourth downs. During a first quarter third and one play, Adebawore lightly grabbed the Buckeyes running back Miyan Williams, keeping him from getting the first down. Mueller and Metz followed No. 99’s crucial play with one of their own, stopping Williams once again.

In the first drive of the game, Mueller had a pass breakup on second down. Two plays later, Ohio State sent its punter out to give the Cats the ball. 

NU’s Sky Room played incredibly as well, keeping Stroud from throwing even 100 yards on the day — his lowest in a start throughout his college career. This included three pass breakups by junior defensive back Cameron Mitchell. 

“We’ve (secondary) played in a lot of big games against a lot of big name guys,” Mitchell said. “When I look at our defense, I see my role in the team is being the guy that has to step up when plays, you know, come my way.”

Even in a double-digit loss, the Cats defense held the country’s second-best points per game offense (48.9) to nearly four touchdowns less than their usual rodeo. And in such an unpredictable contest, it reveals a strange reality — NU’s defense has played better against top opponents than versus the average Joe.

Although the Cats allowed Ohio State’s sea of red fanbase to erupt every time they crossed the pylon, the last time NU gave up 21 or less points was in Happy Valley against No. 11 Penn State, which was 17. And in those two contests, the weather has affected both teams efficiency on offense and defense.

Additionally, Fitzgerald emphasized at the last press conference the need for their top players and leaders to step up in big situations. And even though this hasn’t been the case in contests like Southern Illinois or Miami (Ohio) —teams that may not be circled on a power-five team like NU’s schedule at the beginning of the season — it has been prominent versus top ranked opponents such as the Nittany Lions and the Buckeyes.

“We just stepped up to the plate,” Mitchell said. “Coming off a tough loss, we knew what we had coming ahead and knew we can’t avoid it, so we just decided we were going to take it and we were going to attack, so we did.”

Times like these provide optimism for a team, allowing one to expect even better defense against worse offenses, and greater offense when the weather permits. However, this hasn’t been the case all season.

Outside of junior running back Evan Hull, the only other positive to the Cats’ game was the defense and their shockingly great ability to defend an elite offense like Ohio State flexes, even though they were without their leading tailback and wideout in TreVeyon Henderson and Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

But even with this late season success, up to this point, coach Jim O’Neil’s defense has been more unpredictable than DC Comics’ super villain The Riddler — giving up over 30 points to the Big Ten lowest scoring offense per game last week, to only 21 versus the highest seven days. And with three games left in the dismal season, the question has to be raised on which is more true: the weather has been a defensive lifesaver, or that the group has a lot of potential.

“From the standpoint of points allowed it’s been explosive play driven,” coach Fitzgerald said. “It was kind of a little bit all over the place and so You’re trying to fix and correct those things, then something over here and you got to fix that.”

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