Commentary: 2010 Mid-Season Report Card: Defense
by Jonathan Hodges

Despite losing some key contributors on defense, the 2010 Wildcats looked to continue its recent success on that side of the ball that they've seen under DC Mike Hankwitz.  Yes, NU lost Corey Wootton on the line as well as three of the four starters in the secondary, but NU's recent recruiting success supposedly stocked the cupboards with talent ready for action.  The D also featured three top tier linebackers, including NFL prospect senior Quentin Davie.  In spite of their issues, the D has pretty much held to form and given the Wildcats a chance to win each of their games thus far in the 2010 season.

Although Northwestern's defense hasn't faced any top-flight offenses as of yet, they are giving up a middle-of-the-road 356.8 yards per game (53rd nationally), but they have continued the trend of bending-but-not-breaking, as the 'Cats have given up just 18.3 points per game (23rd nationally).  Much of that success has come thanks to takeaways:  NU ranks 22nd nationally with 14 turnovers on the season, leading the 'Cats to a +5 cumulative turnover margin through the first half of the year.

The issue has been when those turnovers don't come.  In Northwestern's three games with a positive turnover margin (Illinois State, Rice, and Central Michigan), the 'Cats are 3-0 and have outscored its opponents 97-41.  In the other three games, NU has a total -1 turnover margin, has a 2-1 record, and have actually tied their opponents in cumulative score, 69-69.  It's clear that without that valuable turnover margin in its favor, NU plays in much closer games.

Also, the defense has had its share of penalty issues, something that has plagued the 'Cats over the last 3 games heading into the bye.  The NU D has accumulated 16 penalties this season (34.8% of NU's total penalties), with 11 of those turning into first downs for NU's opponent (accounting for 10% of opponents' first downs in the 2010 season).

Finally, although the 'Cats have been quite successful at getting off of the field on third downs (NU ranks 10th nationally in third down conversion defense, giving up a first down just 29.5% of the time), they have been susceptible to big plays, giving up 27 plays of 20 yards or longer on the year and 12 plays of 30 yards or longer.  These "explosion" plays by the opponent were especially noticeable in NU's most recent game, its loss to Purdue, with over 40% of the Boilermakers' yards coming on two 50+ yard plays, both leading to Purdue scores.  Now, onto the unit breakdowns.

Defensive Line:  B-

Northwestern has been respectable at stopping the run, ranking 48th nationally in rushing defense (giving up 140.5 yards per game), but have allowed 4.4 yards per carry on the ground.  Unfortunately, the 'Cats' first five FBS opponents of the year have an average rushing offense ranking of 71, while the final six average a ranking of 50, including three in the top 30 (NU's only loss of the year came to the only team they have faced so far that's in the top 30 nationally in rushing: Purdue).

The problems stopping the ground game can't be completely attributed to the DL, though, so let's move onto one of their primary responsibilities: pass rush.  NU ranks a disappointing 78th nationally in sacks, averaging just 1.7 per game.  DE Vince Browne leads Northwestern with exactly half of their 10 team sacks, but he came out for much of the Purdue game, leaving basically no pass rush threat on the DL (the remainder of the defensive line has totaled just 1.5 sacks on the year).  The DL has also accumulated 14 QB hurries on the year so far.

Despite some troubling statistics in the running game and not generating enough of a pass rush, the DL has been successful in other areas, grabbing 2 surprising interceptions, breaking up 2 more passes, forcing 2 fumbles, and blocking 3 kicks (which were key in beating Central Michigan, as those blocks essentially took 5 points off the board, the same as NU's margin of victory).

The D-line has admittedly been dinged up a bit with injuries through the first half, and have been putting a lot of youth into the fire, so one hopes that the 'Cats will see improvement from the line in the second half as they have more experience and health.

Linebackers:  B

The LB's take some of the blame for the run game issues detailed above, but they have been quite active in the passing game, with Quentin Davie grabbing 3 INTs and breaking up 2 additional passes.  Ben Johnson and David Nwabuisi have also tallied an interception each, while the LBs have totaled 6 pass break-ups.  Those numbers against the passing game have been big reasons that NU ranks a very respectable 24th nationally in pass efficiency defense, despite giving up 216.3 yards per game through the air (71st nationally, and that's even after playing Purdue who had just 47 yards through the air).

The Northwestern linebackers have generally been doing their primary job: tackling.  NU LBs account for 124 tackles on the year, 33.9% of Northwestern's tackle total for the season thus far.  Nate Williams ranks second on the team with 39 total tackles, and that despite being rotated out in favor of Nwabuisi on most passing downs.

There were definitely high expectations for this unit heading into the year, with three experienced guys backed up by even more talented players, and thus far they've somewhat underwhelmed, especially against the run.  And, as mentioned in the defensive summary, they have been responsible for some of those big plays yielded by the NU D, as all it takes is one LB to be slightly out of place for a run to go a long way.  Hopefully this is an area where some basic corrections can be made during the bye week and this unit that features both talent and experience can put the pieces together for a solid second half.

Defensive Backs:  C

Northwestern had a lot of talent and experience in the secondary last year that was lost going into this season: all-Big Ten performers Brendan Smith, Brad Phillips, and Sherrick McManis, the last of whom is now playing on Sundays.  Those were some big shoes to fill, and while the current slate of DBs have done a decent job taking over, there is some left to be desired.

Brian Peters has filled in nicely after garnering a good amount of playing time a year ago, as he leads NU in both total tackles (44) and solo tackles (34).  The secondary also has 7 of NU's 15 pass-break ups on the season.  An issue has been that the INTs haven't necessarily come from this unit, and there have been at least a couple of drops that would have put additional turnovers in NU's hands.

As mentioned in the linebacker section, the 'Cats have done a pretty respectable job in pass efficiency D, despite giving up a good amount of yards.  While they've kept teams out of the end zone in many situations, they will face much tougher tests down the stretch that include a slew of offensive weapons.

Like the rest of the D, this unit has experienced its share of dings, with S David Arnold sitting out for the first four games of the year, but hopefully they're back at full health now and can show some improvement in order to help contain some solid opposing offenses through the final six games of the regular season.

Overall: B

The defense as a whole deserves a grade that is higher than the sum of their parts, as demonstrated by their pretty solid yards allowed statistic (the aforementioned 18.3 points per game allowed).  Despite having breakdowns and weaknesses in almost every unit, others have filled in when needed, and overall the 'Cats have done a good job at stopping opponents when necessary.

Credit Hankwitz for keeping this unit sound despite some issues (giving up big plays and giving opponents fresh sets of downs with penalties, in particular), as the D has given NU a chance to win every game (and a chance to dominate some).  Their play will be key down the stretch as it's clear that the offense relies on Persa, and NU will need a boost from the defense in the eventual game where Persa is focused upon and contained by an opponent.

Look out for takeaways down the stretch; if Northwestern can generate them, NU will be in good shape.  If they can't, then things could get ugly, as demonstrated through the first six games of the year.  Finally, it will be interesting to see what additional schemes Hankwitz throws into the mix and how the 'Cats' fare against better offenses.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.