Commentary: End of Season Report Card: Defense
by Jonathan Hodges

Despite losing the player responsible for most of their offense through the first 10 games of the season, the Northwestern Wildcats still had a shot to win games down the stretch, scoring 20 or more points in each game over the second half of the season.  Unfortunately, the defense completely melted down over that same stretch of games, allowing an average of 38.1 points per game after allowing just 13.7 points per game during the first half of the regular season.  And things completely melted down over the final three games of the season (bowl game included) as the 'Cats allowed over 550 yards of offense in each of those games with NU's opponents racking up 163 points over that span.

And all that was after looking promising over the first half of the year with NU generating turnovers early and often and turning those into points: through the first four games of the regular season, NU had 53 points off of turnovers (13.3 points per game).  Over the subsequent five games, NU scored 0 points off of turnovers, a span in which they went 2-3 with those two wins coming by a combined 4 points.  A lot of that was due to the defense's inability to generate turnovers and the offense's inability to take advantage of the few turnovers that did go in the 'Cats' favor.

Although NU turned it around a bit in the turnover department over the final four games of the season, averaging 7 points per game off of turnovers, including two defensive scores, the defense suffered a collapse in probably the worst area possible for a D: tackling.  Starting against Illinois, the Wildcats just couldn't find a way to bring ballcarriers to the ground and that continued through the bowl game, and it showed in the aforementioned box score numbers.  Now time to see how that collapse factored into the unit grades.

Defensive Line: C-
   Midseason Grade: B-

The defensive line's performance, or lack thereof, was worth of demoting them a full letter grade given their performance over the final half of the season.  First of all, in the passing game, they dropped from a disappointing 78th nationally in sacks at midseason to an even more disappointing 104th with just 1.23 sacks per game.  NU tallied 0 sacks in their final two games of the year (against Wisconsin and Texas Tech) and the lack of pressure up front showed in the offensive numbers that those opponents put up.

Against the running game things degraded as well, with the opponents' yards per carry increasing from 4.4 at midseason to 5.1 at the end of the year.  While the entire defense is responsible for bringing down the ballcarrier, the DL's inability to get off of blocks and close gaps up front makes the linebackers' and secondary's job that much more difficult.

In terms of individual performance, DE Vince Browne, after racking up 5 sacks during the first half of the year, had just 2 in the final 7 games and was generally ineffective despite being NU's primary pass rush threat.  And no other NU defender had more than 2 sacks on the season, showing that the problems up front were significant.  While there were other deficiencies in the Northwestern defense, the most glaring was the lack of a pass rush and pressure up front, which allowed opposing offenses to do whatever they wanted, including sitting back and picking apart the defense with the passing game or even running in whichever direction they like.  This is the single biggest area on the entire team that needs improvement going into 2011.

Linebackers: C+
   Midseason Grade: B

While the lack of pressure up front was indeed a problem primarily in the passing game, the inability of linebackers to properly get to the ballcarrier and bring him down was possibly the biggest issue.  Against Illinois and Wisconsin to close out the season, NU gave up 7.4 and 6.1 yards per carry, respectively, with many of those yards due to linebackers just not getting into the proper gaps to make a play or guys just not making tackles.

Over the final few games of the regular season some players did indeed experience some injuries that cost playing time, including Bryce McNaul and Quentin Davie, but the unit that was supposed to be one of NU's best and deepest going into the year came up far short down the stretch, which must have been very disappointing to head coach and former LB legend Pat Fitzgerald.  Also, NU will lose two of those LBs to graduation: Davie and fellow senior Nate Williams, NU's second-leading tackler this season.

After fixing the DL, NU's second biggest chore this offseason will be turning things around in the LB corps which will get a little younger but will still have many options from which to choose.  McNaul will be joined by David Nwabuisi, who played in a lot of passing situations this year, Ben Johnson, a previous starter, and Roderick Goodlow, who will be returning from a season-ending injury after playing some last year as a true freshman.  Fans hope that the coaching staff can put the right combination of guys on the field to help turn things around from how the 2010 season ended.

Defensive Backs: C
   Midseason Grade: C

With all of the issues up front it would be difficult to place a lot of blame on the secondary who got carved up on almost a routine basis but found a way to make plays from time to time.  In fact, the secondary accounted for two pick-sixes over the final three games of the season and also had a key interception that helped tilt the Iowa game into NU's favor.

Brian Peters was obviously the main man in the defensive backfield, leading NU with 107 total tackles and 65 solo tackles this season, and tied for the team lead with 3 interceptions (one was a pick-six against Illinois, which he scored in the infamous east end zone at Wrigley).  He looks poised to have a great senior season.  Classmate Jordan Mabin also had a pick-six in the TicketCity Bowl and finished the year with 14 passes defended to lead the Big Ten; although many have derided his performance over his three year career, he will be in a position to have a great senior season if he can continue to make plays on the football.

Northwestern will have to fill in one cornerback spot, though, as senior Justan Vaughn, whose career at NU was plagued with injury, will be moving on.  Also the 'Cats will have to determine who between David Arnold, Jared Carpenter, and Hunter Bates (who suffered a significant injury during Northwestern's bowl game) will hold down the other safety spot.  One hopes that this unit's experience can help going into next season where they will have a lot of potential to try and replicate that senior-laden 2009 secondary's performance.

Overall: C
   Midseason Grade: B

At midseason, this unit seemed to be more than the sum of its parts with the D doing what it took to win some early games, most often generating turnovers which gave the offense opportunities to shift momentum in NU's favor.  Down the stretch, this unit caved in more often than not, which led to the complete meltdown over the final three games of the season.  It was really unfortunate to see this squad's worst performance since DC Mike Hankwitz took over before the 2008 season, and hopefully Hank and Fitz can find a way to turn things around going into next season.  If they can do that, expect NU to have a chance to make some noise in the Legends Division of the Big Ten.

In terms of stats, it's almost not worth diving into: the Wildcats ended the season with the nation's 97th ranked total defense (426.2 yards per game) after hitting midyear at 57th (356.8 yards per game), with the rushing defense, pass defense, and pass efficiency defense also suffering similar falls in ranking.  It will be interesting to see how the coaching staff handles this precipitous fall and how they approach next season in terms of strategy and even personnel, with Fitz stating after the TicketCity Bowl loss that nobody's job on defense is safe.

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.