Commentary: The Northwestern Defense (or lack thereof)
by Jonathan Hodges

Obviously the Northwestern defense (or lack thereof) has been a concern over the past decade of football.  Fortunately during this time period (approximately the start of the Walker era and going into the Fitzgerald era of NU football), the offense was good enough (particularly beginning in 2000) to adequately make up for this lack of a defense.  In fact, the offense was stellar enough to lead NU to a Big Ten title in 2000, to bowl games in 2000, 2003, and 2005, and to an overall winning record in 2000 and 2005 (and a .500 record in 2004).  The fact, though, is that the Wildcats have achieved this success DESPITE the defense - not because of it.  There is the old adage that "defense wins championships" and one needs only to look back at the 1995 and 1996 season when Northwestern fielded a defense that was more than capable of bringing home the hardware, led by NU football's current leader, Pat Fitzgerald.  Also, NU has produced a number of quality players during this period - including players who made it into the NFL including: Bentley, Harris, Castillo, Cofield, and McGarigle, plus other defensive leaders including Roach and Durr.  And this year's defense has been touted as the most talented unit since at least 2001 (by Colby himself who confirmed that the talent this year is the "best he's seen" while at NU) - but even with this talent NU's defense has looked pedestrian thus far even though it shut out its first opponent.

Despite this, NU's defense continues to be in the lower tier of defenses across the nation - something that irks NU football fans and supporters everywhere who want to see the most success possible for Wildcat football.  The offense has fortunately been stellar and has more than made up for the defense over this era, but the fact is that the Wildcats cannot sustain success without a viable defense.  If things don't sync up on offense or if there are substantial injuries and the offense cannot be relied upon to win every game, things start to get ugly for NU.

What I don't want this to be about is singling out players.  In fact, I think NU has many stand-up players on defense who have performed very well over the years and have put their heart and talents into the game for Northwestern.  There are the guys who made it to the next level who are listed above but also guys who have made a difference in games - just for one example, Sean Weiber, who forced the Anthony Thomas fumble in the 2000 Michigan game that allowed NU to pull off the win.  There are plenty more examples and I am not writing this to diminish the accomplishments of individuals or the success of the team in recent times.  The Walker era at NU is arguably one of the most consistently positive times in Wildcat football history - and outside of 1995-1996 has yielded the most consistent winning in a half century.  What this is about is the overarching direction of NU's defense and the fact that there seems to be no plan for correction of the recent poor showings from that unit.

To emphasize the issues with the Northwestern defense over this time period, below is how the Wildcat defense fared in terms of statistics and how it ranked nationally since 1999, when Coach Walker took over the program:

Year - Total Defense (rank/# I-A teams) - Scoring Defense (rank)
1999 - 388.0 (81/114) - 27.4 (75)
2000* - 408.1 (89/114) - 30.4 (85)
2001 - 467.6 (107/115) - 34.4 (101)
2002 - 502.3 (116/117) - 41.1 (113)
2003 - 417.3 (88/117) - 25.1 (57)
2004 - 391.0 (68/117) - 28.5 (75)
2005 - 480.4 (117/117) - 33.9 (106)
2006 - 362.5 (85/119) - 26.2 (88)
2007** - 400.5 (79/119) - 15.5 (27)

*Does not include bowl game.
**Through 2 games.

Excluding the 2007 campaign, which only has 2 games completed to date, the best defensive performance in terms of yardage was 2006, when NU averaged 362.5 yards of total defense per game, good for 85th in the nation.  In terms of scoring defense, the best number was in 2003 when NU averaged 25.1 points per game on defense (good for 57th).  The trend shows, though, that NU has been at the bottom of the nation for much of the past 8 years in terms of the defensive - with the BEST performances falling at just below the 50% range (clearly the worst performance was in 2005 when NU's total defense was dead last in the nation).

Obviously the statistics can lie - NU picked up 6 or more wins in the 2000, 2003, 2004, and 2005 seasons - and these stats do not take into account things like takeaways, points scored by opponents' special teams or off turnovers, strength of schedule, etc.  BUT if NU gives up the yardage that it has and leads to the points on the board for its opponents then that is a lot to overcome - something the offense, special teams, etc. cannot overcome.

Below are some statistics that have a significant impact on the defensive performance, including turnover margin and sacks (no rank data is available prior to 2005)) over the same time period as above, and how NU ranked:

Year Turnover Margin (rank) - Sacks/Game
1999 -0.64 (97/114) - 1.73
2000* +1.09 (6/114) - 2.00
2001 -0.09 (62/115) - 1.54
2002 -0.50 (79/117) - 0.50
2003 -0.15 (72/117) - 1.54
2004 +0.33 (40/117) - 1.92
2005 +0.75 (16/117) - 1.00 (115/117)
2006 -0.58 (97/119) - 1.92 (72/119)
2007** +1.00 (25/119) - 1.00 (84/119)

Turnover margin is a statistic that plays heavily into the outcome of games - every time NU has a positive turnover margin for the season since 1999 the 'Cats have achieved at least 6 wins for the season.  The only recent bowl appearance that had a negative turnover margin was in 2003.  Obviously turnover margin also includes the number of turnovers given up by the offense, but the overall margin is the best way to evaluate the entire performance of the team (and compare to the W/L numbers for the season).  In terms of sacks, the best performance by NU was approximately 2 per game (achieved in 2000, 2004, and 2006) - and when ranking data was available that put NU squarely in the bottom quartile of the nation.

What Does This Mean?

So, from these statistics one can see that NU's defense has performed relatively poorly when compared to the rest of the nation since 1999 and doesn't seem to be trending in one direction or the other over time.  The current Defensive Coordinator Greg Colby was brought on board after the 2001 season (from the 1999 to 2001 seasons, current Assistant Head Coach Jerry Brown served as the DC), and the between those two DCs there seems to be no discernible difference in terms of statistics.  Basically, when NU's offense can put lots of points on the board AND NU comes up with a positive turnover margin - there can be success (note 2000's very high margin of above +1 per game coupled with 2 sacks per game plus the high offensive output - which led to a Big Ten championship).  Without the good turnover margin and/or lots of offensive output, NU is far less successful.

Despite the fact that throughout this time NU coaches, fans, and opponents have all known the Wildcat defense is weak - despite the availability of talented players - nothing has really changed.  It was obvious that the Wildcat offense was the preferred unit of Coach Walker (arguably the mastermind of NU's spread offense and the sustainer of the point-scoring prowess of the 'Cats - probably dating back to his days as a fullback at Miami OH), and that the defense was left to its own devices.  With Fitz taking over last year, being an obviously defensive-minded individual, I fully expected some change to take place - whether it be assistant coaching changes ( e.g. new DC) or an increased focus on defense, and while the results of last season were an improvement - there seems to be NO forward momentum into this year.  It seems that NU has faded back into the same old same old when it comes to defense - of course 2 games does not a pattern make - but the 500+ yards yielded to a Nevada team that was held without an offensive TD in week 1 was not encouraging.


1. Lack of an Effective Pass Rush.  This is somewhat surprising given the fact that NU has had the likes of Harris and Castillo performing the pass rush duties for NU during the past 8 years or so - and these are guys doing that at the next level.  Looking at NU's sack output (by far the easiest and best measure of a pass rush), it has been at about 2 sacks/game maximum, and at worst lower than 1 ( 0.5/game in 2002, arguably NU's worst season this decade).  The past few years (where ranking data is available) NU is in the bottom quarter of the nation.  The fact is that good defenses get to the QB - a QB who doesn't have time to throw or find the open receiver is ineffective.  If you give ANY QB enough time he WILL find someone open - no secondary is that good.  This is exactly what NU has allowed for years, thereby allowing teams to slice up NU's secondary at will, although I will get to them next...

2. Lack of a Lockdown Corner.  NU hasn't had a "lockdown" cornerback since the mid-90's, although McManis has shown the tools to be such a player - but he's not there yet.  By lockdown corner I mean a guy who has the tools and, most importantly, speed to keep up with any WR thrown his way and can use that speed to make big plays and, most importantly, STOP the big play by the opponent.  Instead, NU is almost forced to use a large "cushion" on the outside coverage to prevent such big plays - and while that does work (sometimes) it also opens up a large opportunity for small-yardage passes at a very high completion rate (since the coverage is virtually non-existent).  There are many examples of teams eating yardage against NU employing this method... including Nevada this past week.  One may argue NU doesn't need to employ the cushion any longer and that it is silly to continue, but until the defense can put pressure on the QB the risk is there for the big play to erupt and the NU defense to give up even more yards and points.

3. Lack of Backfield Penetration.  One may argue this goes hand in hand with #1, but this has more to do with stopping the running game.  There have been a few years when NU was horrendous at stopping the running game of opponents - so bad, in fact, that it has made NU's pass defense look rather good since teams never needed to throw the ball to be effective.  For instance, take the stats listed below:

2002 Season (Total Defense: 502.3 ypg, 116/117 rank)
Rush Defense: 313.6 ypg (117/117)
Pass Defense: 188.8 ypg (29/117)

Just looking at the pass defense, one may argue - hey it's not that bad.  But, in fact, nobody even bothered to throw against NU.  In 2002, Northwestern was thrown against less than anyone else in the country - actually the only team close in terms of number of pass attempts against was Eastern Michigan (281 pass attempts by opponents total).  NU had 239 passes thrown on them.  Then you look at the yards per pass attempt:

Yards per Attempt (against): 9.48 ypa (115/117)

The only teams worse than NU were EMU (9.64) and Syracuse (9.50).  So, basically, if teams had decided to throw against NU they could have gone even more wild.  BUT, when you can run for over 300 yards a game, who needs to throw the ball?

SO, back to why this happened, basically the D Line was/is ineffective getting off of blocks.  I don't claim to know how to address this, but as a DL one should be able to get off of the block and at least direct the play to a waiting LB - or even make the tackle themselves.  Again, I DON'T blame this on the individual players at all - it is obvious that this is a systemic issue at Northwestern (one could probably point a finger at the coaching staff here), especially since some members of those DLines are now in the NFL and obviously doing a good job there (most notably Cofield and Castillo - who were actually on the field at the same time while at NU).  The 'Cats have had plenty of great linebackers (Roach, McGarigle, Durr, Bentley) during this time period who have cleaned up in terms of tackles - unfortunately most of those tackles took place a few yards away from the LOS - into NU territory.  Whether it be how the technique is taught or the scheme that NU employs, the fact is that something must be changed to stop teams from running.  Look at Nevada who racked up 192 yards on the ground without even being known for their running game.

4. Not Changing Anything.  It's been 8 years of a pretty poor showing on the defensive side of the ball, yet there haven't been any substantial changes on the defensive side of the ball.  ALTHOUGH Northwestern has said it is changing over to a 3-4 defense (which it has employed from time to time this year in certain situations), the 'Cats aren't there yet.  Obviously the linebacker position has been solid for NU over the years (possibly excluding this year, although it still looks like a work in progress) so it makes sense to try and switch to an LB-heavy strategy, especially since recruiting for that position is easier for a school like NU.  This year NU has the most talent on the line, so it makes sense to stick with the 4-3 for now.  Hopefully a more permanent switch to a new scheme will help NU get pressure on the QB while also stopping the run by sending more/different LBs or even DBs into the backfield and also allows NU to do different things with the defenders on the field, BUT that is still yet to be seen.  Obviously a switch takes multiple years given the recruiting and graduation cycles, but so far there is no evidence of a significant change in terms of results.

Finally, DC Colby has been at NU since the 2002 season, and Assistant HC Brown has been here even longer (he was DC under Walker through 2001 and is definitely the elder member of the NU coaching staff having been on board as a Wildcat coach since well before anyone else - including the big 95 and 96 seasons) - and have been kept around despite the shortcomings of the defense.  I'm not calling for their firing - obviously that is up to Fitz and the NU administration - but if this season passes without any improvement by the NU defense AND no changes occur in the defensive coaching staff, one must wonder.  It's arguable if Fitz has had any time to really shape his staff as he sees fit - basically everyone (except for LB coach Bates, who was most likely brought in by Colby having previously worked with him) was brought in by Walker - and Fitz couldn't really blame anyone for last season given the circumstances to start the year (plus may not have had the authority to make such moves - especially since he was still settling into the position, having never even been a coordinator level coach before).  SO - I would personally reserve judgment until this season is over - but I would hope that as a defensive-minded individual, Fitz would take it upon himself to demand defensive improvement or else take action to make that happen.

I would very much like to see NU's defense show off their talent this year and put this whole discussion to rest - go out there and prove that 'Cats fans can forget all of those stats listed above and NU can be a force on defense.  Go 'Cats.

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

Previous jhodges commentary

jhodges' commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of HailToPurple.com.