Commentary: The Defensive Turnaround
by Jonathan Hodges

I will save my full season review for after the bowl game, but what Northwestern (9-3, 5-3) did this season deserves some credit before early January rolls around.  And the unit that deserves the most credit is the defense, which underwent a huge turnaround from one season ago to lead the Wildcats to its most successful year (measured by number of wins) since 1996, including some historic performances within individual games.

It all started just about a year ago when Fitz nabbed DC Mike Hankwitz after he was ousted from Wisconsin; Hankwitz brought with him a wealth of experience (he's been a DC in I-A/FBS college football for about as long as Fitz has been participating in organized football), including serving as DC for some very successful teams (including one that won a national title).  Any Northwestern fan knows that the NU defense struggled in the years after Fitz's graduation, and things got especially bad this decade as the Wildcat D routinely dwelled near or at the bottom of the nation in virtually every defensive statistical category.  Northwestern came into the 2008 season with a new defensive mind, a new attitude, and a lot of experienced and talented players ready for action.

First off, let's go through each of the major defensive statisical categories and show the imrpovement by the Wildcat D from last season to this season.

Category - 2007 Statistic (National Rank/Conference Rank) - 2008 Statistic (National Rank/Conference Rank) - Difference in: Stat (National Rank/Conference) Rank

Scoring Defense: 31.0 points/game (88th/10th), 19.3 points/game (24th/4th), -11.7 points/game (+64/+6)
Total Defense: 410.5 yards/game (77th/10th), 343.0 yards/game (53rd/5th), -67.5 yards/game (+24/+5)
Rushing Defense: 167.1 yards/game (74th/10th), 127.7 yards/game (38th/4th), -39.4 yards/game (+36/+6)
Passing Defense: 243.4 yards/game (79th/8th), 215.3 yards/game (73rd/8th), -28.1 yards/game (+6/0)
Pass Efficiency Defense: 141.1 (98th/10th), 112.9 (32nd/6th), -28.2 (+66/+4)
Sacks: 1.5/game (96th/10th), 2.8/game (12th/1st), +1.3/game (+84/+9)
TFLs: 5.3/game (95th/10th), 6.8/game (21st, 2nd), +1.5/game (+74/+8)
Turnovers Gained: 1.3/game (108th/10th), 1.8/game (54th/4th-tie), +0.5/game (+54/+6)
3rd Down Conversion Defense: 42.8% (88th/10th), 33.9% (26th/3rd), -8.9% (+62/+7)
Red Zone Defense: 77%, 77%, 0%
Red Zone TD Defense: 73%, 49%, -24%


From the statistics it's obvious: NU improved in EVERY statistical category and saw its rank improve nationally in every category as well as its conference rank improve in all but one category.  That is pretty amazing in itself, but seeing some of the large jumps in improvement is also telling: NU almost doubled its sacks/game and jumped a whopping 84 spots nationally and 9 spots within the conference (to the top spot this year).  Scoring defense, which is, of course, the most important statistic was reduced by almost 12 points/game (that's 2 TDs for those counting at home), which netted an improvement of 64 spots nationally and 6 within the conference.  And, of course, getting more turnovers helps the cause, and NU averaged 0.5 more per game than last season, boosting NU 54 spots nationally and 6 within the conference.

The results at the end of the game were the most noticeable, though, as the D could realistically be credited with winning at the most 2 games in 2007 (a shutout against Northeastern and a 26-14 win over EMU), while in 2008 the NU D could be given the nod for at least 7 wins.  This season we saw NU's D make multiple key 4th quarter stops to secure an early road win (Duke), rack up 6 sacks (SIU), hold a team to 4 net rushing yards (Ohio), shut out a Big Ten opponent on the road in the 2nd half to secure a big win, including a 4th quarter stand (Iowa), shut out another Big Ten team in the 2nd half and notch a game-winning INT return for a TD (Minnesota), shut out a 3rd Big Ten opponent in the 2nd half to give NU a victory (Michigan), and contain one of the league's top offenses and wreak havoc in the backfield all game long as NU won it's 9th game of the year (Illinois).

And their efforts were even more obvious with the offense struggling to put up numbers like they have in recent years, even with experienced and proven seniors at essentially every skill position (Bacher, Sutton, Ward/Peterman/Lane).  The fact is that the Northwestern defense is the primary reason that NU is sitting at 9 wins at the conclusion of the regular season and is in the running for a January 1st bowl berth - something that's only happened a handful of times in NU history.

It All Starts Up Front

Northwestern can trace it's defensive success in 2008 directly to the performance of the defensive line.  The unit consisting of starters Wootton, Bryant, Gill, and Mims along with backups Browne, Thomas, DiNardo, and Hahn - who garnered significant playing time in the rotation and due to some injuries - stepped up to the plate and delivered essentially all season long.  With the vast majority of these players having significant experience (Gill and Mims as seniors, Wootton and Hahn as juniors - all with significant experience as starters), NU fans have been waiting for them to step up for some time.  In fact, the 2007 DL was expected to make some noise given flashes that had been seen from them in the past.  But, as noted above in the statistics, the group fell flat last year, only getting 18 sacks on the year and allowing 4.4 yards/carry on the ground.  They weren't getting pressure up front and they weren't stopping opponents' running games.

Fast forward to this year with a new aggressive defensive scheme implemented by Hankwitz to replace former DC Colby's "read and react" system.  The 'Cats' racked up a Big Ten-leading 33 sacks and allowed opponents only 3.6 yards/carry on the ground - an improvement of almost a full yard per carry.  Wootton earned first-team all-Big Ten honors as he led NU with a whopping 9.0 sacks on the year, adding another 7 QB hurries.  Across the line, guys were contributing - the DL as a whole garnered 22 of NU's 33 sacks, and added 13 QB hurries.  All in all, that pass rush was a huge boon to the NU defense given that the secondary didn't have to chase around receivers while the QB had all day to throw; instead, QBs had to watch their backs and get off quick throws, limiting their effectiveness.  Just look at the reduction in pass efficiency defense, where this fact really shows up, as NU shot up 66 places nationally in their effectiveness against the pass.

Before the 2008 season began and during the year, the linemen routinely praised Hankwitz's scheme in interviews, and their enjoyment of his aggressive system showed on the field as they racked up those sacks and created pressure in the backfield.  That went for running plays too, with NU again very much increasing its effectiveness against the run, and that includes a historic performace against Ohio where NU allowed 4 net yards rushing (remember that in college stats sacks are included as rushing attempts).  Overall, the NU DL had 45 TFLs, led by Wootton with 15, (remember sacks are included with TFLs) - meaning the 'Cats' DL racked up 23 TFLs on rushing plays (1/game).  Last season, the NU DL only talleyed 30.5 TFLs and only 12 sacks.  Those huge improvements were a huge contribution to the overall D's efforts in 2008 and made a difference on the scoreboard at the end of the game.

Linebackers Stepping Up

Going into 2008, one of the big questions, and probably the biggest on defense, was who would step up at LB after losing key MLB Kadela to graduation.  That question was answered almost immediately with the emergence of MLB Arrington and OLB Kwateng, both seniors, as they racked up tackles and made plays to quell any thoughts of a down year at that position.  On the other side, OLB Davie, only a sophomore, stepped up and contributed both on the pass rush and in the open field as he had a huge start to the season on his way to collecting 55 tackles, 9.5 TFLs (3.5 of those sacks), 5 QB hurries, and 2 pass break-ups.  Kwateng ended up 2nd on the team in tackles with 93, also contributing 4.5 TFLs (2.5 sacks), 2 PBUs, 2 QB hurries, and a forced fumble.  Arrington began the season very strong, racking up 51 tackles, 6.5 TFLs (1.5 sacks), and 1 PBU in just over 6 games, but then tragedy struck as the Wildcats lost their starting MLB for the remainder of the season to a knee injury for the 2nd time in 3 years (in 2006 NU lost Nick Roach, now a starter on the Bears, to a broken leg mid-season); Arrington went down with a knee injury against Purdue that would require surgery.

Facing adversity, sophomore Nate Williams was thrust into the starting MLB job, and grabbed the opportunity by the horns as he netted 54 tackles, 2.5 TFLs (1 sack), and 2 PBUs for the year.  Senior Mike Dinard also picked up some slack in the rotation, netting 21 tackles for the season.  And as a whole, the defense didn't seem to miss a step without their defensive leader in the middle, which is quite amazing after watching the wheels seemingly come off in 2006 after losing Roach (he was injured during the infamous MSU comeback game - the result likely would have been different with him playing that whole game).  Williams earned his place on the NU D and looks to anchor the LB unit for a couple of years to come.

As a whole, the LBs also benefitted from the aggressive style of play under DC Hankwitz and the pass rush got a significant boost from Davie on the end, who also helped occupy offensive linemen and freeing up DEs Mims and Wootton to do their thing.  And, as shown by the statistics, the unit did their job by racking up the tackles and taking care of business against the run.  And the future looks bright at LB for NU, with Davie and Williams having 2 years of eligibility remaining, and younger guys (McNaul, Williams' younger brother, Quentin, and ND transfer Nagel) waiting in the wings and all vying for the spot vacated by Kwateng.

Secondary Playing Lights Out

And now on to the secondary, which has been called out for poor performances over much of this decade and has been the victim of opponents' passing games on many occasions.  This season, NU returned CB McManis, who had a standout true freshman year in 2006, S Smith, who played great until becoming victim to season-ending injury last year, and S Phillips, who was forced into duty for much of last year to replace Smith.  Newcomers Phillips (S), Vaughn (CB), and Mabin (CB) would vie for playing time as well.  Although the talent appeared to be there, this unit was also a question mark as NU has seen seemingly talented defensive backfields in the past yet never got the results it expected.  With its performance in 2008, the NU secondary put those questions behind it as this squad played very well and also benefitted directly from Hankwitz's scheme.

The return of S Brendan Smith, a captain, was felt immediately as he had an interception return for a TD in game one against Syracuse to break the game open.  For the year, Smith talleyed 73 tackles, 3 TFLs, 2 INTs (both returned for TDs), and 6 PBUs as he provided on and off the field leadership for the squad.  His crowning moment was the INT return for TD in the waning seconds of the Minnesota game to propel NU to its 7th victory of the season in a play that would leave NU fans jumping for joy and screaming at the TV screen.  The biggest out-of-nowhere story, though, is likely reserved for Brad Phillips, who took on a hybrid LB/S "roverback" type of position, especially as the season went on, and contributed by leading the team in tackles with 101, also racking up 6 TFLs (1.5 sacks), while adding 2 INTs, 6 PBUs, and 2 forced fumbles.  His signature moment was a sloberknocker of a hit on Iowa's Greene that forced that RB out of the game and also forced a fumble that NU would recover and then drive for the go-ahead score.  Throughout the year he laid impressive hits on opponents as he came up in run support as he took on cleanup duty.  This combination of safeties proved very effective for NU, and 'Cats fans will likely be treated to another season with them both in the defensive backfield.

Next up are the cornerbacks, anchored by junior Sherrick McManis, who after a down year in 2007, responded in a big way with a "lockdown" performance in 2008.  He racked up 64 tackles (4th on the team), 2 INTs, 1 forced fumble, and a team-leading 12 PBUs as he held down the top receiver for most of the NU season.  This included some big gain-saving tackles against Iowa and other opponents as he got off blocks and made significant plays.  And one thing not shown in the statistics is the fact that QBs often did not throw in his direction due to solid coverage, but his contribution can easily be seen in his impressive pass break-up tally.  On the other side at the beginning of the season was Justan Vaughn, who grabbed an INT against Illinois last year, the first in his career.  He was being pressed hard by redshirt freshman Justin Mabin, but won the starting job and had 9 tackles through most of 2 games before injuring his shoulder and going out for the year.  Once again, NU faced adversity through injury and was forced to start Mabin at CB, and also once again, Mabin responded by having quite a solid season: 49 tackles, 2 TFLs, 5 PBUs, 2 forced fumbles, and a team-leading 3 INTs.  The ability of this Wildcat squad to respond to injuries and have talented depth that could take over was key in racking up 9 wins on the year.  Although Mabin made "freshman mistakes" from time to time, he did a rather good job at corner and went a long way towards helping NU lock up one of its best seasons ever.

Final Thoughts

First, one must thank Fitz for making a tough decision by letting go of Colby after last season, then thank Wisconsin's Bielema for showing Mike Hankwitz the door - providing Fitz the opportunity to pick up an experienced and proven defensive mind.  All Hankwitz did was help boost NU's defensive rankings from near the bottom nationally into the top half (even top quarter in some areas) - something that few, if any, would have thought possible watching last year's unit.  It's clear that Fitz, being a LB here at NU on what was probably the strongest Northwestern defense to this point, knew that the D needed a boost and shifted the focus onto that phase of the game.  Hankwitz implemented a new, more aggressive, defensive scheme - nothing too fancy, but just using the skils of the players at his disposal.  Also, don't forget that Fitz and Hankwitz also brought in a new DL coach, Marty Long, who obviously helped the line live up to its expectations (or exceed them).

And the players themselves stepped up and took care of business, seniors and underclassmen alike.  After this season's performance, the basis has been built for a strong defense in years to come, as both the young players and coaches are in place to make it happen.  Credit goes to everyone involved for this year's turnaround - coaches for the planning and teaching, and the players for the execution.

There is a phrase that is commonly quoted that "defense wins championships."  While Northwestern didn't contend for the league title, the 'Cats did play a major role in the conference this season, as they finished 4th, and showed that a strong D can go a long way - racking up 9 wins on the year.  While a flashy offense is exciting and nice when it's running smoothly, a good defense that can hold back opponents can always contribute to wins, as NU found out this year when the offense underperformed and the defense bailed them out multiple times.  Also, credit the backups and underclassmen for stepping up in the face of adversity as the staring MLB missed most of 6 games, starting CB missed 9 games, and NU also lost 2 linemen near the end of the season.

Overall it was an excellent year for the NU D as they reached into territory previously reserved for those NU teams of the mid-90's led by Fitz on the field and accomplished a task that, for the better part of a century, had been reserved for them: win at least 9 games in a season.

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.