In our staff predictions for Northwestern’s season, I wrote that the Wildcats had a chance to finish this year 9-3. The argument was simple: besides the deadly October road trio of Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State, who else would NU lose to? Well, it turns out we didn’t have to wait long for that answer, as almost everybody underestimated NU’s first opponent, Western Michigan, who upset NU 22-21.
Or maybe we all overestimated the Wildcats. Western Michigan was always going to be a tough test, but NU mostly beat itself in week one - and that’s because its defense simply didn’t show up. WMU was able to rack up 416 total yards and convert 7-of-17 third downs and 4-of-4 fourth downs, out-possessing NU 39:04 to 20:56 and staying turnover-free.
NU’s defensive line wasn’t able to get any push on Saturday, and senior Xavier Washington and junior Ifeadi Odenigbo were ineffective pass-rushers. The secondary was susceptible to mistakes, and its inexperience was exploited. Perhaps even junior Anthony Walker, one of the best linebackers in the nation, was negatively affected by all “The Franchise” hype, and tried to do too much.
It was virtually the opposite of what made NU’s defense so dominant last year, a stingy turnover-creating machine who got even tougher on third and fourth down.The Wildcats knew the losses of Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson, Nick VanHoose and Traveon Henry would hurt, but the assumption was that they would be able to retool quickly and remain a defensive force. Instead, their poor performance was alarming, and something no one expected to see on Saturday, including head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
On Monday, Fitzgerald was asked about one of the biggest defensive mishaps of the game. WMU was up 22-21 and had 3rd-and-6 on its own 24-yard line with 2:45 remaining, and a stop would most likely give NU possession for one final drive. Instead, WMU completed a pass for a first down, all but sealing the game.
Fitzgerald revealed that the call from the sideline was press coverage, but sophomore defensive back Montre Hartage didn’t press and gave up the completion. Fitzgerald said that it was “one of about 18 or 20 issues we had like that” and “we have to do a better job teaching, we have to do a better job coaching.”
It would be one thing if Hartage, an inexperienced corner thrust into a starting role after Keith Watkins’ injury, was the only defender making mistakes. But 18 or 20 issues like that? That’s worrisome.
Fitzgerald also spoke of the “uncharacteristic loss of leverage by multiple guys on our defense,” explaining that they were trying to do too much, diverting from NU’s team-style defense and letting the ball get outside, leading to big plays. It is something that Fitzgerald said NU has always done well, and he said that he didn’t see it happen once in practice.
Obviously, this lack of discipline and inexperience shown on Saturday is concerning. It’s become clear that this is not the same NU defense from last year. But are these uncharacteristic mistakes easily fixable? Or will these fundamental problems haunt the Wildcats all season?
Maybe NU’s defense simply tried to do too much on Saturday, and everyone will fall back in line, perfecting the individual roles that make NU’s team-style defense so successful. But it’s hard to ignore the position downgrades on the defensive line and in the secondary, and the Wildcats will have to make significant strides to regain their defensive dominance.
The poor performance is definitely concerning, but NU will have some time to regroup with an easier contest against Illinois State next week. After just one game, I’m willing to be patient and believe Fitzgerald when he says that some of the defense’s mistakes were “uncharacteristic.” But by the time Duke and Nebraska visit Ryan Field, we will see if the mistakes actually turn out to be characteristic of this defense. And if that happens, NU will be in big trouble.