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B1G 2011 Northwestern Point-Counterpoint: Is Defense the Problem?

Jane, you ignorant's Tuesday, which means it's time for Point-Counterpoint (or as SNL used to call it, Counter/Point-Counter).  In the hot seat this week -- Northwestern's defense (or lack thereof?)

Point: Northwestern's defense was its downfall last season, and will continue to be its downfall.  While Northwestern can compete offensively against Big Ten teams thanks to a well-executed and designed offensive scheme that spreads defenses out thereby reducing the athleticism advantage of its opponents, the Cats' recruiting restrictions prevent it generally from getting athletes on the defensive side that can slow down or stop upper-level offenses.

149 points.  That's how many points TCU's top-ranked defense allowed in 2010-11 all season long, including their bowl game.

163 points.  That's what Northwestern its final 3 games against Illinois, Wisconsin, and Texas Tech.  Is there any doubt that defense is Northwestern's achilles heel, and that it was torn in 2010 much like Dan Persa's was after throwing the winning TD against Iowa?

(Of course there's doubt -- that's why we have a counter-point...after the jump....)

The bad news for Northwestern's defense is that things don't look too much better in 2011.  Stud DT Corbin Bryant is gone to the NFL (presuming that the lockout is resolved and teams can sign undrafted free agents, Bryant's virtually guaranteed to earn a camp invite, particularly after doing 31 reps at 225 lbs in the bench and running a 5.08 40 time -- solid numbers for a DT).  Bryant is likely to be joined in the NFL by LB Quentin Davie, and NU also lost LB Nate Williams to graduation, meaning NU has holes to fill up front, and may be even weaker against the run than they were at the end of the season in 2010, when they were last seen getting gashed for 519 yards rushing by Illinois, 329 yards rushing by Wisconsin, and 183 yards rushing by Texas Tech (a team that only averaged 137.9 ypg rushing in the regular season, against weak Big 12 defenses....).  NU also was 99th in the nation in "explosion plays allowed" (i.e. plays of 20 yards or longer) -- an ominous sign for a team losing talented DL and LBs.

Sure, there are talented, young replacements on the way -- OLB Roderick Goodlow returns from injury, hopes are high for a number of RS freshman and sophomores like safety Ibraheim Campbell, OLBs Chi Chi Ariguzo, Collin Ellis and Tim Riley, MLB Damien Proby, and DL Chance Carter, Will Hampton, and Tyler Scott

But asking for young recruits to make the difference at Northwestern isn't as easy at other schools, as Northwestern's academic recruiting restrictions limit the pool of talented athletes that the Cats can recruit moreso than their Big Ten brethren.  Pat Fitzgerald and the coaching staff have clearly upgraded recruiting (his last 3 classes have been amongst the best, at least in terms of Scout and Rivals' grading, in the history of the program), but without landing upper-shelf talent, it's difficult to surpass "average" on the defensive side of the ball.  Defense, much moreso than offense (where schemes are so important), is about athleticism -- jumping a route quickly, speed rushing or power rushing past an offensive lineman, or meeting a running back in the gap.  Northwestern has talented athletes, and the fact that almost all stay 4-5 years helps....but not enough to make Northwestern ever be a consistent defensive power.  And certainly not in 2011 -- NU will have little chance

Counterpoint: Northwestern's 2010 defense, through 10 games, was as good or better than in 2009, even after losing Corey Wootton and Sherick McManis to the NFL.  The defense wasn't the problem at the end of the season -- it was the offense's inability to sustain drives, due mainly to the losses of Dan Persa and Mike Trumpy, that left the NU defense on the field for long stretches of time.  No rest for the defense = more points allowed.



I'll admit -- the "Counterpoint" side is where I fall on the Northwestern defense debate.  The Northwestern defense was as good as or maybe even better last year than the 2009 Northwestern defense.....through 10 games.  Just look at the numbers comparing the two teams (keeping in mind that these stats do not include games against Wisconsin and Illinois in either season, nor the bowl game):

  • Scoring Defense: 23.3 point allowed per game in 2009; 21.4 points allowed per game in 2010.
  • Rushing Defense: 117.1 rushing yards per game allowed in 2009; 137.4 rushing yards per game allowed in 2010.
  • Passing Defense: 225.2 passing yards per game allowed in 2009; 249.6 passing yards per game allowed in 2010.

So Northwestern's 2010 defense was giving up roughly 45 more yards per game than their 2009 counterparts....but holding their opponents to nearly 2 fewer points per game.  And NU in 2010 was without Sherick McManis and Corey Wootton (the man who ended Brett Favre's career), 2 guys that got drafted to play on Sundays (and thus were arguably bigger losses than Bryant or Davie this offseason).  The defense, at least through 10 games, was not "broken," at least compared to 2009.  (And yes, I'd hardly say the 2009 Wildcats defense was dominant...but it certainly wasn't viewed as a failure by fans/commentators.)

What changed in those last 3 games?  Arguably nothing on defense. 

What changed was that (a) Dan Persa got injured at the end of the Iowa game, and (b) Mike Trumpy broke his wrist during the Illinois game, and neither one played again that season. Gone were the most accurate QB in terms of completion percentage in Big Ten history and the teams' #1 and #2 leading rushers.  And how did that kill the defense?

Simple -- Dan Persa (and, to a lesser Trumpy) kept drives going, keeping the Northwestern defense off the field.  The 2010 Wildcats offense, (including the Cats' last 3 games), lead the nation in methodical drives (i.e. drives that included at least 10 offensive plays) -- nearly 23% of the time on offense, the Wildcats were running off at least 10 plays, allowing their defense to rest, and keeping the opposing offense off the field.

In those last 3 games, though, it was an ENTIRELY different story.  In 40 offensive drives over those 3 games, Northwestern only had FOUR methodical drives (zero in 12 drives vs. Illinois; 1 in 15 drives against Wisconsin, and 3 in 13 drives against Texas Tech....a game in which Kain Colter finally got the Cats' running game going). 

As a result (and quite predictably), the Cats' defense ended up gassed as they were asked to be on the field for a longer period of time.  Illinois held the ball for 41:16 (no, that's not a typo) and Wisconsin held the ball for 37:15 against the Cats (Texas Tech only had the ball 29:37 against the Cats, a function again of the Cats' improved running game in the bowl thanks to Colter and Texas Tech's pass-heavy offense).

NU returns 4 starters on the O-Line, and goes into this season with a much better running game, having identified Mike Trumpy and Adonis Smith as the lead RBs.  If the running game can improve (and it did over the course of last season generally), and Persa can stay healthy, the simple fact that the offense will hold the ball for longer drives should make the NU defense look improved.