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The return of bend-don’t-break in Evanston?

After a quasi-dominant 2015, the Northwestern defense reverted to its old ways in 2016—only this time they were actually decent at it.

Northwestern v Michigan State Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Fans of Northwestern from the early years of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure were far too accustomed to watch as the Cardiac Cats would allow teams to march down the field with their size and speed, only to snap late in games.

While this happened again some in 2016, Northwestern is poised to repeat that performance in 2017. Here’s why:

[1] The defense still struggles to get to the quarterback.

Ifeadi Odenigbo racked up 10 sacks in 2016, but he’s off to the Minnesota Vikings (yay!) and unless the ‘Cats were facing Iowa was a mixed bag of results in 2016, as his speed rush was effective against some teams and non-existent against others.

In fact, Northwestern lost 23.5 of its 29 sacks from 2016 to graduation, the NFL Draft, and unfortunate decisions to run around with cocaine on one’s person. Only LB Brett Walsh (1.0) and Brian Lewerke-killer DL Joe Gaziano (4.5) return any sacks for the Wildcats in 2017. That’s a problem for a team that either by design or by necessity didn’t get to the QB at all on standard run downs (120th in the nation in sack rate) and with modest success (8.5%, 49th in the nation) on pass downs, while Northwestern’s overall adjusted sack rate of 87.4 was only 91st in the country.

We’ll see if Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson can continue clogging the middle with modest success, but the emergence of Gaziano will need to be matched in 2017 by a breakout season from someone young—maybe Tommy Carnifax—because no one on the three-deep at DL for Northwestern is older than a sophomore.

[2] Do you run the ball? Only if you’ve got two tight ends.

While power running was notoriously successful against the ‘Cats (120th in power success rate run D), the defense stiffened at very convenient times (4th-and-goal in the Pinstripe Bowl against James Conner) and teams still seemed to want to beat Northwestern to the edges with speed. The ‘Cats turned in average-to-good numbers across the board in the important rushing stats, rating 37th in S&P+ RushD and yielding just 113.7 adjusted line yards, 17th in the nation.

A lot of that has been the product of good safety and linebacker play. Godwin Igwebuike is a great safety and comes into the box to make plays on a regular basis, coming off the edge and wrapping up. That’s also aided in part by a good-tackling secondary and Fitzgerald’s use of S-LB hybrids like Nate Hall to come in and stop the run. You can run the ball more from power in standard run downs on the ‘Cats, but when things tighten up near the goal line, the Northwestern defense stiffens. That’s a large part of the Wildcats’ stinginess on drives inside the 40, where they yielded just 3.56 points per trip, 8th in the nation in 2016.

[3] Do you throw the ball? …no.

Well, it’s a mixed bag, and let’s get the bad out of the way. Teams had modest levels of success just throwing the ball on the ‘Cats, as the defense was rated 69th (NICE) in passing success rate. But with about 15 DBs injured/retired (we miss you, Matthew Harris) in the 2016 season, the ‘Cats were turning to freshman Trae Williams, freshman Alonzo Mayo, and DB-turned-WR-turned-DB-again Marcus McShepard to stop opposing aerial attacks.

…and here’s the weird thing: They did it.

Montrae Hartage emerged as an heir to Nick VanHoose, breaking up 9 passes and picking off 5. Igwebuike added 7 and 2, respectively. Williams broke up 7 of his own, and on passing downs in particular the ‘Cats secondary turned in a 16th S&P+ rating and 14th success rate, quite the turnaround. Lest we chalk this up to bad run defense, too, Northwestern only allowed 1.87 line yards per carry on passing downs, 4th in the country.

That begins with the stellar next-man-up play out of the secondary, but for me it ends with the one-two punch of Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro, one of the best safety tandems Northwestern has ever had. In the wake of Ibraheim Campbell’s departure for the NFL, Igwebuike and Queiro have combined to both stuff the run but also provide help over the top to young cornerbacks, quickly turning Northwestern’s pass defense into a formidable opponent.

[4] Where have all the linebackers gone? Quick, before they find them!

This is where Pat Fitzgerald has the most to do in 2017. While Nate Hall returns, the losses of Jaylen Prater, Walker, and Joseph Jones to graduation and the Draft mean that Northwestern will need some stellar next man up play from rising senior Brett Walsh (29 tackles in 2016) and depth provided by converted-RB Warren Long and All-Name-Haver Jango Glackin.

Especially given the concerns with the edge rush in 2017, the emergence of a Walker-like LB will be key to Northwestern getting the backfield and disrupting the passing attack wherever possible. The Wildcats could count on plays from Walker at key moments in 2016, but without that ability could be resigned to a lot more bending in 2017 while their new starters get their legs under them.

In 2017

This 2016 success was aided by quite a bit of turnover luck (+2.56) in 2016, but we’re seeing the usual backbone Pat Fitzgerald’s earliest teams would try to stiffen late in the game—only now he’s developing the players it takes to actually have a stout defense with their backs to the goal.

I’d look for the ‘Cats to take a slight step back on defense based almost purely on the play of the front seven. Everyone’s back in the secondary, meaning the ‘Cats can continue their successes and even play a little more press coverage with maturity, but the pass rush will be of concern this year. How quickly Gaziano and Carnifax mature and how quickly the linebackers fill the void left by Walker, Jones, and Prater will go a long way in determining the pliability of a defense that, while not elite, has certainly gained a reputation in the Big Ten and has helped Pat Fitzgerald mold the program in his image.

It may not be the healthiest things for all of us in purple, but there’s something about a Northwestern defense bending, bending, and bending some more but not breaking that’s ingrained in their DNA.

Poll

How will Northwestern’s defense fare in 2017?

This poll is closed

  • 20%
    Improved—less bend, less break.
    (19 votes)
  • 31%
    About the same
    (30 votes)
  • 34%
    Slight regression—some bend, more break.
    (32 votes)
  • 13%
    Michigan State 2016
    (13 votes)
94 votes total Vote Now