by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
Does anyone remember Northwestern's first win of the season? Does anyone remember the way the Wildcats' secondary melted under the limelight? Does anyone remember how Ryan Nassib went 44-of-65 for 470 yards and four touchdowns against Northwestern? Does anyone remember how Syracuse put up four touchdowns in fewer than 15 minutes against Northwestern? Does anyone remember how the Orange completed 18 passes for 10 yards or more and five passes for 20 yards or more on that opening weekend?
On a nippy Saturday afternoon in Evanston, the Carrier Dome felt like it was miles away — 701 miles away to be exact. In front of a sparse crowd at Ryan Field, Northwestern (9-3, 5-3 Big Ten) played nearly picture-perfect defense en route to a 50-14 win over Illinois (2-10, 0-8). And after a game in which the Wildcats limited the Fighting Illini to 116 passing yards and recorded three interceptions, it was clear that this much maligned group of defensive backs had come a long way.
"They really stepped it up and showed a lot of heart and a lot of character out there," senior linebacker David Nwabuisi said. "Really, they've got the toughest job on the field. When that ball's in the air, that's a tough job. They learn from experience, over and over, from Syracuse, a couple of pass interferences and what not, getting beat deep. They got better and that's what we have to do as a team."
At the beginning of the game, it didn't appear that there would be any celebration of Northwestern's defense. On Illinois' opening drive, the Fighting Illini marched 78 yards down the field for a touchdown, boosted by several missed Wildcats' tackles. Among the lowlights of that drive, sophomore cornerback Daniel Jones ended up on the turf after he bit on a fake by Donovonn Young and redshirt freshman cornerback NickVanHoose failed to wrap up Darius Millines seven yards behind the first-down marker, allowing the Illinois wide receiver to escape for a first down.
"Who knows?" defensive end Quentin Williams said. "We've been harping on taking another step through the tackle and really running your feet through a tackle and lunging. I don't know. It's hard to say, but we definitely stepped it up in the second half. We definitely had a different attitude, a different swagger about us."
After surrendering 50 passing yards on that first drive, the Wildcats gave up only 66 passing yards the rest of the way.
As Nwabuisi pointed out, however, the burden of defending against the pass doesn't only fall on the defensive backs. It falls on the linebackers and defensive linemen as well to generate pressure and force mistakes. Defending against the pass is always a concerted effort.
"Everything that the secondary, and the defense in general, has gone through," Nwabuisi said. "It's never all been on the secondary. Like I've always been trying to say, we aren't getting enough pressure on the quarterback. We're giving him too much time back there."
All season long, Northwestern has been turning up the heat on the quarterback, generating far more pressure than in previous years. Senior Quentin Williams has been as much a part of that revival as anyone. On his Senior Day, the affable defensive end posted a sack and two tackles for loss to finish the regular season with three-and-a-half sacks, six-and-a-half tackles for loss and more quarterback hurries than I can count.
Williams, whose brother, Nate, graduated from Northwestern two years ago, said he was shocked by how fast his college career went by. He said that though his older brother played linebacker for the Wildcats, and though the two talk every single week, they have yet to discuss the meaning of Senior Day.
"I can't say we really talked much about that," Williams said. "I talked to him (Friday) night. Him and I kind of take the same mentality. He didn't mention that it was Senior Day. I didn't mention it either."
Every once in a blue moon, it falls on a linebacker or a defensive end to snare a pick too. That's what Nwabuisi did for the second time in two weeks, as he snared a liner over the middle of the field to put the offense back on the field versus Illinois.
"It really wasn't that hard of a throw. Like I said, it was just a good defensive call. I just happened to be there to make the play. Had someone else been there, they would have made the play too," Nwabuisi said. "It was just another lucky play, really. I just happened to be where I was supposed to be, and the defense had a good call on, and we executed."
Nwabuisi finished with five tackles, upping his season total to 91, second on the team.
"He's out there making plays, doing great things with the ball," quarterback Kain Colter said. "He's actually surprised me a little bit, but he's out there balling. I'm happy for him every time I see him out there making plays. He's a great player and he's proven it."
After the game, the junior quarterback said that Nwabuisi, who hosted him on his visit to Northwestern, has always been proud of what he can do with the ball in his hands.
"He's always been bragging about how he was a past running back and how he has all these skills," Colter said with a smile. "He wants to get put in there at running back sometime so I feel like he's trying to show off and show (offensive coordinator Mick McCall) that we should put him back there."
Nwabuisi laughed at that, commenting that he's fine at the linebacker position. After all, the Wildcats, who posted 338 rushing yards on Saturday, hardly need any help at the running back position.
"As far as the running back thing goes, I've been talking to Coach McCall for a few," Nwabuisi said, before breaking off into a chuckle. "Nah, I'm just kidding. I'm good at linebacker. I'm good staying where I'm at."
Nwabuisi's pick was incredibly important, as Illinois had the ball at its own 38-yard line, trailing just 10-7. Two plays after Nwabuisi's pick, the Wildcats would expand their lead to 17-7. Not to be outdone, sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell also showed off his hands, fading back on a Nathan Scheelhaase pass, making the leaping two-handed grab above his helmet and taking it back 40 yards down the left sideline. Already leading 34-14, Campbell's grab essentially sealed the deal for the Wildcats. VanHoose put the icing on the cake as he sprinted up the sideline to get in front of a pass intended for Miles Osei. Northwestern followed with another touchdown to go up, 48-14, on Illinois.
"The guys did a great job, number one, letting us coach them," coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Then, number two, when you have added depth in some recruiting classes now, we've had competition. We talked in the first month, month-and-a-half of the season, you guys kept asking me who my starting defensive backs are and I told you I'm not ready to name any of them yet. I'm still not. I still think we're a work in progress, but through that competition, we're improving."
The man behind this Northwestern secondary is as experienced as his players are inexperienced. The Wildcats rely on a host of young players to patrol the backfield, including redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose and sophomores Ibraheim Campbell and Daniel Jones. They are guided, however, by Northwestern's longest-serving coach, defensive backs coach Jerry Brown, who picked up his 118th win in his 20th year with the program on Saturday. Afterwards, Northwestern gave Brown the game ball.
"There's a fact that needs to be discussed and that's today was Jerry Brown's 118th win as a Wildcat assistant coach," Fitzgerald said. "There's no better developer of young men around the world than Jerry Brown."