General feelings about the Northwestern defense went from pleasantly surprised to fairly impressed to overwhelmingly frustrated—all within a single game.
At times during the Wildcats’ 20-17 loss to Minnesota, the defense looked dominant, getting into the backfield and pressuring the quarterback.
They forced a fumble on the Gophers’ first drive, though Minnesota recovered. Minnesota punted on its first four possessions, and although the Gophers’ struggling offense was partly to blame, the NU defense succeeded in containing Minnesota’s biggest offense threats—its two running backs and its mobile quarterback. The Gophers gained only 41 yards on the ground in the first quarter. After the disastrous run defense at Wisconsin last week, that was a victory.
Then Minnesota switched quarterbacks. Philip Nelson replaced Mitch Leidner and started using play action passes to pick on NU’s depleted secondary, and it worked for a drive. The Gophers tied the game.
But even after that breakdown, the defense came back strong, forcing a punt and a long field goal, which Minnesota missed, to end the half.
The strong play continued after halftime, thanks in large part to the outstanding play of linebacker Collin Ellis, who registered nine tackles in the game, including 1.5 tackles for loss. Northwestern nearly forced a turnover on a punt just after halftime, but Minnesota recovered again.
But by the fourth quarter, with the Cats losing, needing some momentum-changing stops from their defense, NU failed.
On the final drive, with NU down by three, Minnesota recovered an onside kick and prepared to run out the clock. Everyone in the stadium knew what the Gophers were going to do. They ran the ball, and after a first down on the first play, NU contained the next two rushes and forced a third down with six yards to go. Minnesota’s quarterback rushed to the outside, getting just past the first down marker before stepping out of bounds. Game over.
“Really disappointing, really disappointing there,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said, “especially on the third down play when we had a good call on it and we sucked in too much and we let the quarterback get outside. Disappointing.”
Fitzgerald praised the defense for keeping the team in the game, but acknowledged the mistakes that could have turned the momentum in the Cats’ favor.
“They gave us an opportunity to win the game, the way they went out there and got stops,” he said, “but we had two opportunities to get turnovers there, one the first fumble caused and one the punt return which we didn’t get and that obviously makes a huge difference in the outcome of a game like that.”
So what is the identity of this defense? They force a lot of turnovers, but they also give up a lot of big plays. Sometimes they can stop the run, sometimes they can’t. Good teams not only make plays, they do it on a consistent basis. That’s NU’s biggest hurdle right now.