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We were wrong about the defense

We thought Northwestern's defense was for real. We were wrong.

Matthew Holst

Earlier in the season, we interpreted the sudden success of the Northwestern defense as a permanent change in the identity of Northwestern football. The Cats used to be known for having an innovative offense and a mediocre defense. Now it's the other way around: the Cat's win games because of their stout defense.

After the Penn State and Wisconsin wins and even after the Minnesota loss we thought NU was on the precipice of having an "elite" defense. But obviously, we spoke too soon. Coming off today's 48-7 loss to Iowa, it's time to face the truth: we were wrong about the defense.

Through the first six weeks of the season Northwestern allowed an average of 17.5 points per game. Over the last two games the Cats have allowed an average of 43 points. Allowing 38 against Nebraska wasn't shocking, because the Huskers have a potent offense. But giving up 48 points to one of the most consistently mediocre offenses in the Big Ten in Iowa? That's really concerning.

Poor special teams and offensive play have contributed to some of the increase in points allowed by giving opposing offenses great field position. But there's no doubt the defense has regressed since the Minnesota game.

The defensive line was tossed around today and is no longer creating any sort of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. NU had 14 sacks through its first six games. It has none in the last two contests.

As a result, opposing QBs have more time to complete passes downfield. And that's exactly what they've done the last two games. Tommy Armstrong and Jake Rudock have made the NU secondary look silly. Tommy Armstrong and Jake Rudock!

The Cats play a Cover 4 to prevent big pass plays, and for the most part NU hasn't given up many explosive plays. But over the last two games specifically, Nebraska and Iowa completed a bunch of intermediate length passes over the middle to wide open receivers. The injury to Ibraheim Campbell probably has something to do with that, but Godwin Igwebuike is a talented replacement.

Injuries are not the reason why this secondary continues to struggle. The truth is that the secondary just isn't good enough for an "elite" defense yet. Igwebuike, Nick VanHoose, Matt Harris and Parrker Wesphal all return next year so they'll improve. But at this point in the season, the pass defense isn't where we thought it was after the Wisconsin game.

What about the rushing defense? For the fourth straight game the Cats got lit up on the ground against Iowa. Against Wisconsin NU allowed over 300 rushing yards and still won, causing us to write this article about why stats are for losers.

But a big reason NU's defense won that game and looked so good against Penn State and Wisconsin was because it came up with an extraordinary number of turnovers. Turnovers are difficult to count on game in and game out. Elite defenses don't rely on turnovers to win games. Northwestern still does and that has to change.

We weren't completely wrong--Northwestern can definitely no longer count on its offense. But the defense isn't as good as we thought. The Cats can't rely on its defense to win games consistently. Not yet.