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Is this Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern?

After years of being known by its offense, Northwestern's defensive domination of Penn State may have signaled a change in its identity.

Justin K. Aller

It's always been an interest of mine to see how a head football coach's background dictates the scheme and personality of his team. When the Chicago Bears' Marc Trestman took over for Lovie Smith in 2013, the longtime offensive coach turned the Bears from a dominating defensive team to a high-powered offensive one in just a few months. In college, it happens too and some work and some definitely don't (see Michigan).

That's why I always thought it was odd that it has been the offense that has really made Northwestern competitive during Pat Fitzgerald's tenure. This is a man who embodied the stout Northwestern defenses of the mid-1990s. The former linebacker was twice named the Big Ten's defensive player of the year and a consensus All-American. There's no doubt Pat Fitzgerald knows defense, and it should be his bread and butter.

But that identity has subsided from Northwestern over the years in favor of an innovative spread offense, and for good reason.

Here's an interesting note from Fitzgerald's bio on Northwestern's athletic website:

The 2007 Wildcats boasted a prolific offense that has become synonymous with NU teams of late...

And that statement is absolutely true.

Since 2007, Northwestern has had, on average, about the 44th most efficient offense in the country and the 64th most efficient defense, according to Football Outsiders.

Kevin Trahan wrote about Northwestern's "identity" following the season-opening loss to Cal:

You'll forgive me if the infectious feeling got the best of me. But it really was something - the swagger surrounding the program, the truly incredible fact that these players had consistently put together an offense that could flummox some of the most talented defenders in the Midwest and the genuine fun that it was to be around the program.

To be fair, anyone who would have predicted this collapse - a missed bowl game in 2013 and the disastrous start to 2014 - wouldn't have done so based on any substantive reasoning. By every measure, teams that recruit better generally win more games. That is a proven fact. Northwestern has recruited much better as Pat Fitzgerald's tenure has progressed, and the Wildcats' new facility should help them even more. So to see what NU did on offense in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, and even during the Randy Walker era, and expect the team to get even better with better players would be reasonable.

At the time, I thought the column was right on the money. Northwestern needed to out-scheme its opponents on offense and hope that its defense just did enough to win. Since 2013, the offense has lacked explosive elements, miscommunications have run rampant and the play calls are often puzzlers. The Wildcats had gotten by on that system for years but still, it never felt like a natural fit. It still seemed odd to watch Pat Fitzgerald's team having to rely on the spread offense to win.

Obviously, things like "natural fit" should not be what dictates a team's playing style, success should. But something still tells me that Fitzgerald relishes games like Northwestern had against Penn State: a purely dominating defensive masterpiece and that this is the season where Fitzgerald may finally get to coach his "type" of team.

The piece went on to include a dynamite second-to-last paragraph, one that hammers home the point of why Northwestern has to rely on its spread offense to win.

The problem is, Northwestern is never going to just be able to line up and beat you. The Wildcats are recruiting better, but they're still average in the Big Ten, and their recruits are good at the system they've always run, not the one they're seemingly transitioning to.

I think everyone who has covered Northwestern has written about a similar notion at least once: Northwestern just doesn't have the athletes to go up against other Big Ten teams and beat them at their own game. Northwestern needs a gimmick, or a wrinkle, to compete and the spread offense was the facade that hid the program's athletic deficiencies.

But for 60 minutes in Happy Valley, Northwestern proved that theory to be false.

Redshirt freshman Anthony Walker proved that Northwestern has the young athletes to shut down a powerful Big Ten offense. But don't forget about true freshman Xavier Washington's huge sack and forced fumble that also proved it. Or sophomore Matthew Harris' should-have-been strip and score. Or sophomore Greg Kuhar's penetration on that big fourth-and-one stop. Or sophomore Ifeadi Odenigbo's constant pressure. Or redshirt freshman Godwin Igwebuike's consistent play as a sub at safety.

Those are the young guys that proved that the defense does have the athletes to allow Northwestern to win despite its offense, not because of it.

It's clear, now a quarter of the way through the season, that this Northwestern team is not built in the mold of the Randy Walker/Kevin Wilson spread teams and that's okay. Northwestern has the defense to win games, it could be one of the best in the Big Ten.

On Saturday, there were no facades. There were no disguises.

Northwestern, for the first time in years, seemed like Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern.