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Northwestern defense tightens up, rescues offense against Purdue

Amid uncertainty at quarterback, Northwestern's defense held down the fort after a shaky first half

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON — The story of the day for Northwestern was the benching and then reemergence of Clayton Thorson, but while that soap opera was unfolding, Northwestern's defense was picking up the pieces from a subpar first half.

It was an inauspicious start for the Wildcats as Nick VanHoose was beat deep for a 68 yard touchdown on the defense's very first play. A quick stop and go from Purdue's Domonique Young froze VanHoose and Young was sprung for the easy touchdown.

After that, Purdue switched up their passing attack. Having beaten the defense over the top, they switched to more quick drops and passes over the middle. While they wouldn't score again in the first half, the Boilermakers had success moving the ball, accumulating 233 yards and 206 through the air.

The problem for Northwestern in much of the first half and even early in the second was the play of the front seven. The defensive line wasn't getting any push or pressure on Purdue quarterback David Blough, and behind them the linebackers weren't covering well. That's a bad combination.

Northwestern can usually get away with either the linebackers or line playing below average, but when both play poorly, the defense can look real bad. The defensive line doesn't have enough time to get to the quarterback because of the bad coverage over the middle, but the linebackers look worse than they are because the quarterback isn't under pressure. It's the double-edged sword of bad front seven play.

To make matters worse, due to the lack of a pass rush, Northwestern felt the need to blitz more often. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz tried to hold off on blitzing as much as possible, but eventually, he had to bring pressure. This further opened up the middle of the field and most notably burned the defense on a third-and-short in the third quarter when Purdue threw a swing pass to running back Markell Jones.

However, after a Purdue missed field goal, the defense locked down. Purdue's last four drives of the game were 12 plays for 14 yards and 4 punts.

So then the question becomes, what changed towards the end of the game?

"Our guys executed better, I thought we tackled better," said head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "We just had to make some little tweaks to what we were doing, and then the guys went out and executed."

The first and most obvious change was just simply the improved play of the linebackers. As Fitzgerald said, they began to tackle better and play better coverage. However, they also began to line up farther off the line and in more of a pass-oriented defensive set.

Not only did this help defend the pass, but it affected Purdue's play calling. Purdue saw Northwestern only playing six in the box as an opportunity to run the ball. After throwing the ball 34 times in the first half, Blough only threw 11 passes in the second.

This slight shift in scheme extended to the rest of the defense as well. After playing mostly base defense in the first half, Northwestern used much more of a nickel package throughout the second. This allowed the defense to have an extra defensive back on the field and for the linebackers to not get spread out as much.

After the adjustment, the defensive line then did their job in the run game. Even though they never really got pressure on the quarterback, they were able to seal holes and stop Purdue, even with only two linebackers behind them, enough to force the Boilermakers into difficult situations.

Finally, the defense just started to make plays. Drew Smith had two huge sacks on two different Purdue drives that put the Boilermakers in a hole early, and Anthony Walker continued to be all over the field.

"I think it was just going back to what we were coached to do, I think we had a few let downs just on execution and I think we just had to finish our execution and just do what the gameplan said," said Anthony Walker. "We didn't have to go out and change too much, we just had to go out and execute the game plan that was already set."

The defense once again had some weaknesses exposed this week against Purdue, and this game further expanded on the importance of Northwestern's linebackers to the team as a whole. The defense was lucky enough to survive the first 40 minutes only giving up 14 points, and made enough changes to be able to put the game away in the fourth. However, Northwestern won't get the luxury of playing Purdue again next week, and will need to "execute" early and often against the Badgers.