When Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald walked into his team's locker room on Nov. 29, 2014, after his team's season-ending loss to rival Illinois, he was deep in his thoughts. His team had just failed in a big moment, and had missed out on bowl eligibility for the second year in a row.
But, Fitzgerald thought to himself, it was unfair to pin that failure on the players. "I was very self-critical," Fitzgerald said of that moment. "I thought that I really failed the team. We had 30-plus guys out in [that] game, and... it was my fault, as the leader of the program, I didn't do enough to get the next group of guys ready."
Players like Kyle Queiro, then an inexperienced freshman, and Jarrell Williams were pressed into service after playing sparingly for much of the season prior to others' injuries. Those two, along with a number of players on the offensive side of the ball, struggled to acclimate themselves in a 47-33 loss to the Illini.
So in their review of the season, Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz decided to make a change in 2015. It began with practice structure.
"We have a unique situation here, in that we don't have as large a squad as a lot of the other Big Ten schools," Hankwitz explains. "In a normal scenario where you've got a big squad, you do competitive work against each other, but then you do half your practice, or almost half your practice, preparing for the [upcoming] opponent. In other places, that would be a scout team running those plays, so your first team would get four plays, the second would get three. So [the second team is] getting close to 70 percent of all the reps in preparation for the game.
"Here, because we don't have that luxury, we typically have our second offense run the opponent's plays against the first defense. To give the seconds reps, you've got to take reps away from the ones, so they might not be getting the number of reps they need."
This year, the coaching staff devised a plan to circumvent that dilemma. It included dedicating three full periods of practice to a scout team running opponent's plays against both the first and second team defense. "So the second defense got more reps," Hankwitz says. "Through the year, the accumulation of all those reps created a better-prepared second team."
But Fitzgerald and Hankwitz also decided it wasn't enough to just give backups more reps in practice. "We're going to play you," was Fitzgerald's message to his second-stringers. "We're not just going to say that you're one play away. We're going to play you and give you that opportunity."
And the coaching staff stayed true to its word. "They knew they were going to be on the field in potentially critical situations," Hankwitz says. The defensive staff rotated in backups throughout the season, even in positions where you don't traditionally see starters coming off the field. The Duke game was the leading example. Fitzgerald said 64 or 65 players out of the 70 that traveled saw the field in Durham.
Of course, you can't do this if you don't have quality depth, and the Wildcats had more of that this year than ever before under Fitzgerald. That's the result of the program's recruiting uptick, most of it coming after a 10-win season in 2012. With a lack of athletes in backup roles, using depth isn't beneficial. The drop-off when those backups enter the game isn't worth the potential reward later in the year.
But in 2015, with the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes ready to play major roles, and even some 2015 recruits ready to contribute as true freshmen, using that depth became beneficial. First of all, it keeps starters fresh, and improves their effectiveness on a per-snap basis. That also might help prevent the injuries and the wear and tear that became so detrimental in both 2013 and 2014.
Some injuries are inevitable though, and its when they do hit that employing these rotations helps most. As Fitzgerald explained Saturday, using depth early in the season also allows backups to more easily adapt to starting roles in the event of injuries.
"After being in some games," Hankwitz says, "you develop a confidence that you can handle the speed of the game, and you know what you're supposed to be doing."
This paid off for players like Marcus McShepard and Nate Hall. McShepard, along with Keith Watkins, would occasionally replace starting cornerbacks Matt Harris and Nick VanHoose on the outside early in the year. When Harris went down with an injury against Michigan, McShepard had to step into a big role against Iowa and Nebraska.
Hall played in passing situations all year, but also rotated in on run downs to spell Jaylen Prater. When Prater went down with an injury, Hall was ready to step in.
"When you come into a game with more experience, you're more comfortable when you get in there," Hall says. "The game is faster than practice, so when you get in there and know what to expect, it makes it a lot easier."
Northwestern has also been fortunate this year that its key players have stayed relatively healthy. The offensive line struggled with injuries, but on the defensive side of the ball, aside from Queiro, Prater and Harris (and Tommy Vitale, who primarily played on special teams), no player has missed consecutive games. It's the combination of health, talent and preparedness throughout the depth chart that allowed Northwestern's defense to have such a successful season.