Northwestern has the best defense in the country.
About a month ago, if you'd have been told that that sentence would be leading stories about the 2015 Northwestern Wildcats three weeks into the season, you probably would've scoffed. 'That's ridiculous,' you might've thought.
That's not to say Northwestern's defense wasn't expected to be good. It was certainly presumed to be the strength of this team, and there was cautious optimism that it could build on a few dominant performances in 2014.
Now, three weeks into the 2015 season, that word "dominant" is getting thrown around a lot, and with good reason. And the statement at the head of the article isn't so outrageous. Northwestern has the nation's top scoring defense through three weeks, and is a top 10 unit according to advanced metrics. It has also been the best third down defense in the country by multiple measures.
After the season-opening win over Stanford though, that word, "dominant," was used to describe one performance. Football is a sport of high week-to-week variability, with matchups and gameplans having a significant effect on each game, and with every fraction of a second or inch having a disproportionately positive or negative impact. Thus, after one week, it was too early to draw far-reaching conclusions.
After a beatdown of an overmatched FCS opponent, Eastern Illinois, in Week 2, it was still too early. But, a week later, after another stellar 60 minutes against Duke on the defensive side of the ball, it's time.
It's time to talk about how incredible this defense is and could be. Because it's really, really good. The Duke game proved that. I wrote this last Thursday looking ahead to the game on why that's the case:
Against Stanford, the Wildcats showed they could handle physicality. They showed they were big enough and tough enough to stand up to bigger and, on paper, better players. They won a low-scoring, ground-game-centric, grind-it-out defensive battle against a team that is built to win games in exactly that style.
In football terms, Duke is the anti-Stanford. The Blue Devils will pose entirely different problems to Northwestern. This is a team built on speed, both physically and philosophically, and one that Pat Fitzgerald has said is faster than Stanford. Duke's offense moves fast between plays and during them. It is a true, untempered spread with a dual-threat quarterback, which contrasts Stanford's pro-style approach and signal-caller. And coach David Cutcliffe is the anti-David Shaw when it comes to aggressiveness.
So this isn't just about providing a convincing argument. It's also an opportunity to provide one that's perfectly complementary to the first.
After being shoved into a hole by the offense early on, Northwestern made a forceful argument for that "dominant" label. The Wildcats held Duke to just three points in the game's final 54-plus minutes, and made up for offensive ineptitude. They also gave us a more complete picture of why they are so good.
Here are the principles around which the defense is built, and because of which they thrive:
For the first time in what seems like forever, Northwestern's defensive line can match its counterparts physically. The Wildcats are no longer undermanned and undersized up front. In fact, NU's defense has faced 39 drives so far in 2015, and on only one of them — the first of the game against Stanford — have they look noticeably overmatched. Maybe you could add one Duke drive to that list, but nonetheless, Northwestern's front four now has the size to control, or at least hold its own at, the line of scrimmage. Ifeadi Odenigbo has said that adding strength was the focus of the offseason for the unit, and that seems to be paying off.
This facet of Northwestern's defense is the one that went untested against Stanford. It was tested by Duke. And NU passed the test with flying colors.
"[I had been] reading a lot about their team speed," Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said following Saturday's win. "I don't think we had a speed issue today. I thought we looked every bit as fast. I think we're a pretty fast football team. I don't know what the thing is about people thinking the Big Ten can't run. I think we can run."
That speed showed in Durham, most notably on screens and short passes, but also on outside runs. Players at all three levels of the defense showed a tremendous ability to swarm receivers and ball carriers, a big part of the defense's success on third down.
"I like the way we play fast to the ball," star linebacker Anthony Walker said after Saturday's game. "Everybody is running to the ball. That kind of takes away the mistakes that we do make."
"I think we're pretty athletic," Fitzgerald said with a chuckle. "That really helps, when you close time and distance. [Duke] tried to play on the flank a little bit, and maybe there might have been an initial miss, but the cavalry was coming. We played with terrific, and at times relentless, effort."
That endless stream of players confronting Duke ballcarriers was the most impressive part of Saturday's performance.
Another theme on Saturday was depth, and the rotation of players not just on the defensive line, but at linebacker and even in the secondary.
"We played an overwhelming majority of our football team that came down here today," Fitzgerald said following the game. "That was the plan coming in...We knew it would be a four-quarter game and we needed to be as fresh as possible at the end and it looked like we were."
Let's start up front. Dean Lowry generally plays as much, if not more than any other defensive lineman on the team, but according to Fitzgerald, Lowry only played about 60 percent of snaps Saturday. That's because defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and defensive line coach Marty Long subbed players in and out regularly. With Greg Kuhar back, Northwestern has considerable depth at defensive tackle — Kuhar, Jordan Thompson, Max Chapman and Ben Oxley all see the field as reserves — as well as at end — Odenigbo and Xavier Washington complement Lowry and Deonte Gibson.
More on the defense
More on the defense
At linebacker, even Anthony Walker came off the field every once in a while, a sign of the coaching staff's confidence in their depth. Cameron Queiro, Joseph Jones and Nate Hall all saw significant time, and Hall especially has been a regular on passing downs.
And like Walker, starting cornerbacks Nick VanHoose and Matthew Harris were on the sidelines here and there, replaced by, most notably, Keith Watkins, who had an outstanding game. Kyle Queiro saw the field at both cornerback and safety, as has been the case all season, and is as strong a backup defensive back as any Northwestern team has had in a while.
Fitzgerald made a point this offseason to talk up the "competitive depth" that his team now possesses, especially on the defensive side of the ball, and it's beginning to show. The two-deep is full of athleticism, and of players that on past NU teams would have been starters. This keeps everybody on the defense fresh, and prevents their play from dropping off in the fourth quarter.
What will push this defense over the top though is playmaking ability — also known as turnovers. This is something Pat Fitzgerald stresses every day to his team, and it's something that the Wildcats' best defenses — think 2012 — have prided themselves on.
What will make an already very good defense elite is persistent pursuit of strips and interceptions. The Wildcats could potentially have playmakers on all three units. Godwin Igwebuike showed what he can do Saturday, and last year against Wisconsin. Anthony Walker can make plays of all kinds. Dean Lowry wreaks havoc in a multitude of ways, and Ifeadi Odenigbo is a strip-sack threat on every third down.
Some portion of turnovers can be explained by luck, and that appears to be the case so far with this team. But with an offense that once again looks to one of the worst in Power Five college football, forcing turnovers could be what separates the Wildcats from the rest.
The big takeaway from the Duke game though is the one expressed in last Thursday's preview article, and restated above. Northwestern has now shown that it can stifle two Power Five teams that ran what Lowry called "contrasting offenses." And they look to be built to stop any type of opposition attack.
"We have confidence that we can play against any style," Walker said Saturday.
When asked about playing against a spread vs. a traditional pro-style offense, Drew Smith agreed with Walker. "I think we're built to stop both, to be honest," he said. "So the gameplan really doesn't change. We have what we do inside our system, and just adjust to what [an opponent] comes out with. And we just execute it."