EVANSTON — We're only one game into the 2015 football season. Eleven games, or more, still remain. But already, the 2015 Northwestern Wildcats have an identity. And it's a defensive one.
Northwestern took down No. 21 Stanford on Saturday, and it did so because it kept the Cardinal out of the end zone altogether. The Wildcat offense mustered one touchdown, a Clayton Thorson run in the second quarter... but in the end, that's all it would need.
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"It was probably one of the best [defensive] performances I've seen — top to bottom, against a ranked team — maybe in my time [at Northwestern]," coach Pat Fitzgerald said afterwards.
The Wildcat defense held an experienced Stanford offense — one that was led by a fifth-year senior quarterback and a talented offensive line — to just 240 total yards, and time after time interrupted any rhythm that the Cardinal's offense threatened to find.
Fitzgerald was particularly impressed with the defensive line. "This game needed to be won up front, and that's what I saw," Fitzgerald said. "It was a dominant performance from our defensive line. It looked like we controlled the line of scrimmage on every single play."
The Wildcats used a nine-man rotation up front, experience harmonizing with talent. Senior Dean Lowry led the way, while junior Ifeadi Odenigbo wreaked havoc on passing downs. Sophomore defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster also was a menace, making one crucial stop on an end-around on Stanford's first drive.
From an individual standpoint though, sophomore middle linebacker Anthony Walker was the star. Walker was everywhere. He made plays sideline to sideline, and against both the pass and the run. He led the team with 10 total tackles and a fumble recovery, but even that undersells his impact.
Fitzgerald said after the game that Walker — a freak of an athlete given his 6-foot-1, 235-pound frame — is "really coming into his own." And that's an understatement.
It's with the blend of guys like Lowry and Walker that Northwestern's defense excelled Saturday. Improved recruiting in recent years has given the Wildcats more "competitive depth," as Fitzgerald likes to say, but that hasn't come at the expense of experience.
"With the experience we have on defense, we can put more on everybody's plate," Fitzgerald said. "I don't think we had a lot of mental mistakes today defensively."
Coming into Saturday, the mental aspect of the game was the question with regards to Walker. He flashed a mountain of ability last season after taking over as the starting middle linebacker midway through the campaign, but wasn't consistent enough. Saturday, he was consistently the best player on the field when Stanford had the ball.
With Walker as a rock in the middle, Northwestern's defense is remarkably balanced. There are no clear weaknesses at any of the three levels. And it's that thoroughness that defines this defensive identity.
The same identity surfaced at times last year too. It was clearly present in a win over a ranked Wisconsin team at home, and it travelled with the Wildcats to Happy Valley when they beat Penn State 29-6.
But there were also times when it deserted Northwestern. The 48-7 loss to Iowa was certainly one of those occasions, as was the second half of a 38-17 loss to Nebraska.
Lowry understands that. "It's just a start," he said postgame. "Consistency is key."
But Lowry felt this type of identity-defining performance had been coming. "We unleashed a caged bull today," he said.
So this year, with even more talent, could the identity be here to stay?
Fitzgerald thinks it could be. Why? Well, "because that's what they did today." So there's not much reason to think otherwise.