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Northwestern’s defense shows weakness in key areas in season opening loss to Western Michigan

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Western Michigan v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Sports narratives are strange in that they are inherently based upon a binary outcome. Despite all the intricacies on the field and in each team’s gameplan, everything revolves around one of two results: A win or a loss. Then from there, reasons are given for why that result occurred, and often the same facts can be spun to support either outcome.

What this means is that this article could have just as easily been called “Northwestern finishes in clutch to win despite bend-don’t-break defense” or something like that. Instead the defense can be looked to as a major reason why Northwestern fell to Western Michigan. However in both scenarios, there are facts from the game that indisputably contributed to the result: Northwestern fumbled on the one-yard line and the defense did not play well.

It started toward the end of the first half, but the defensive troubles hit Northwestern hard to start the third quarter. Western Michigan received the kickoff and promptly went 72 yards in six plays to take a 13-7 lead.

“We didn’t respond very well defensively,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They came with some trickeration...Some different things to start the second half and we give up a terrible drive to start.”

The defense would continue to let the team down, as it gave up a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive right after Northwestern took a 21-16 lead and finally couldn’t get a stop after the bizarre Clayton Thorson fumble to give the offense a half-chance in the waning seconds. These were the types of shutdown situations in which the 2015 defense thrived, but the Wildcats cracked on Saturday. And it started up front.

The Broncos’ offense wasn’t particularly explosive, but was able to pick up decent chunks of yardage both on the ground and through the air. Western Michigan only scored 22 points, but gained 416 total yards (218 passing and 198 rushing). Overall, Northwestern’s defense can be described as bend-don’t-break, except there was a little too much bending to be effective.

WMU ran 84 plays in the game, 31 more than Northwestern. The Broncos averaged a full yard less per play than Northwestern, but the Wildcats just simply couldn’t get their opponent off the field. The Broncos were only 7 for 17 on third downs, but were a perfect 4 for 4 on fourth downs, including the eventual game-winning touchdown, so PJ Flecks’ squad was essentially 11 for 17 in late-down scenarios. Therein lies the problem. Western Michigan essentially won this game through brute force and repetition—the Broncos had three drives of 12-plus plays. The Wildcats gave up just eight such drives all of last season and never more than two in a single game.

Northwestern got dominated up front and simply got out-executed.

“They ran everything we expected,” said linebacker Jaylen Prater. “We just gotta go out and execute...I don’t think there was anything unexpected today.”

Western Michigan didn’t do anything too special offensively. Most of the passes were crossing or post routes over the middle of the field and a few off-tackle runs. The problem was that Northwestern’s front seven did not play well at all.

It started with the defensive line, which had a troublesome day at the office. Ifeadi Odenigbo had four QB hurries, but there was little to no pass rush all day, which gave quarterback Zach Terrell plenty of time to throw the ball. Mike Hankwitz often only brought four men, a strategy that worked last year with Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson coming off the edge, but not one that worked on Saturday with Odenigbo, Xavier Washington, Joe Gaziano and true freshman Alex Miller. Even when there was pressure, the rushers went too far up the field, allowing Terrell to step up in the pocket and take off. Credit is also due to Terrell, who knew exactly when to run with the ball when pressured, and was shifty enough to avoid tacklers.

What happened on run plays was that way too often the ends would collapse in on the line, and Jamauri Bogan would simply bounce outside the tackle and gain 8-10 yards, or Terrell would keep it himself on the read option and do the same. With the line removed from the play, it was up to the linebackers and safeties to clean up the mess, which is why Prater had 18 tackles (!!!) and Godwin Igwebuike had 12. To make matters worse, Northwestern was forced to play most of the game in its nickel package with only two linebackers on the field anyway.

“I just don’t think we fit things properly with the defensive ends and the linebackers today,” said Fitzgerald. “That’s what it looked like from the sideline...they just blocked us better than we got off blocks.”

Even Tyler Lancaster had a rough day as he was doubled consistently throughout the game, and he didn’t even record a single tackle. Anthony Walker Was far from the form we saw from him last year, as he only had 7 tackles, and had some trouble covering over the middle.

Given the massive turnover on the defensive line, with Gibson and Lowry gone, there were bound to be some growing pains, but that doesn’t excuse what was a very disappointing showing on Saturday. Northwestern will get a bit of break next week with FCS opponent Illinois State, but if the defense can’t gel together once Big Ten play starts, all those yards are going to start turning into a lot more points and a lot more trouble overall for this team, already in an 0-1 hole.