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Northwestern shows that in the Big Ten West, defense still reigns supreme

After a stellar outing from Mike Hankwitz’s men on a big stage, the Wildcats are primed for a return trip to Indianapolis.

EVANSTON, Illinois — The last time Northwestern was ranked as high as 11th in the AP Top 25 poll, Bill Clinton was president, Seinfeld was the top rated TV show in America and not a single member of Inside NU’s staff was alive.

Twenty-four years later, NU finds itself recreating a similar history from the mid-90s, emerging into the national spotlight with standout defensive play leading the way to wins against top opponents.

Wildcat fans watched history unfold as No. 19 NU took down No. 10 Wisconsin 17-7. The ‘Cats defeated a top-10 opponent for the first time since 2011 and beat a top-10 team by 10 or more points for the first time since 1959.

“This wasn’t an upset tonight in our locker room, we fully expected this,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “When I visited with the broadcast crew yesterday, they said, ‘You seem awfully confident.’ I said, ‘Our guys have put in the work to put themselves in the position to play an outstanding opponent, and now we got go out and make it happen.’ To our young men’s credit and our staff’s credit, we were able to do that tonight.”

In its first five games of this bizarre and unprecedented 2020 season, Northwestern has created something special. Its energy, consistency and unflappability have proved impossible for opponents. The ‘Cats play the same game whether they’re 14-point favorites or touchdown underdogs. NU’s self-confidence and trust starts with Mike Hankwitz’s defense, which has shown it’s one of the conference’s, and potentially country’s best units.

Against a Wisconsin offense that averaged 47 points and 0.5 turnovers per game in its first two outings this season, NU’s defense “punched them in the mouth,” senior defensive end Earnest Brown IV said postgame. The ‘Cats held Graham Mertz and the Badgers to just seven points while forcing five turnovers — three interceptions and two fumbles.

The defense’s bend-don’t-break mentality has carried it through its toughest matchups this year, but it would be hard to even call this defense that since it hardly bent against Wisconsin. Even when Graham Mertz and Jalen Berger marched into Wildcat territory, the unit held strong and did not allow UW to take a single snap in the red zone. By holding a Badger squad that had converted 59 percent of its third downs to just 3-of-16 on Saturday, SP+’s third-ranked defense won the critical downs and showed maturity, calmness and resilience.

If that’s not enough, Northwestern’s defense was on the field for an entire quarter longer than the offense, yet still refused to break no matter how hard the Badgers pushed.

A defense-first approach is nothing new under Fitz, but the rate at which they’ve created takeaways is unparalleled. While the offense scoring only seven points off five turnovers is far from ideal, the ‘Cats seized necessary momentum going into the half after Brandon Joseph (the nation’s leader in interceptions per game with 1.0) picked off Mertz on consecutive drives. With 2:15 left in the half and a 7-7 tie, graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey executed to perfection and led his team on a 72-yard scoring march that he ended with a 25-yard dime to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman.

“The way that they’re playing has been lights out,” Ramsey said. “When you have that kind of defense, you have so much confidence as a quarterback. When the ball is in your hands, you can make the easy play, you can make the check down, you can make the throwaway. Nothing has to be special, and you don’t always have to look for a spark when you have a defense that’s playing like our defense is.”

While Ramsey was able to find RCB and Charlie Mangieri for a pair of crucial scores, the offense has been inconsistent for the better part of the last four weeks. NU’s running-back-by-committee combined for just 24 yards on 23 carries and a fumble against a tough UW front, and their inability to gain meaningful yards on the ground and eat clock meant the Badgers held the ball for 37 minutes.

Northwestern players will tell you they haven’t put together a complete performance yet. That drive for perfection is what has elevated this team to such a high level, as they’ve proven they will never be content with just a win.

“This victory means a lot, but at the same time it means nothing because we still gotta finish the season, and we still have a few more games left,” junior cornerback Greg Newsome said. “It’s not an upset, we knew we were gonna win this game. We prepared like it, we’ve been working since last season, and we knew we needed our redemption.”

With games left against teams that are a combined 5-9, the West division runs through Evanston. Pat Fitzgerald’s defense has his program on the verge of two Big Ten Championship appearances in three years, and America has begun to wake up to the fact that in age where offense is the zig, Northwestern is content to zag.