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Ranking Northwestern’s top five defensive performances under Mike Hankwitz

Saturday’s win over Wisconsin takes the top spot.

Wisconsin v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

America was somehow finally introduced to Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz during the Wildcats’ 17-7 victory over Wisconsin. There will surely soon be a flurry of articles highlighting the veteran coach who’s been in the business for over 50 years and won a national championship with Colorado well before any current Wildcat player was born.

Hankwitz is coaching his 13th season in Evanston, and his defense has been a hallmark of most Pat Fitzgerald teams. Since 2015, the unit has ranked an average of 24th in the country, according to SP+, which measures efficiency. With a stellar performance against a Badger team that put up consecutive 45+-point outings before facing NU, it got us thinking about where it ranks among the many high-level outings of Wildcat defenses in the past decade-plus.

We’re sure people will have qualms with this list, so sound off in the comments section with your thoughts.

5. 31-20 win over No. 17 Utah (2018 Holiday Bowl)

How does a game in which the defense allowed 20 points and nearly 400 yards make this list? Fair point, but this game was a true tale of two halves and represents the most drastic of turnarounds. After falling behind 20-3 at the half, mainly in part to NU being unable to move the ball and turning it over twice in its own territory, the defense made impact play after impact play in a video game-like effort to give the O life or flat out score on its own. In the third quarter alone, the Wildcats outscored Utah 28-0, forcing four turnovers. They didn’t allow a single point after the break and came up with six total takeaways. Mind you, the unit was without starters Jordan Thompson, Nate Hall and Montre Hartage due to injury.

4. 13-7 win at No. 21 Wisconsin (2015)

The Badgers and Wildcats resembled one another five years ago, and their meeting reflected it. Not that UW was a particularly strong offensive team, but NU put the lockdown on them, giving up only 203 net total yards and forcing five turnovers. Hank’s men limited the Joel Stave-led attack to just 14 first downs and 2-of-13 on third down. The pass rush — led by Deonte Gibson, who made five tackles, three TFLs and two sacks — got home for six total sacks. The ‘Cats were the beneficiaries of some questionable officiating, but the defense was opportunistic and did not break.

3. 14-10 win over No. 21 Iowa (2018)

You might be sensing a common theme from this list, which is that the defense held the ‘Cats in it until the offense made just enough plays. Yeah, NU has won some blowouts, but rarely have those been notable defensive performances or against offensive powerhouses. A couple of them earn honorable mentions because a shutout’s a shutout. Bennett Skowronek is remembered in this game for his insane, go-ahead touchdown catch, but the defense carried the day. Against an Iowa team that ranked in the top third of scoring offenses, averaging over 31 points per game, the Wildcats put bottled up the Hawkeye rushing attack to the tune of 2.9 yards per carry. Nate Stanley’s offense converted only 3-of-13 third down tries and made it to the red zone just twice. The defense had things on lockdown in the fourth quarter, allowing just 63 yards on four drives and forcing fumbles on consecutive Iowa series to seal the game and the West championship.

2. 16-6 win over No. 21 Stanford (2015)

This one was the tone setter. In what was a benchmark win for Fitz and his program, the defense held a Cardinal offense headlined by Christian McCaffrey and Kevin Hogan to just two field goals and 240 total yards. Linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. showed out with 10 total tackles, three TFLs, half a sack, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups. Sure, you can make the case Stanford played sleepy in its opener, but it ended up as a top-20 scoring offense, putting up 38 points per game. David Shaw’s team finished the season the third-best team in America after throttling Iowa in the Rose Bowl but against Northwestern was the only time it scored fewer than 30 points. That 2015 defense looks to be second in strength to only the 2020 unit.

1. 17-7 win over No. 10 Wisconsin (2020)

All eyes were on Northwestern, and the defense did not disappoint. This was supposed to be a different Wisconsin offense with Graham Mertz at quarterback. It had one bad play — a 49-yard touchdown pass from Mertz in the first quarter. Other than that, it’s hard to find negatives in the performance. Despite being on the field for 37 minutes, the NU defense never allowed the Badgers into the red zone. The Wildcats stymied an offense that in its first two games averaged 47 points and 449 yards per game while turning the ball over once. All three levels of the defense executed, and the Northwestern secondary made Mertz look like a freshman, intercepting him thrice. The front seven swarmed the trenches for nine hurries, three quarterback hits and three sacks. They critically limited UW to just 3-of-16 on third down and 46 total yards in the third quarter when the ‘Cats couldn’t move the sticks once.

Honorable mentions: 2014 M00N game, 2020 vs Maryland, shutouts of Minnesota in 2015 & 2017, 2009 & 2017 vs Iowa