EVANSTON, Ill. — In a Pat Fitzgerald era that has always taken a conservative, defensive-minded approach, it was the defense that ultimately failed the Northwestern Wildcats last night.
Perhaps it was the fact that it was their first game under new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil. Or maybe tackling just wasn’t practiced enough in the days leading up to Northwestern’s matchup with the Spartans. Whatever the reasoning may be, the fact of the matter remains that the Wildcats’ defense, one so often praised for its “bend, don’t break” style of play under former defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, played sloppy.
“It’s been pretty much a hallmark of who we are and what we do, we have a tackling circuit every day that we do, we work it every day in the offseason,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said on tackling following the loss. “First and foremost, we gotta give the athletes of Michigan State credit for making us miss.”
The problems were evident extremely early on. A missed tackle was what created a gap for Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III to break out for a 75-yard touchdown run just 13 seconds into regulation. Walker went on to have an unbelievable day, rushing for 264 yards and four touchdowns on a mere 23 carries. The Wildcats simply could not bring him down.
“It’s going to come down to a couple things,” Fitzgerald continued on regarding tackles. “We missed bits of gaps, we were making arm tackles, we weren’t aggressive enough or we overran some things, that’s what it looked like at the end. Those fundamentals start and end with us as a coaching staff.”
Of course, the missed tackles weren’t the only thing that went wrong for Northwestern on Friday night. The ‘Cats also couldn’t bring the Spartans to a halt. Drive after drive, Michigan State found ways to convert in the clutch, including one third down pass from Payton Thorne to Jalen Nailor, which ultimately led to the Spartans capping off the drive with a touchdown that left them up 28-7 in the third quarter.
“In terms of plays we made, DB-wise we tried to limit the deep shots, which I think we did for the most part,” safety Brandon Joseph said. “I wasn’t up to my standard tonight, I expect to make more plays. We’re going to analyze the reasons why we missed tackles and why plays weren’t being made.”
The lack of plays made by Northwestern’s defense was another point of concern. In 2020, the Wildcats forced 19 turnovers — five fumbles and an insane 14 interceptions — in just 10 games played. The Sky Team became such a difficult secondary to face that even current Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields struggled mightily against them. Last night, the ‘Cats forced just one turnover, a fumble forced by A.J. Hampton and recovered by Sean McLaughlin with just under five minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
Obviously, it’s difficult for the secondary to make plays if the other team isn’t throwing the ball. That’s a fair argument to make, as Thorne completed just 15 of his 26 attempts for 185 yards and one touchdown. It wasn’t a remarkable stat line for him by any means, due in large part to Walker III’s stellar performance, but the Sky Team still lacked the ability to stop the pass when necessary.
Offensively, Northwestern was largely unable to convert in the red zone. On their opening drive, Charlie Kuhbander pulled a field goal attempt well to the right. On the next possession, the ‘Cats failed to convert after going for it on fourth down. This was a trend that continued all the way up until the final whistle, with the Wildcats managing to score just twice off of four trips to the red zone. Meanwhile, the Spartans scored on all five of their red zone drives.
“It’s my responsibility to have us be more consistent in our execution,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s in terms of tackling and then obviously our red zone proficiency, we had the ball across the 20 multiple times.”
There were undoubtedly some bright spots. For one, Hunter Johnson looked comfortable throughout the game and likely surpassed the expectations of many, finishing with 30 completions on 43 attempts for 283 yards and three touchdowns. He did not throw an interception. He showed off some impressive arm strength and deep ball accuracy early on, connecting with Bryce Kirtz and Stephon Robinson Jr. on two separate big third down plays. Yet in the end, his performance wasn’t enough.
“There’s a lot of stuff to fix,” Johnson said. “From a communication aspect, from a personal level, just not being on the same page, there’s some plays that were just left out on the field.”
Overall, it’s unclear what steps the Wildcats need to take next. The fundamentals and failed tackles are of serious concern, as are the lack of big plays made by the defense. In an era in which we’ve seen Northwestern defenses dominate, it was strange to see one falter so frequently on Friday.
Perhaps, with a new defensive coordinator on staff, that era of defensive dominance under Pat Fitzgerald is beginning to come to a close.