The Hunters

For the past decade or so, Northwestern has been the little guy that snuck up on other Big Ten teams.

It took inferior talent and turned that talent into respectable records and decent bowl games.

The Wildcats may not have been conference championship contenders, but they were dangerous when they were looked.

Just ask Iowa.

However, after an impressive stretch of three consecutive bowl games and three straight winning seasons, the Wildcats are now the hunters, not the hunted.

Pat Fitzgerald has built a suddenly strong program in Evanston, and despite wanting to stay with NU for the remainder of his career, he has still received calls from other programs and has become one of the most sought after coaches in college football.

This year, however, Fitzgerald's team has the chance to make even more noise in the Big Ten.

Nine starters return on offense, including first team All-Big Ten quarterback Dan Persa, along with both running backs and star wide receiver Jeremy Ebert.

The Wildcats' spread attack has been an outlier in a league choc full of pro-style offenses. However, it has become more and more efficient each year, and under Persa's command, has become one of the best offensive systems in the Big Ten.

But that's old news. We all know Persa is good. Heck, with him at the helm, Northwestern could be Big Ten Championship good.

The Wildcats certainly have the offensive firepower and a favorable schedule to land in Indianapolis for the inaugural Big Ten Championship game.

But in order to take that next step as a program and become a championship-caliber team, the defense needs to take a step up as well.

Because as good as Persa and the NU offense may be, we all know that telling cliché in sports; defense wins championships.

In 2010, the Northwestern defense was consistently inconsistent.

The Cats were outstanding against Iowa, holding the impressive Hawkeye offense to only 17 points en route to a 21-17 win. However, they gave up 35 points to a Penn State offense that was still trying to find its identity.

The inconsistency was evident with games as well, particularly against Michigan State, as NU gave up only seven points in the first half, but 28 in the second half, causing them to lose the game 35-28.

After putting together a strong second-half effort against Iowa, it appeared the team had turned the corner. And with Persa out for the remainder of the season, the Wildcats needed their defense to carry them.

But instead of turning a corner, the defense collapsed, giving up 330 yards to Illinois running back Mikel LeShoure in a 48-27 loss to the Illini and losing 70-23 to Wisconsin.

After the loss to Wisconsin, Fitzgerald became emotional, claiming that it was just a loss, nothing more, after a media member asked if the defeat was a step backward for the program.

"We lost a football game. We had two freshmen quarterbacks playing their second game. We turned the ball over on the road against a team that won the Big Ten championship. It's not a step backward; it's a loss. The only way it's a step backward is if we listen to people in the media and listen to fans who don't understand football," he said.

While the losses certainly weren't all on the defense--Northwestern turned the ball over six times against the Badgers--the unit was not able to perform with its back against the wall.

Persa made the whole team better, and in all reality probably made the defense look better than it was. He held onto the ball and rarely put the defense in bad field position.

With Persa back next season, don't expect the Wildcats to give up anywhere near 70 points in any game in 2011. However, if Northwestern wants to be a championship-caliber team, its defense can't hide behind Persa all year.

Every team to ever win a Big Ten championship has faced adversity at some point in its season. And at some point, the NU defense will be called upon to win the big game, not just be a game manager.

Yes, offense will be the unit that leads the Wildcats to success in 2011. But for Northwestern to truly be great, its defense will need to take a step up, because the cliché is truer in the Big Ten more than any other conference.

Defense wins championships.

Purple Wildcats Top Stories