Defense Facing Tough Test

The Wrigleyville Classic was supposed to showcase Northwestern in a positive way, but the Fighting Illini made sure that did not happen. They did so to the tune of more than 500 rushing yards against a beleaguered Wildcat defense. This Saturday, Northwestern's defense is looking to redeem themselves in Champaign.

Northwestern's last game against Illinois was supposed to be the perfect showcase.

The Wildcats were 7-3, fresh off a remarkable comeback victory against no. 13 Iowa, and playing a nationally televised game against the Illini at Wrigley Field with ESPN's College Gameday in town.

It was supposed to be the perfect opportunity for athletic director Jim Phillips to gain national publicity for his program and gain support from the city right next door.

As Northwestern's fans and players know, things didn't go so well for "Chicago's Big Ten team." The Wildcats were embarrassed 48-27, as Illini running back Mikel Leshoure racked up 330 rushing yards.

That game started NU's downward spiral to end the 2010 season, with a blowout loss to Wisconsin and a loss to Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl to follow.

With star quarterback Dan Persa out due to a ruptured Achilles against Iowa, the offense was expected to struggle. However, it was the defense that disappointed the most.

That game still haunts Northwestern's defense, which will bring some added motivation to this week's matchup in Champaign. However, the unit is making sure not to dwell on last season.

"It's a loss," senior corner Jordan Mabin said. "You take pride in what you do. It's a new season. This is a whole new team with lot of different players and different positions."

However, there is still a lot to learn from that game, and Fitzgerald acknowledged his mistakes from last year.

"They ran a couple of variations in formation last year and we just did a bad job of coaching our guys," he said. "We said that after the game. What we saw on tape was what we were trying to communicate on the boundary and we just didn't get it articulated well enough, and we learned from that."

After a weak showing against Army, Fitzgerald better hope his team will be able to step it up, as this may be Northwestern's defining game of 2011.

"It's a huge game," Mabin said. "It's the Big Ten opener, the Land of Lincoln trophy is on the line."

This will be a defining game for the defense, in particular. The unit was strong in the season opener against Boston College, but struggled at times against Army's option attack. This will be the most talented offense the Wildcats have faced to date, and by a longshot.

Fitzgerald downplayed the similarities between Army's option attack and Illinois's spread offense—he said they're entirely different offenses and entirely different gameplans—but like Army, Illinois has a run-focused offense led by quarterback Nate Scheelhaase.

"All you had to do is see one game tape to know he's going to be a dynamic playmaker, you know, he's a great player," Fitzgerald said of Scheelhaase. "He's fun to watch as a fan, so I'll be rooting for him in every game but this one. He just makes a lot of plays, he understands what Coach Petrino's trying to do schematically, he stays within the framework of the offense and then he's dangerous when the play breaks down.

"When you've got some coverage, but you're not rush-lane disciplined, he can make you miss; he's a great athlete and a really great football player."

Stopping Scheelhaase will be the focus of Northwestern's defense, which will need better play from its front seven it accomplish that goal.

If the front seven is able to contain the Illini run game, it will build momentum heading into the rest of the Big Ten season. But if Scheelhaase runs all over the Wildcats, it could be a long year in a league choc full of running quarterbacks.

Mabin understands that the upcoming task is a daunting one and he understands the important of stopping the run.

"Illinois is good team," he said. "They're probably going to try to run ball on us. That's first thing we want to stop—the run. (Scheelhaase) is a dual-threat quarterback, so trying to contain him is going to be priority for our defense."

Heading into Saturday, Northwestern's defense has provided more questions rather than answers. But playing against a high-powered, spread offense should provide some answers about just how much the defense has improved from last year's debacle at Wrigley.

If it has improved, Northwestern still has all of its preseason goals squarely in front of it. But if not, it could be a long season in Evanston.

Saturday should be our first true indicator of where this team stands.

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