Broken coverages, poor tackling, and a lack of communication were major problems on the defensive side of the ball. In the first five Big Ten games of the season, NU gave up an average of 38.5 points per game.
In the Nebraska upset, however, the Wildcat defense had a remarkable turnaround. And since that game, the unit has been playing with a passion that had been lacking in the beginning of the season.
"We finally took some of the weight off the offense and decided to step up. It was due," senior safety Brian Peters said. "The five week slump we went through, a lot of that was the defense. We gave up plays and didn't execute and tackle the way we should have."
The Minnesota game was a continuation of that defensive turnaround. Peters led the charge for the Wildcats; the senior had 11 total tackles, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and an interception in the end zone. Peters did all that with a cast on his broken left hand.
"Brian [Peters] had a great game and he's been playing so hard," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "He's our quarterback back there. To see a senior have that kind of game with a recovery and a pick in the end zone, that's huge."
Peters said the cast on his hand has not hurt his play. In fact, in some ways, the cast has been helpful.
"I think I [caused the fumble] with my head," Peters said when asked if the cast caused the turnover. "It just makes me focus more on my tackling is one thing I need to do. It helps me focus on using my arms instead of just shouldering people."
Peters, however, was not alone in the solid defensive effort against Minnesota. The Wildcats did give up 393 yards to the Gophers, but 147 of those yards were on the ground to dual-threat quarterback MarQueis Gray. With his size, Gray is a difficult runner to bring down.
"How many of those yards were when he had somebody on him and they broke? That's what I'll look at tomorrow," Fitzgerald said. "With that being said, we gave up over 100 yards on broken plays, so I'm not going to lose sleep over that. I'd like the guys to tackle, obviously, but [Gray] is 6-foot-4, and 250 pounds. The kid's a great football player."
In the end, as Fitzgerald said, "stats are for losers." And no matter how many yards the NU defense gave up, the team forced two turnovers in the second half and held the Gophers to just one touchdown. That is a performance worthy of a Big Ten defense.
With a top-ten opponent coming into Ryan Field next weekend in the Michigan State Spartans, the Northwestern defense will need that kind of performance again to get to 7-5 on the season.
"Obviously I've got the upmost respect for Mark and his staff [at Michigan State]," Fitzgerald said. "This is going to be a big week. We're going to do everything we can. This is our Big Ten Championship game."