The Wildcat defenders are well aware of the outside thoughts, and embrace the challenge to improve. The unit's growth was evident in its 47-43 win over the offense in the spring exhibition.
"That side of the ball was very grateful for the negative comments about them," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said to the media. "They use that as fuel."
After the Northwestern's 33-22 loss in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, the Wildcats returned to Evanston with a chip on their shoulders, especially the defense. As outside criticism continued to come, fuel was added to the fire.
"They said at the start of the spring, 'we deserved (the negativity); we didn't play very well at times,'" said Fitzgerald. "What are you going to do about it? How are you going to respond?"
A new attitude was implemented when the Wildcat defenders returned for winter workouts. The group used the negativity as a motivator. A foundation was built.
When the Wildcats took the field for the first of 15 spring practices, there were many new faces on the defense. The most notable difference, though, was the chip on each defender's shoulders.
New Wildcat receiver Kyle Prater learned of that when he was pummeled by Jimmy Hall on a crossing route during his first week of practice, causing the big man on campus to reveal his breakfast. It was an aggressive, but clean football hit, and sent a message.
"It's something that we want to get back to; to have a mentality of getting it done, not leaving it on the offense to win game, to be the best, and to want more," junior defensive end Tyler Scott said.
During Saturday's spring exhibition, the defense won bragging rights in beating the offense. The defining moment was when sophomore defensive tackle Chance Carter intercepted a pass and ran 19 yards for a touchdown, a 17-point swing in the game.
As the big defensive tackle -- generously listed as 270 pounds -- entered the endzone, the rest of his teammates on the defense sprinted to join for a celebration, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
The celebration was worth it, though. The defense topped the offense, thanks in part to the game-changing play by Carter. Wildcat fans saw proof of a promising, hungry unit. "We've really come together and really dominated the offense," Scott said with a grin. "That's saying a lot. But I personally like to say that. Give (the offense) a little tough time."
But there's no sour grapes for the offense. In fact, it's quite the contrary.
"The offense wants to do well (in scrimmages," said junior quarterback Kain Colter. "Seeing (the defense) do well, that makes me feel good going into the season knowing that I have full confidence in them to go out there and execute what they need to do on their part."
Northwestern's defense has laid a foundation for a bright season. All is well, thus far. Now, the unit must carry its hungry demeanor into the long offseason.
"So far, so good with that group," Fitzgerald said. "But the critical time is right now with what they do between now and August."