NU defense in need of improvements

Northwestern's defense endured significant struggles in the season-opener, but it was still enough to earn the Wildcats a win over the Syracuse Orange. Moving forward, with a week-two battle with Vanderbilt ahead, the Wildcats have major improvements to make.

It's often difficult to reflect on what went wrong amid the excitement and commotion of a hard-fought victory. Coach Pat Fitzgerald put it best after Saturday's 42-41 win over Syracuse when, relieved at the conclusion of yet another nail-biter – Fitzgerald is now 4-0 in one-point games – he remarked, "It feels great to win."

Besting your opponent on the scoreboard is the ultimate goal, no doubt. But it bears remembering that NU was one 72-yd game-saving touchdown drive away from walking away in devastating defeat. No one's claiming NU's flaws went unnoticed, nor should they: the Wildcats was forced to go 12 rounds with one of the lowliest opponents on its schedule.

But the weaknesses Syracuse exploited Saturday could serve as a blueprint for NU's future competition. The Wildcats' defense in particular may have revealed its true colors at a dangerous point of their young season.  

A quick glance at the box score reveals the dual-pronged onslaught Syracuse unfurled on NU's young defense. On the ground, in the air and seemingly everywhere else, the Orange picked apart the Wildcats' underwhelming unit for 596 yards of total offense that amounted to 41 points. Here's the scary part: it could have been infinitely worse. Syracuse committed three costly turnovers, two of which led directly to touchdowns. It further limited itself with numerous inane penalties.

Had the Orange not self-massacred its own offensive rhythm, quarterback Ryan Nassib and co. might have reached the half-century mark by the end of the third quarter. The basic don't tell half the story. NU had its secondary torched by basic post routes, its linebackers clueless against an effective short-passing game, its defensive line overrunning plays and getting caught out of position. The totality of the defense's ineptitude is unsettling, foundational instability that may require far more than film study and a few harsh words from defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz.

  Pinpointing one area of deficiency will lead you first and foremost to the secondary, an obvious are of scorn following Nassib's 470-yard, four-touchdown day. The Wildcats unveiled their revamped unit for the first time, with three new starters and the lone returner touting just one year of starters' experience.

Ibraheim Campbell performed the way he needed to, the way the newbies' sheer inexperience required he step up and honor his preseason proclamations of newfound leadership and collective growth. Campbell lorded over his neophyte peers with the poise and maturity of an experienced veteran. He totaled 13 tackles and buffered the run defense by pursuing and executing on ballcarriers in front of him. Redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose, one of the few encouraging performers Saturday, could – like Campbell – extract some measure of redemption from the defensive debacle.

With so many questions at cornerback entering the season, VanHoose answered one of them by rising to the occasion the way coaches thought he would when they awarded him the starting job in preseason camp.  

But the rest of the defensive backfield was less than stellar. Senior Demetrius Dugar was called for pass interference three times, in a repetitive manner that seemed almost predictable every time the ball was launched his way.

And when it seemed like the Wildcats had found a suitable replacement in Stanford transfer Quinn Evans, Syracuse receiver Jeremiah Kobena was casually gliding his way to the endzone on a 50-yd touchdown pass to bring the Orange within eight at the end of the third quarter. Evans lay on the ground, his supine position befitting the blown coverage he just allowed. It was just that kind of day for the secondary, bad performances outweighing rare spots of encouragement.  

The deep passes fall on the secondary. Where NU struggled even more was with the short passing game; the other levels of the defense shoulder the brunt of the burden in this area. Nassib zipped short passes and screens to open receivers, who promptly darted into acres of open space.

With the defensive line a step too slow in applying pressure and the linebackers unable to locate crossing routes, the Orange's pass-catchers picked up nice chunks of yardage after the catch. Nassib amassed eye-popping stats without making nearly as many difficult throws as his numbers suggest.

The Orange added 126 yards on the ground for good measure. Their balanced attack flourishing, NU looked gassed by the end of the fourth quarter, as if the only way they could conceivably come away with a victory mandated an offensive gem of their own.

Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian delivered the bail-out effort the defense so direly needed, and their woeful performance was at least partially overshadowed by the final score.

The offense – and special teams, thanks mostly to Venric Mark and his game-turning returns – overcame a preposterously lackluster performance from its brethren on the other side of the ball. Against better opponents, the defense will have to do its part.

The Wildcats cannot continue to win in spite of their defense. For all of Fitzgerald's success in close games, NU expect to toe the line all season. Chances are, those lucky breaks will fall the other way next time. Improving the defense marks a step toward improving their fortunes in a context they can control. A failure to do so bodes poorly for their chances going forward.

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