Hats off to NU's Hankwitz

Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has come under fire for the unit's struggles, so it's only fair to throw due credit in his direction after a standout performance by the Wildcat defense during the 23-13 win over Vanderbilt.

When it came time to make predictions for the Vanderbilt game, I made two assumptions.

The first was that Kain Colter would struggle against the Commodores secondary, and he looked incapable of completing passes downfield. So this proved to be correct.

The next was fatally flawed, and the major contributor to a wildly incorrect guess— 34-14 in favor of Vandy. After once-dominant running back Zac Stacy struggled against No. 9 South Carolina, I envisioned him getting redemption by trampling the Wildcats defense— as if Stacy stepping on the field guaranteed 100 yards and at least 30 points.

There's a reason they play the game. In this one, defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz – who must have been on the proverbial hot seat – had a memorable night in the best way possible.

Early on, Vandy quarterback Jordan Rodgers looked poised for a field day reminiscent of the Ryan Nassib dismantling. He completed five of nine (three to top receiver Jordan Matthews) for 61 yards and a score. It was 7-0, and Vandy demonstrated the aggressive mindset that typically succeeds against Northwestern. Stacy had only two carries for eight yards in The Opening drive, but it was a matter of time before he gained space, right?

Hankwitz – now in his 42nd season on the sidelines – has presided over several excellent defensive units in his career, many of which came at Texas A&M and Colorado. Lately though, his defensive play calling seemed timid, like he was trying to fill gaping holes in his secondary by ignoring the concept of a pass rush. Last week, with eight men often in coverage, Nassib could wait for a handful of seconds before finding a receiver downfield.

This appeared to be the case in the first drive on Saturday. Maybe he would make adjustments at halftime, sans Nick VanHoose, and put forth a salvageable effort.

Then the next 55 minutes happened, making a mockery out of the 34-14 prediction.

This was no fluke. Quinn Evans did not wake up Saturday and suddenly become a Big Ten shutdown corner. Demetrius Dugar may be haunted by memories of Syracuse for the next several years. To be honest, that unit continues to be a question mark. But Hankwitz gave them a crucial vote of confidence, devoting much of his attention to stopping the run and hoping, praying, that his corners would come through. They did.

Imagine being Vanderbilt offensive coordinator John Donovan leading up to Saturday's game. After Syracuse, he must have expected NU to focus on shoring up its pass defense. The Cats might have devised strange coverage schemes or set up double coverage on Jordan Matthews throughout the night. That would, in effect, pave the way for a massive Stacy performance.

Hankwitz threw nothing fancy at the Vandy offense, basically outsmarting Donovan's game plan. Did you wonder why, after passing the ball with great success on the first drive, the Commodores adopted a conservative approach? Stacy was supposed to be gashing the Cats with 10-yard runs, yet continued to find nothing up the middle.

The Cats didn't budge. Hankwitz let his corners do their jobs, occasionally planted safety help over the top, and watched the front seven wreak havoc on the Vanderbilt front. It seems simple, but holding a capable offense to only 13 points has been anything but for Northwestern.

Stacy on the night: 13 carries, 36 yards. Unbelievable.

Stacy had a better outing against South Carolina. Last season, he had five games with 128 rushing yards or more. This year, he was expected to shine.

On Ryan Field, Hankwitz shut him down, utilizing his linebackers to great effect. David Nwabuisi and Damien Proby made the necessary tackles, and Chi Chi Ariguzo earned the status of "ball hawk."

Even without studying the nuances of well-called ball game, Hankwitz deserves to be recognized. The NU defense – if for a moment – cast aside the unpleasant memories of most of 2011 and all of week one.

The pass rush? Mighty. The run defense? Otherworldly. Can't say enough about it.

If the Cats defense performs well this season, they will be very tough to beat. It's a big if. But Saturday marked a significant step forward.

Mike Hankwitz, on Saturday, called an excellent game when he and the entire team needed it. Time to give credit where it's due.


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