Guilty of giving up big plays, watching large leads evaporate and making crucial errors, the often-criticized Northwestern defense of 2011 was sometimes difficult to watch. And when the unit narrowly escaped from Syracuse after blowing a large second-half lead, it looked like more of the same in 2012.
Not so fast.
The unit hunkered down and put together back-to-back strong performances against Vanderbilt and Boston College. Vandy averages 28 points per game, Boston College, 26. Northwestern held both teams to 13 points.
"After the first game, we made it a challenge," defensive lineman Tyler Scott said. "We knew we did some things right, did some things wrong, and we really made it an attitude to get better each week and to take a mentality going into practice each week to get better and to work on those fundamentals and those techniques. And I think we're playing with more confidence than we were that first game and it's pretty exciting."
Safety Jared Carpenter agreed with Scott's assessment that the defense has more confidence, which he said is crucial to the improved play. And chemistry within the unit has helped stoke that confidence.
"Coming into week one, start of the season, especially on our defense we had some new guys playing here, some younger guys playing," Carpenter said. "So we were just trying to find some chemistry. And I think after the first week, after the two games we've played, we've developed a lot more chemistry and we've been executing better on defense."
That is not to say that this defensive unit is perfect. Pat Fitzgerald mentioned concern with the linebackers several times in his Monday press conference, saying the undercoverage from the linebackers was more of a concern than the secondary, despite the fact that the Wildcat defensive backs have often been the scapegoats.
In fact, Fitz compared his linebackers to "Dug," the talking dog from the Disney movie "Up," who often gets easily distracted by squirrels.
"That's what we looked like," Fitzgerald said. "Every time a quarterback scrambled Saturday, unbelievable. I mean, it was unbelievable. So we've got a lot of discipline work and a lot of areas to overcome our inner "Dug" at linebacker because we would have had three more sacks."
Though Fitzgerald called out the linebackers' play, the defense has clearly improved from last season. One major point is rushing the quarterback, as NU has been getting significantly more pressure on QBs this year.
"I just think it's a mentality," Scott said. "Last year, that's one of our key reasons why our pass defense wasn't as good as it could have been. We didn't help the secondary very much last year... It's up front too and we weren't doing our jobs up front to help out the secondary, and that was another key problem."
A second major area of improvement has been the run defense. NU gave up 177 yards and two touchdowns per game on the ground last season. This year, the ‘Cats have given up 80 yards per game on the ground and only one rushing touchdown through three games.
It's tough to tell whether the defensive improvement will continue against South Dakota and then into Big Ten play. The fact remains, however, that this unit has shown what it is capable of, and it appears the expectations for the rest of this season are much higher than they were two weeks ago.