With so many great running games in the Big Ten, somebody has to give up the yards. Last season, to a far greater extent than any other team, that somebody was Northwestern. The Wildcats yielded more than 300 yards per game on the ground, giving the unit the inauspicious title of worst run defense in the nation. As the statistics below reveal, Northwestern had a solid rating in passing yards allowed per game, but that is deceptive. Opponents did not need a high total quantity of passing yards, not when the Wildcats allowed so many yards on the ground and yielded 9.48 yards per pass and more than 15 yards per completion, truly horrendous statistics. Most startling, in 12 games the team gave up 59 touchdowns.
Obviously, improvement is in order. Basically the entire team is returning, with only two starters, both defensive backs, departed. The unit is still incredibly young, however, with only two senior starters this year as well. The Wildcats defense should improve, partly because it can't get any worse, but mostly because of the return of middle linebacker Pat Durr from a season-ending knee injury in the first game last season. Still, do not expect Northwestern to so much as slow down most opponents.
Key 2002 Stats: NCAA rank in ( )
Scoring defense: 41.1 (113)
Rushing yards allowed: 313.6 (117)
Yards per carry: 5.42
Passing yards allowed: 188.75 (29)
Yards per pass: 9.48
Total defense, yards allowed: 502.33 (116)
Yards per play: 6.46
Turnovers forced: 22—14 fumbles recovered , 8 INT
Sacks: 6 for 41 yards.
Defensive Line Analysis:
The statistics are hard to believe, but its true—313.6 rushing yards allowed, 39 rushing touchdowns allowed, and the defensive linemen had only 1.5 sacks. It is hard to determine which is more unbelievable or which is most indicative of a defensive line that obviously struggled. Of course, other parts of the Wildcats defense had something to do with the team's paltry production, but it all starts up front, where Northwestern was positively shredded last season. All four starters and most reserves return this season and still not a single defensive lineman on the roster is a senior. The unit will still be young and has had little positive production, but with its added experience, the line should be better than last season.
The unit's best players are junior tackle Colby Clark and sophomore end Loren Howard, who each had 81 tackles last season and combined for nearly half the team's tackles for loss. Howard led the team with 13.5 TFL, but did not manage a sack. The 270-pounder did, however, garner Big Ten Defensive Freshman of the Year from The Sporting News and consensus first-team freshman All-America. Clark has started 23 straight games and had 6.5 TFL and one sack last season. He and Howard will be counted on to lead a revival along the Wildcats line.
The other two starting positions are up for grabs and a myriad of players will likely see time throughout the season. The incumbents are sophomore defensive end David Thompson and junior tackle Luis Castillo. Thompson had 73 tackles, five for loss, last season. Also in the mix are sophomore DeMaris Wilson (nine tackles in six games) and freshman Ryan Keenan.
At defensive tackle, Castillo led all linemen last season with 84 tackles, but will have to fend off sophomore Barry Cofield (36, two for loss) and freshman Ron Bardwell.
All three starters return, but more important is the return of middle linebacker Pat Durr, who should significantly improve Northwestern's fortunes. Durr recorded 103 tackles, eight for loss, in 2001. Another player hoping to make a full recovery is junior outside linebacker Ryan Peterson, who played in four games last season, recording 19 tackles. In addition to Durr and Peterson, six other returning linebackers started for Northwestern—senior Doug Szymul, junior John Pickens and sophomores Tim McGarigle, Braden Jones and Eric VanderHorst.
Expected to start alongside Durr are Pickens and McGarigle, who recorded 101 and 98 tackles, respectively. Szymul replaced Durr in the middle last season and led the team in tackles with 106. He will push for playing time on the outside and remain the top reserve on the inside. Outside ‘backer Jones recorded 76 tackles a year ago and VanderHorst tallied 36.
Northwestern did an abysmal job disrupting opponents' passing attacks, yielding a 160.78 passing efficiency rating. In addition to only six sacks, the team picked off only eight passes, and four of those came from corner Raheem Covington, one of only two departing starters on the Wildcats defense. Returning defensive backs had just two interceptions last season—one each for reserve safeties Torri Stuckey and Jarvis Adams.
Stuckey will replace Mark Roush, the other departed starter, at one safety position while Dominique Price will fill the other safety slot. Price had 68 tackles last season, but did not break a pass up, let alone pick one off. In addition to Adams (77 tackles), senior Louis Ayeni (six tackles) is a top reserve.
Junior cornerback Herschel Henderson (48 tackles, 4 PBU) started last season opposite Covington but will likely fill a reserve role this season. Sophomore Jeff Backes had 23 carries for 124 yards and 18 receptions for 127 yards as a running back and wide receiver last season. This year he is expected to be the team's top corner. Also expected to start is sophomore Maurice Cole, who played in eight games last season, recording three tackles. Top reserves include Henderson, sophomore Sundi Brewer-Griffin and freshman Cory Dious.
With a year of experience under their belts, the return of Durr at linebacker and talented players athletes such as end Loren Howard and tackle Colby Clark the unit should show some improvement this year. After last season's performance, that does not say much. This will be one of the worst, if not the worst defense in the Big Ten. For at least one more season, Northwestern will be unable to stop the run or the pass and will likely lack big play ability. This should be treated as another rebuilding year for Northwestern, especially on defense. If Howard and Clark progress and the young athletic corners, particularly Backes, can develop, than the Wildcats may have reason for optimism in 2004.