Opponents preview: Northwestern defense

Part three of BadgerNation.com's three-part look at the 2005 Wildcats

The Wildcats have a handful of potential all-conference performers, headlined by All-American-caliber linebacker Tim McGarigle and superb defensive end Loren Howard. But the team lacks the depth necessary to be among the Big Ten's best defenses. Still, expect this defense to play pretty well, and cause some opponents fits, especially in Evanston.

2004 by the numbers

Total defense:391 yards allowed per game (No. 68 nationally); 361 yards allowed per conference game (6)
Scoring defense: 28.50 points allowed per game (75); 24.80 (7)
Passing defense: 251.75 (98); 206.60 (6)
Passing efficiency: 126.74 (68); 118.60 (6)
Rushing defense: 139.25 (47); 154.40 (8)
Touchdowns allowed: 41 – 25 passing, 16 rushing; 24 – 12 passing, 12 rushing (8)
Third-down defense:46.9 percent allowed on 93 of 198; 47.8 percent allowed on 65 of 136 (11)
Turnovers gained: 15 – 8 interceptions, 7 fumbles (105); 10 – 5 interceptions, 5 fumbles (6)
Net punting: 31.20 (107); 31.90 (11)
Kick coverage: 22.27 (89); 25.3 (11)
Punt coverage: 12.80 (102)

Defensive line analysis

Northwestern's defense should be markedly improved from a year ago, if some key players can stay healthy, and that starts with defensive end Loren Howard, one of the best at his position in the Big Ten. The 6-foot-4, 280-pound Howard had 81 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss as a true freshman in 2002, earning freshman All-American acclaim. As a sophomore he had 68 tackles, 16 for loss and eight sacks.

But last year Howard injured his left ankle just prior to the season and played in just six games, registering 22 tackles, 4.5 for loss and three sacks. He is expected to be back at full strength for his senior year, though, which is bad news for opposing quarterbacks.

Last season Barry Cofield (6-4, 305) played out of position at defensive end filling in for Howard but still played well, with 52 tackles, five for loss and 3.5 sacks. This season, his third as a starter, the senior will slide to tackle to assume the anchor role played by Luis Castillo last season. Cofield should be up to the challenge. He has played in 37 games with 24 starts, 134 tackles and nine tackles for loss. Cofield should draw a lot of attention inside and still manage to be a playmaker.

Cofield and Howard should be among the best linemen in the conference. As they draw double teams, it will be up to the rest of the Wildcats' line to make plays.

Playing alongside Cofield at tackle will be junior Trevor Schultz (6-2, 285), who was a key reserve the past two years, with 29 career tackles. Junior Ron Bardwell (6-3, 315) provides a big body to help fill against the run. But despite being in his fourth year in the program his only snaps have been with the scout team due to injury struggles. He is essentially an unknown commodity.

Another reserve who could see himself in the rotation is redshirt freshman defensive tackle Matt Clark (6-3, 290), who was bothered by an ankle injury last year.

If true freshman John Gill (6-3, 285) ends up playing defensive tackle, as opposed to offensive tackle, do not be surprised to see him play right away.

Starting opposite Howard at end will be sophomore David Ngene (6-3, 270), who had two tackles in eight games last year. He was limited by an injury last season and will be counted on to provide steady play at end this season.

The top reserves at end are redshirt freshman Kevin Mims (6-3, 260) and sophomore Mark Koehn (6-3, 260).

There is quite a bit of talent up front in Howard and Cofield, but the rest of the line is largely unproven. Depth and a history of injuries are major concerns.

Linebackers analysis

Senior Tim McGarigle is an excellent player, a tackling machine who is among the top linebackers in the nation, not just the linebacker loaded Big Ten. McGarigle (6-1, 235) has 389 career tackles, 114 shy of NU's career record.

Last season, he earned first-team All-Big Ten from the media after leading the league in tackles with 151 and conference-only tackles with 112. He also led the nation with 8.5 solo tackles per game. He had 21 tackles in a single game against Purdue.

A high energy guy with a great feel for the game, McGarigle is the type of player who would thrive anywhere. But with Howard and Cofield occupying blockers up front he could be poised for an even bigger season this year.

McGarigle had 98 tackles as a freshman part-time starter in 2002, and checked in with 140 stops as a junior in 2003.

The other returning starter is junior Nick Roach (6-2, 230), who had 83 tackles, 7.5 for loss and five sacks last year. On a team that still appears somewhat deficient in pass rushers, Roach will be key. He can really get after it off the edge and could have a breakout season. Roach, who attended Milwaukee Lutheran High School, played every game as a true freshman in 2003, with 19 tackles in a reserve role.

Adam Kadela is another solid linebacker. Kadela started early last season before breaking his leg and spraining his knee in the Wildcats' third game of the season. He had 15 tackles and three for loss when he went down with the injury.

Junior Demetrius Eaton (6-2, 235) is McGarigle's understudy inside, but he also could play either outside spot if necessary. He had 33 tackles in 12 games in a reserve role a year ago. The Milwaukee Vincent product gives NU an athletic reserve across the board.

Sophomore Eddie Simpson (6-0, 220) is next on the linebacker depth chart after playing mostly on special teams last year, with three tackles in 11 games.

Other top reserves include junior Campbell Black (6-3, 225) and true freshman Chris Jeske (6-0, 225).

Secondary analysis

The loss of Jeff Backes certainly hurts on a unit that gave up far too many yards last season. Part of that was due to a so-so pass rush, but the Wildcats' pass rush, though likely improved, will not be prolific this year.

The loss of Backes to a career-ending shoulder injury makes junior Marquice Cole the No. 1 corner. Cole (5-9, 185) started four games as a sophomore in 2003, finishing with 21 tackles. He likely would have started last season, but he broke his ankle during a preseason scrimmage and was lost for the year.

Cole has returned healthy, however, and his elite speed (he has reportedly run a 4.3 40-yard dash) and solid ability make him a player to watch.

The other corner spot will either go to senior Herschel Henderson (6-3, 195) or sophomore Deante Battle (5-10, 180).

Henderson missed spring workouts with a hamstring injury and could also play safety. He started nine games at corner as a true sophomore in 2002, with 48 tackles. But he injured his knee prior to 2003 and missed that season. Backes then took over his spot at corner, and Henderson served as a third safety last season, playing often in the nickel. He started four games — two at safety and two at corner — with 49 tackles.

Battle was primarily a special teams performer last season, playing all 12 games and tallying seven tackles. A solid athlete with decent skills, Battle could take command of the position when practice begins in August.

NU will miss Dominique Price and his 93 tackles from a year ago. So after starting the past two seasons at free safety, junior Bryan Heinz (6-1, 205) will slide in to replace Price at strong.

Heinz was fifth on the team last season with 67 tackles. Initially a walk on, Heinz has been a key contributor since first stepping onto the field as a redshirt freshman in 2003, when he had 62 stops.

Sophomore Reggie McPherson (6-1, 190) will move into the free safety slot, though Henderson could compete here if he loses the corner job to Battle. McPherson converted from receiver to safety prior to the 2004 campaign and made 13 tackles as a redshirt freshman.

Heinz' backup at strong safety is senior Frederic Tarver (6-2, 215), who has played little other than special teams in his career. The other top reserves are junior corner Cory Dious (5-9, 165) and sophomore corner Ryan Black (5-10, 175).

Special teams notes

Northwestern's punt and kickoff teams were atrocious last season. After finishing last in the Big Ten in average kick return allowed and net punting, the Wildcats' reportedly spent a lot of time this spring drilling special teams. They certainly needed it. Last season's 31.2 net punting averaging is about as bad as it gets, and is a serious disadvantage for the rest of the defense.

Bryan Huffman handled the punting duties for most of last year, averaging 39.1 yards per punt. His eligibility complete, the punter this year will be senior Ryan Pederson (6-3, 215), who averaged a paltry 36.8 yards per punt in 22 attempts last year.

Matching up with Wisconsin

Northwestern does not have a lot of depth. But then again, neither does Wisconsin. This matchup looks like a push in other ways as well. The Wildcats run defense was somewhat surprisingly mediocre last season, but should be better this time around with a pretty good front seven. Cofield will be a handful for the Badgers inside. How many plays Howard makes will depend on how often he lines up over Joe Thomas. It seems to go without saying that McGarigle with get his 10-15 tackles. But the key for NU is Roach and Ngene, who must provide a pass rush and raise havoc in the running game for the Wildcats to have success.

NU's secondary looks like a hit or miss bunch with some decent talent but too many what ifs for security. The Badgers senior-laden receiving corps should have an advantage here.

Just as with the rest of this matchup, though, Northwestern's defense will get a big boost from playing at home.

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