Last year’s Northwestern-Illinois game was supposed to be the Wildcats’ showcase.
ESPN’s College Gameday was in town, the game was to be played at Wrigley Field on national television, and NU was fresh off a last-second victory over No. 13 Iowa.
Instead, it was an embarrassment, as Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure rushed for 330 yards en route to a 48-27 victory. A week later, the Wildcats lost 70-23 to Wisconsin and eventually lost 45-28 to Texas Tech.
The offense was expected to struggle in the absence of Dan Persa, but the defense was what killed Northwestern in each of those games. Consequently, there was widespread speculation that the defense would be the Achilles heel that kept the 2011 Wildcats—the most experienced in coach Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure—from winning a conference championship.
That motivated the unit to improve in the offseason.
“They were talking about us pretty bad last year, toward the end of the year, and that gave us fuel…for the offseason,” senior cornerback Jordan Mabin said during Northwestern media day this August. “Since I’ve been here, this has probably been the best offseason we’ve had as a team.
“I know, after the season ended and we lost the bowl game last year, we were pretty down, and Coach Fitz challenged our class, our junior class at the time, saying if we want to go where we want to go, then this class is going to have to step up,” he added. “So knowing that, we took it upon ourselves to put ourselves in leadership roles, do what we have to do in the offseason.”
There were still questions, mainly in the front seven. With the exception of Bryce McNaul, the linebacker corps was inexperienced and the defensive line had some youth.
But as the Wildcat’s 24-17 victory over Boston College progressed further and further, it became more and more clear that the unit had answered Fitzgerald’s call.
Ironically, if any area of the NU defense struggled it was the secondary, which was supposed to be the most talented part of the unit.
Inconsistent secondary or not, Northwestern will undoubtedly take the performance its defense turned in today, one that showed massive improvements from last year and gave the unit something to build on for the rest of the season.
But one thing is for sure—this defense won’t be the Achilles heel that it was last season.
This was a unit that took a complete, 180-degree turnaround from last season. Not only did it execute better, but it displayed a confidence that had been missing since the fourth quarter of the game against Iowa.
Fitzgerald was fired up. The defense was fired up. And defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz dialed up blitz after blitz, which his offense executed to perfection.
And most importantly, the Wildcats regained their swagger.
Of course, this Boston College offense was nothing compared to some of the offenses Northwestern will see in the Big Ten. But this was a step in the right direction. And unlike last year, this defense can hang with anyone.
There are still questions for the Wildcats—when will Persa be back? Can Colter lead the offense until then? Will there still be that fluke loss?
But the biggest question mark coming into this game was if the defense would be what holds this team back.
Yesterday, that unit gave us our answer.