After Northwestern’s loss to Iowa—another game where the Wildcats’ young defense faced breakdowns—head coach Pat Fitzgerald was looking for a solution.
During his postgame press conference, Fitzgerald questioned whether he and the coaching staff were to blame.
“A lot of things we are going to look at hard as coaches,” Fitzgerald told the media. “Are we putting our guys in the right position to make plays? Are we giving them the best opportunity to be successful? Fundamentally are we giving them all the tools to be successful? It will start and end there.”
The following week, Fitzgerald began to implement widespread changes. The first major adjustment was in his starting defense for the Penn State game. The Wildcats had five new starters from the prior game. In addition, the coaches started to work a tight rotation, mixing up the personnel on a more frequent basis.
However, the greatest modification came from the Northwestern coaches, and how they coach their players.
"Well as we were looking at what we do defensively, we put the first responsibility on ourselves as coaches,” said Fitzgerald during his Monday news conference. “Every team is different; every defense is a little bit different. Some of the things that we were able to be successful with in the past, we weren't able to be successful with this year. So as we were looking inward and taking responsibility for that, we try to do things that our players do well.”
In the Wildcats’ past two games—wins against No. 9 Nebraska and Rice—the defense has looked vastly improved. Against the Cornhuskers, Northwestern shutdown running back Rex Burkhead and contained quarterback Taylor Martinez, while forcing two critical fumbles. One week later, the Wildcats held Rice to just six points and 254 total yards.
What changes, exactly, were made on defense? NU junior linebacker David Nwabuisi elaborated after Northwestern’s win over Rice.
“It’s a little bit simpler game plan,” Nwabuisi said. “There are fewer checks, blitzes, and coverages.”
So, Pat Fitzgerald, are things really simpler for the defense?
“I don't know, maybe it's a Jedi mind trick,” Fitzgerald joked. “I'll go back to what I just said: earlier in the year we were trying to go back to what we had done in the past and we weren't able to accomplish that. So either it's poor teaching, poor learning, or a combination of both. So, sure, we've simplified. We've gone above and beyond simplification."