A much-improved Wildcat defense, led by junior standout Tyler Scott, propelled Northwestern past Vanderbilt 23-13 on Saturday night at Ryan Field. Scott’s six tackles, one quarterback sack, and timely fourth-quarter forced fumble rightfully place Scott among the top performers in the Big Ten, and one opposing offenses will fear the rest of the season.
Helping Scott up front were gritty performances from both Quentin Williams and Brian Arnfelt, who contributed three tackles, a forced fumble, four tackles, and a nine-yard sack, respectively. Beyond the stat column, both Williams and Arnfelt played hard-nosed football all night, bringing physical Big Ten style play in the trenches, to their SEC opponent.
The emergence of strong defensive line play for the 'Cats from multiple players in a single game is something the defense will need the rest of the season, especially once Big Ten play begins. This group is certainly hungry, and judging by the rhetoric coming out of Scott, they are not worried about outside distractions. "Coach [Fitzgerald] tells us to focus on yourselves, our brothers, our chemistry, our fundamentals and that's what we did. We didn't really listen to any of the criticism, but just focused on us and it seemed to work." This is a group that reflects the attitude of their head coach, and will be key to the Wildcats’ success this season.
While the Cats’ offense did not put up the numbers many expected Saturday, an impressive 123 yards on 24 carries for Venric Mark was a bright spot, for a rushing attack that seldom features a 100-yard rusher. Back-to-back big performance for Mark in the first two games of the season is a good sign that he has developed from an occasional surprise performer, into a consistent game changer.
One cause for concern that came out of Saturday’s game came on the second play of the game when red shirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose left the game with a lower back injury and did not return. Replacing Vanhoose was senior Stanford transfer Quinn Evans, who turned in a solid performance.
Northwestern’s answer to last week's 480 yards given up through the air was to get more pressure from their front four, and they were certainly able to do this. Combining consistent pressure with big forced fumbles from Scott and Williams allowed NU to set the tone on defense and kept the game close even when the offense struggled. Improvements from last week’s game to Saturday’s were evident in all facets of the defense, giving Wildcat fans further hope for a run at a legends division title.
Jack DiNardo was a standout defensive tackle with Northwestern's winningest-ever senior class. He graduated with a degree in political science and is now pursuing a master's degree in liberal arts. Each Sunday following a Northwestern game, DiNardo will offer a column sharing his perspective.