Panic set in for Northwestern fans during the season-opener against Syracuse. The Wildcats' 22-point lead had vanished due to breakdowns on defense. It was happening again. Nightmares from 2011 blowups began to reoccur.
Those issues, though, did not carry forward into week two, NU's home-opener against Vanderbilt. Instead, they were corrected in practice. It has been a gradual learning process for the young Wildcats defense, but the arrow is pointing up
"I think they're working hard," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. "They know the key is that we've got to continue to improve. There's going to be things that happen in games that some young players haven't seen; they got to learn from those mistakes and fix them for the next game."
Northwestern's defense was often scrutinized during its tumultuous 2011 season. The unit allowed more than 30 points on seven occasions, taking much of the blame for NU's disappointing 6-7 season.
During NU's season-opener, Syracuse posted 596 yards and a total of 41 points, with 28 of those coming in the second half. However, in the following three games, the Wildcats surrendered just 33 points and an average of 290 yards per game.
The difference for Northwestern execution, and subsequently, confidence.
"It comes down to us trusting each other more, communicating better, which allows us to go out and play fast," said senior linebacker David Nwabuisi, who has 26 tackles on the young season."
Through nonconference play, the results have shown; Northwestern's defense appears to be vastly improved.
"So far, so good," said head coach Pat Fitzgerald. "We definitely have improved through the nonconference schedule. Let's see if we can play Big Ten football."
The conference slate offers a different challenge for Northwestern, given the familiarity each Big Ten program has with one another.
In 2011, the Wildcats allowed 32.8 points per game in Big Ten play. The NU defense is expecting a tough test from its conference foes, but believes its best is yet to come.
"It's going to be a challenge the whole year," Hankwitz said. "We're not there yet. We're not -- by far -- a great defense or a great secondary yet. As long as we keep improving, we've got a chance to be a good defense."
Much of the success Northwestern's defense has enjoyed comes from its rising young stars. Linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo leads the team with 32 tackles on the season; Ibraheim Campbell has chipped in with 25 tackles; redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose has helped stabilize the secondary.
The production from the Wildcats' underclassmen offers hope for 2012, but also the future.
"Our young guys haven't even begun to tap into their potential yet," said Nwabuisi. "They're playing well, don't get me wrong, but we all have a ways to go."
It will be a learning process for Northwestern's defense, but the unit is motivated to make continued improvements.
"The ante is up more," Nwabuisi said. "We've got to bring it to Indiana and every week after that. The job is never over. We still haven't proven ourselves to the rest of the country yet."