Big Ten

Big Ten preview: Veteran-laden defense could carry Northwestern

nick-vanhoose-0817.png

Big Ten preview: Veteran-laden defense could carry Northwestern

Northwestern’s defense ranked in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten last season. There were good weeks and bad weeks, games allowing six points and games allowing 48 points.

But as middling as it might have been in 2014, Pat Fitzgerald wants his team’s identity to be that of the defense in 2015. Particularly, Fitzgerald is banking on the veteran leadership of his defensive line and defensive backfield permeating throughout the rest of the team.

“(The defensive line) and the secondary. From an experience standpoint, I like that group,” Fitzgerald said last week during the team’s media day. “I told the D-line and the DBs when we started in January, ‘Our team has got to have the personality of your two position groups. And you two have to take over.’ And I wanted the DBs to go be more active with our wide receivers, and I wanted our D-line to be more active with our O-line. So no longer was it the O-line against the D-line, we intermixed them and there was competition among those groups. Same thing with the DBs and the wide receivers. And I think those relationships and that competition really helped both groups from a standpoint of the offense.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Who will win Northwestern's quarterback job?]

The veteran leadership is certainly there on the defensive side of the ball.

The secondary boasts multi-year starters Traveon Henry (20 starts in two seasons) at safety and Nick VanHoose (32 starts in three seasons) and Matt Harris (12 starts last season as a sophomore) at the two cornerback positions. VanHoose is gaining a bunch of preseason attention after a strong 2014 season in which he was one of the Big Ten’s best corners and blocked three kicks, if you can believe that. And the fourth starter in the secondary will likely be Godwin Igwebuike, who made some noise as a redshirt freshman a season ago. He started five games filling in for a banged-up Ibraheim Campbell, and he intercepted three passes in his first career start against Wisconsin.

The defensive line is veteran-heavy, as well, with three seniors in defensive ends Deonte Gibson (11 starts last two years) and Dean Lowry (21 starts last two years) and defensive tackle C.J. Robbins (eight starts last season). Junior Greg Kuhar (10 starts last year) is the other defensive tackle.

All that experience and leadership in those two units is the reason Fitzgerald is leaning so heavily on these players to guide his team.

“Guys are ready to go, they’re aggressive,” Gibson said. “We were ready to go last year, but at times I think we questioned our abilities. There’s no question (this year).”

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: How can Northwestern return to winning ways?]

While question marks remain at the outside linebacker positions, it’s middle linebacker Anthony Walker who after stepping up last season has taken on a leadership role with this year’s team.

Walker, like Igwebuike, was pressed into duty as a redshirt freshman last season. Injuries to senior leader Collin Ellis meant Walker made seven starts. He flourished in his first career start, making eight tackles and taking an interception back 49 yards for a touchdown. On the season, he had 51 tackles, led the team with nine tackles for loss and had two big interceptions, the second one returned 65 yards to set up a score in Northwestern’s big win over Notre Dame.

“I saw a young guy — who I’ve known since he got here — a young guy grow up fast,” Gibson said of Walker. “His first game, he got rushed into the start and he excelled. And ever since he hasn’t looked back. He’s looking to pick up the baton and run with it. He’s one of the leaders of the team that most people probably won’t recognize, but … he’s probably one of the stronger leaders of our team.”

As the offense looks to break in a first-time starter at quarterback, the defense could be the strength of Northwestern’s team, much like it was at times last season. The Cats defense was sensational against Penn State, keeping the Nittany Lions out of the end zone. It intercepted four passes and held Wisconsin to just 14 points in a win over the Badgers.

[MORE BIG TEN: Big Ten preview: Justin Jackson looks to be even better in 2015]

But, in a microcosm of Northwestern’s season, the defense lacked consistency. Just as common as those terrific performances were ugly ones, like the 38 points allowed against Nebraska, the 48 points allowed against Iowa, the 40 points allowed against Notre Dame and the 47 points allowed against Illinois.

Like it will be with the whole team, consistency will be key on the defensive side of the ball.

But the Cats are confident that’s what they’ll get.

“A lot of confidence. We’re ready to play. Playing with a lot of swagger right now, that’s the biggest thing,” Walker said. “We knew we had to come and bring a lot of swagger to this year’s team. The defense, we’re going to be ready. As a team I think we’re going to be ready.”

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

jeremy_larkin.jpg
USA TODAY

Northwestern running back Jeremy Larkin diagnosed with cervical stenosis, will retire immediately

Tough news out of Evanston this morning: Northwestern announced that running back Jeremy Larkin will retire immediately after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis.

Cervical stenois is the narrowing of the spinal canal in one's neck, according to Mayo Clinic. Larkin's condition is thankfully not life-threatening, though it does prevent him from continuing to participate in the game of football. 

"Football has been a lifelong passion and it has been a process to reconcile the fact I won't be on that field again, given I've played this game since I was five years old," Larkin said.

"I'm extremely appreciative of the Northwestern sports medicine and athletic training staffs for uncovering this condition, and for my coaches and the medical staff for always putting my health first.

"I came to this University to engage at the absolute highest level on the field and in the classroom, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue one of those while supporting my teammates from the sideline." 

Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald called the news "heartbreaking."

"This is heartbreaking because I see every day how much Jeremy loves the game, loves his teammates, and loves to compete," Fitzgerald said in a statement. "But this is the absolute best possible outcome for him.

"The discovery of this condition allowed Jeremy and his family to make an informed decision for his long-term health and well-being. For those of us who have known Jeremy Larkin since his high school days, his future is exceptionally bright. I can't wait to see the impact he makes in our world."

Larkin is a sophomore from Cincinnati. He finishes his Northwestern career with 156 carries for 849 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns.

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

anderson.jpg
USA TODAY

Former Illini champion Kevin Anderson upsets Roger Federer in Wimbledon quarterfinal

Former University of Illinois tennis star Kevin Anderson completed a marathon upset against an all-time great on the highest stage of professional tennis.

Anderson came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in Wimbledon’s quarterfinals 2-6, 6-7, 7-6, 6-4, 13-11 on Wednesday morning. He will play in the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career.

As a native of South Africa, Anderson played three seasons with the Fighting Illini and won the NCAA doubles championship during the 2005-06 season as a sophomore. The 32-year-old was a three-time All-American in singles at Illinois.

Now, as the eighth ranked singles player on the ATP World Tour, Anderson is a force to be reckoned with at the professional level. He made it all the way to the US Open final in 2017.

The former Illini star will look to keep his recent success going when he represents Illinois in the semifinals of Wimbledon this Friday.