Northwestern's defense hasn't just been good. It hasn't just been great. It's been dominant.
Through three games, the Wildcats have the best scoring defense in the country, holding opponents to just 16 total points, and two of those opponents have been serious competition in Stanford and Duke. The Cats also rank sixth in the country in total defense, limiting foes to 235 yards per game, and passing defense (124.3 yards per game).
The performances on the field from guys like Anthony Walker, Matt Harris, Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson, Godwin Igwebuike and plenty of others have stood out.
But as far as the football aspect of it goes, that's secondary when it comes why this defense has been such a dominant force so far this season.
It's the other stuff that's playing a much bigger factor.
“I think it’s the way that they’re preparing. (Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz) and the staff are doing a good job. But at the same time, the guys, I think, are very, very focused," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday. "There was a play that happened on Saturday where we made a call, but really it didn’t fit the personnel that was on the field. And the D-line comes off and they’re ripping my rear end: ‘You can’t call that! What are we doing?’ So it just shows you the depth, I think, of football IQ that this defense has right now. … I think that group is playing with great confidence and trust and camaraderie.”
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The Northwestern defense had it moments last season. The Cats were terrific against Penn State, stellar against Michigan. But the consistency wasn't there, a microcosm of the past two seasons for the team as a whole, when a double-digit-win campaign in 2012 was followed up with back-to-back seasons without a postseason appearance.
This season has been much different on the defensive side, with three straight dominant performances and consistency in all three.
“I think we’re holding ourselves more accountable and we’re not getting complacent," linebacker Drew Smith said. "And I think a lot of it comes from not winning when we know we had the chance to and not performing well when we know we had the talent to. And I think a lot of guys are just fed up with not fulfilling their potential. That’s really basically it, it’s that mindset that we know we have some guys that can make some big plays and now it’s about doing it.”
Walker has been the star of the show so far, making seemingly every tackle in sight and taking home two of the first three Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week awards. Only seven players in the country have more total tackles than Walker's 36.
And it's been cool for Smith, a senior, to see Walker, a redshirt sophomore, have the success he's having.
“I’m proud of him. I took him under my wing when he first got here, and it’s just like seeing my little brother do well," Smith said. "I always want to see him succeed. It’s really with anybody who plays well, just happy for him. On the defensive side of the ball, as long as we make the play, you don’t care who it is.”
Northwestern super back Dan Vitale called the Northwestern defense arguably the best in the country on Monday, and it's hard to argue with him. The defensive production has the Cats looking like the best team in the Big Ten West and has some already talking about lofty postseason possibilities.
Not much had to go wrong in 2013 and 2014 to turn a double-digit-win season into two five-win ones. For the Northwestern defense, a lot is going right at the moment, and it means Northwestern, the No. 17 team in the country, is in a good place right now.
“I sensed a lack of focus, a lack of maturity in some areas," Fitzgerald said, describing the problems over the past two seasons. "That combination along with, I don’t think the chemistry being right in the locker room was disastrous. And that starts with me as a leader. I’m the one that sets the tone, and when it’s not right in those areas, it’s my fault. You ‘fess it, you fix it, you move on.
"I think where the guys are at right now, and you’ve heard them all say it when they’ve been asked, the trust, the chemistry, the camaraderie, the brotherhood right now in the locker room is as strong as we’ve had it. And the credit goes to the guys. They’ve really bought into each other, they understand who we are and what we value, and they’re buying into it. The challenge is earning it every day and not getting bored with it, that can happen at times. Just keep grinding and keep believing in it.”