Northwestern’s defense at one point regarded as potentially the top unit in the Big Ten now looks like the defense the Wildcats fielded in the decade of 1997-2007 when the defense was coordinated by Jerry Brown and Greg “Swiss Cheese” Colby. Current defensive coordinator Mike Hawkwitz certainly has more pedigree than those guys, but after one successful season, his results now look about the same. What’s amazing about NU’s defensive failure is that the players involved are pretty much the same cast of characters who successfully led NU to a 9 win season last year. Just to tell you how much better last year was, if NU wants to win 9 games this season they can only lose one more time this year. I think even the most optimistic NU fan would say that isn’t going to happen.
What I don’t get is that the key to NU’s success last year appeared to be an aggressive approach. This season NU doesn’t seem to cover as aggressively in the secondary and they certainly aren’t as aggressive at pursuing the quarterback. I also really don’t understand why after NU successfully used DE Vince Browne as a standup rusher in one series where they actually stopped Minnesota that they never went back to that setup.
The bottom line on NU’s defense is nothing is working right. That’s obvious both in allowing 37 and 35 points in successive weeks and in the fact that both Syracuse and Minnesota could pick whether they wanted to run or pass and succeed at will at both.
NU’s other major problem is the turnovers from QB Mike Kafka. Kafka’s numbers look good, but I’m beginning to question his ability to consistently lead this team. I know some will disagree, but I look at some key plays which have really hurt NU these last two weeks. Kafka fumbled the opening play against Syracuse and he threw a pick which I think was intended to the Syracuse guy when NU was driving for the winning fieldgoal. This week he threw a key pick right before halftime and fumbled on consecutive plays when NU was trying to mount a last ditch effort. It also seems that Kafka has a tendency to at times miss wide open receivers as he did on his first half pick and when he could have hit Sid Stewart for a game changing TD. I’m not necessarily calling for Dan Persa yet, but I’m thinking NU’s coaches should be getting closer towards getting Persa involved. I sure hope Pat Fitzgerald isn’t influenced by loyalty to a senior and will be willing to pull Kafka if these turnovers continue.
Personally, I think these last two weeks have been some of my most painful as a Northwestern fan because of the expectations I had for this year. It reminds of the 2001 football season when NU lost to Penn State, Purdue, Indiana, and Iowa in increasingly worse fashion and then dropped close losses to Bowling Green and Illinois.
Some might think this an insane statement, but I strongly Northwestern’s game next week against Purdue might be the most important football game Northwestern has played since beating Purdue to win the Big Ten in 1995. If NU beats Purdue I can see them still winning 7 or 8 games. If they lose to the Boilermakers, I see the Wildcats winning 4 at most.