Better or worse? Previewing Northwestern’s defense in 2020
For all of Northwestern’s struggles in 2019, the defense mostly did its part. The Wildcats were in the top 30 nationally in total defense, yards per play and passing defense, plus above average in other major statistical categories.
Northwestern was a middle-of-the-pack defense in the Big Ten, ranking 7th in total defense, but that’s only because Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan and others were so good on that side of the ball. The Wildcats actually improved pretty drastically from its 2018 season in which they made the Big Ten title game, shaving 55.2 yards per game.
But it’s much easier to put up defensive numbers in a losing effort. Offenses naturally take their foot off the gas when they get a substantial lead. And a 2-touchdown lead against the Wildcats in 2019 was as good as a done deal; they weren’t exactly a threat to get in a shootout with that anemic offense.
So with that in mind, can Northwestern maintain that defensive efficiency, assuming its offense improves with Peyton Ramsey at quarterback?
Pressuring the QB: Worse
Northwestern registered 24.0 sacks in 2019, 11th in the B1G. The faced, on average, 30 pass attempts per game.
The thinking here is that just by virtue of being in more close games, opposing offenses will need to pass against Northwestern a little more. Therefore, Northwestern should have a few more chances to rush the passer. But will that translate to a better pass rush? Not necessarily.
My biggest question is where will that pass rush production come from? Northwestern lost 3 of 4 starters up front, including sack leader Joe Gaziano, who was a First-Team All-B1G performer. Earnest Brown IV, who is the highest-rated recruit on the roster outside of Hunter Johnson, is the strongest candidate to step up in a position group that is normally a strength. Brown was limited to 6 games last season due to injury. Samdup Miller, too, should be a key player who can have a breakout season and prove this prediction incorrect.
Run defense: Better
The Wildcats were above average at stopping the run in 2019, yielding just under 3.8 yards per carry (8th in the B1G and 36th nationally).
Northwestern’s greatest strength is its linebacking corps, led by Paddy Fisher. Blake Gallagher and Chris Bergin are back too. This trio led the Wildcats in tackles in 2019 and will likely do so again. With 9 of its top 11 tacklers coming back, Northwestern is in prime position to build on a solid foundation.
With the limited practice time available across college football due to the pandemic, continuity and experience will be key. And Northwestern will have it in this regard.
Pass defense: Better
Northwestern was solid on this front in 2019. You might say that it’s no big deal considering teams tend to pass less when leading, so Northwestern wasn’t really challenged. And that’s fair. Just note that the Wildcats faced, on average, more passing attempts per game than Ohio State.
Aside from the Indiana and Purdue games, Northwestern didn’t allow more than 233 yards through the air. The Wildcats finished 4th in the Big Ten in allowing 6.6 yards per attempt. Again, maybe that’s partly a reflection of opposing offenses not needing to stretch the field when already holding a lead, but it can’t all be pinned on that.
Northwestern has some solid returners in the secondary, led by corner Cam Ruiz and safety Travis Whillock. The Wildcats had just 7 interceptions last season, tied for 2nd-fewest in the Big Ten. That number should go up in 2020.
Just by virtue of Northwestern’s offense getting better, the defense should, too. It should score more points and put the defense in more advantageous situations.
For example, if Northwestern can move the ball and flip the field, the defense won’t be backed up against short fields. And what happens if Northwestern’s offense can finish better than 115th nationally in first downs per game? Northwestern’s defense should be able to get a little more rest and be fresher for when it is on the field.
Northwestern forced only 6 turnovers in the final 8 games of the season and finished with 14 total takeaways. Only Rutgers had fewer. The Wildcats are probably due for some positive regression in that category. For example, they had the 2nd-most takeaways in the B1G in 2018 with 26 and the 3rd-most in 2017 with 25.
The combination of experience and better circumstances should lead to Northwestern having a much more efficient defense in 2020.