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December 4, 2013

Season Rewind: Defense

Our Season Rewind series evaluates the performance Northwestern's entire team in 2013. The first installment covered the Offense. This second installment focuses on the Wildcat defense.


After a slow start to the 2013 season, the Northwestern defense finally found its footing in the Big Ten opener against Ohio State. Aside from Wisconsin and Michigan State, the defense played well enough to win six Big Ten games this season.

Two of the biggest questions entering the season were the secondary and pass rush. The emergence of sophomore safety Traveon Henry and freshman cornerback Matthew Harris helped the secondary takes steps in the right direction, although the Cats still ranked 10th in the conference with an average of 255.8 yards allowed through the air. The Wildcat pass rush posted 27 sacks, fifth in the Big Ten and only two behind third-place Michigan State. However, in most defensive categories in the Big Ten, the Wildcats ranked ninth or worse.

On the bright side, the defense broke its destructive early-season habit of allowing big plays to become a solid, steady unit. It only loses three starters to graduation -- end Tyler Scott, tackle Will Hampton and linebacker Damien Proby. Not only do the Cats have eight starters returning, but nearly all the backups are back and logged huge minutes in playing time.



MVP: We're going to split the award between team captains Proby and Scott. Proby led the team in tackles with 112 and returned his only interception 49 yards for a touchdown. He also was the Wildcats' co-leader with two forced fumbles (with Scott and Dean Lowry) and five quarterback hurries (with Scott). Scott led NU with 10 TFL for 61 yards in losses, including a team-best six sacks. When he wasn't rushing the passer he proved lethal dropping into coverage, collecting two interceptions, four passes broken up and six passes defensed. Not bad for a defensive end that plays with his hand on the ground.



Player who will be missed: Scott will be the most missed player on the defensive side of the ball. Offensive coordinators always had to be on alert for where he was located on the field because of his ability to wreak havoc in the offensive backfield and his ability to play sideline-to-sideline.



Pleasant surprise: Henry, a sophomore, grabbed a starting spot coming out of camp and it took an injury to put him on the sideline for the final two games. He was solid from the season opener, with six tackles at California, and posted a career-high 13 tackles in his final game against Michigan. He also had an interception and four TFL.



Telling numbers: Ninth. Northwestern's defense finished ninth or worst in just about every defensive category in the Big Ten. Northwestern allowed an average of 423.4 yards of offense per game, including 255.8 through the air.



High point: Scott's interception to seal Northwestern's only win in the Big Ten, against Illinois, in the final game of the season. Scott's sideline pick of Nathan Scheelhaase snapped the Wildcats' seven-game losing streak and enabled the senior class to go out as winners.



Low point: This would be a tie. After pulling in a short pass, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah bulled his way for 16 yards on fourth-and-15 to keep a drive alive, leading to the Huskers' game-winning Hail Mary pass. Then there were two fourth-and-4 plays on Michigan's game-tying drive in regulation. Wolverine quarterback Devin Gardner converted both of them, first with his legs (6 yards) and then with his arm (9 yards), to set up their game-tying field goal with no time left on the clock.



Final analysis: We'll give the defense a C. Too many mistakes at critical times and too many points allowed on the first drive of games. There are a lot of players coming back next year, so there is hope for change.


Next up: Special Teams




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