Northwestern came into the season with very high expectations on defense; the defense was even touted as the best unit on that side of the ball at NU since the mid-1990's.
The 'Cats returned eight starters, including the entire secondary and first team all-conference selection DE Corey Wootton.
Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz was entering his second season at NU, and after engineering an 11-point improvement in the number of points per game NU was yielding, many were hoping for further improvements.
Instead, beginning in the second half of NU's game against Eastern Michigan, the defense has looked like a shell of itself from a season ago, allowing 58 points over the last six quarters.
The Wildcats' D is allowing almost 400 yards per game over the past two games against EMU and Syracuse. And the pressure up front isn't what it was last season, although NU's four sacks against Syracuse was a slight improvement over the three they racked up through the first two games.
So, after ranking 26th in the nation in 2008, yielding just 20.2 points per game, how has the Wildcat defense ended up 74th in the nation, giving up 25.0 points per game, after facing three unheralded teams in 2009? Let's explore the reasons why.
Every football team experiences injuries during the course of a season, and this season is no different for the Wildcats. DT Adam Hahn, who has started 27 games in his NU career, was sidelined for the first two games following an offseason foot injury (although he did return against Syracuse).
Both DT Corbin Bryant and DE Corey Wootton were returning from knee surgeries that knocked them out for good in different games last season. DT Jack DiNardo was also held out of the 'Cats' first game of the year. And that's just the defensive line.
Cornerback Sherrick McManis, a four-year starter for NU after winning the job back in his freshman year of 2006, has been battling a hamstring injury and was held out of both the Eastern Michigan and Syracuse games, much to the detriment of the NU secondary.
His backup, Justan Vaughn, who has a few starts under his belt as well, was injured late in the EMU game and didn't make the trip to Syracuse.
This left redshirt freshman Demetrius Dugar, generously listed at 5'11", to cover opponents' best wide receivers. We saw how that turned out as Syracuse's Mike Williams went for over 200 yards receiving.
And the linebacking corps hasn't been spared either, with middle linebacker Nate Williams going down to an as-yet undisclosed injury and missing all of the Syracuse game. This meant another redshirt freshman, David Nwabuisi, was thrown into the fire.
But, as Coach Fitzgerald would likely say, injuries are no excuse, and one only has to look back to the 2008 squad to see a unit that routinely responded to injuries and maintained a high level of success.
NU's starting middle linebacker Malcolm Arrington went down for the year half way through the season, but sophomore Nate Williams responded in a big way in the middle.
Vaughn injured his shoulder early, but redshirt freshman Justin Mabin stepped in nicely the rest of the way.
There were also the aforementioned injuries on the DL, with Bryant going out near the end of the year and Wootton going down in the Alamo Bowl.
Yet, NU stayed on task and plugged in guys who continued to make plays as the 'Cats put up the best defensive numbers at NU in about a decade.
Thankfully, none of the early injuries NU has sustained on the defense early in the 2009 season seem to be season-ending, but the 'Cats need to get better performances from the backups (who are always "just a play away" from going into the game).
The secondary, in particular, has been hurting, and hopefully McManis will be able to go again soon as his abilities on the field have been sorely missed.
The one who has been missed the most is likely DT John Gill, who is now in the NFL. Gill racked up 44 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss (TFLs), 4 sacks, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, a blocked kick, three QB hurries, and a pass breakup in his senior year.
It's hard to plug in a defensive tackle who can do all of those things along with the items that don't show up on the stat sheet like taking up multiple blocks and clogging up the middle to stop the opponent's run game.
Many thought that the combination of Marshall Thomas, Corbin Bryant, and Adam Hahn, all of whom have significant playing time under their collective belt, would be more than sufficient to take care of the middle of the DL.
The fact is that, so far, things haven't fared so well. NU gave up 5.4 yards per carry against EMU last week, and, taking out the four sacks, 5.4 yards per carry yet again against Syracuse.
Those kind of numbers against the run will keep the rest of the D on their heels and make them vulnerable to the big play.
Also, after ranking 18th nationally in sacks last season (2.62 per game), NU has fallen back this season, gathering just 2.33 per game (thanks to a four-sack effort versus Syracuse, more than in the first two games combined).
This can be attributed both to Wootton still getting back to his 2008 form (where he racked up 10 sacks and six more TFLs) and the loss of unheralded senior Kevin Mims, who had 3.5 sacks of his own and an additional 3.5 TFLs.
Vince Browne was expected to step right in after gathering four sacks of his own in '08, but his transition to full-time playing status has been shaky (although he has improved: He had five tackles, two TFLs, and one sack against Syracuse).
Finally, don't discount the loss of tackling machine Prince Kwateng from last year's squad; all he did was gather the second most tackles on the squad last season (106) in addition to gathering numbers in six other major defensive statistical categories.
Ben Johnson has done a nice job so far, returning an interception for a TD as well as forcing and recovering a fumble against Syracuse, but hasn't been tackling at the same clip as Kwateng (only nine tackles so far).
It's important to note that Johnson is playing on the other side than Kwateng, but it's vital that the LB corps rack up the tackles before ballcarriers can get to the next level of the defense.
Overall, NU graduated some guys that are hard to just throw someone in to replace: Gill, Mims, and Kwateng.
There has been some improvement in the DL, particularly against Syracuse, but the run defense must get much better heading into Big Ten play, and that means those DTs must begin creating havoc in the middle of the backfield.
Big Play Vulnerability
In 2008, one of the biggest differences from previous seasons was that the NU D was making opponents work for their yards and points by not giving up the big plays.
Once Northwestern forced opponents to drive the entire field, they were more likely to force a fourth down or turnover, rather than watching a team get all the way down the field in one big play. That trend has seemingly reversed in 2009.
Against EMU, things weren't too bad, as NU gave up only one play over 30 yards (a 35 yard run) and three more plays over 20 yards, although EMU's ability to continually run for an average of five yards at a time ate away at the D through the second half.
In the Syracuse game, though, NU gave up two big 30+ yard plays (66 and 39 yard pass plays) and three additional plays over 20 yards (again, all passes).
Those big plays allowed both EMU and Syracuse to get down the field quickly to either close the score gap or take a lead quickly.
It was clear that the injury losses in the secondary had some to do with that (Syracuse's top WR Mike Williams had his way with NU's corners), but the fact is that Northwestern's experienced safeties (Brad Phillips and Brendan Smith) can also share some of the blame.
Syracuse, especially, relied on the play fake, be it an end-around fake or just a play-action fake handoff, to get the safeties out of position and isolate receivers one on one (or get them wide open).
And the safeties were understandably biting on those plays with NU giving up over five yards a carry; they had to be available for run support. The fact is that they were drawn into trying to make up for deficiencies both in front of and behind them.
The 'Cats must improve in this area or else risk being torched by Big Ten offenses. First up, they have to deal with the big play combination of Minnesota QB Adam Weber and WR Eric Decker, which requires a lot of improvement out of the NU secondary.
There are a number of factors at play in the downfall of what was expected to be a solid NU defense in 2009: injuries, replacing seniors, and giving up the big plays.
Thankfully, the 'Cats should be getting some of their injured personnel back on the field before too long, and experienced defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz (along with Coach Fitz) aren't likely to let this dismal defensive performance continue.
If NU can get some key personnel back and fix a few points (particularly stopping the run in the middle), expect this unit to improve as the season progresses.