Campus Connection: Northwestern’s “D” still looks elite as non-conference season close

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Northwestern beat Duke 19-10 in Durham on September 19th.

EVANSTON – Twenty years ago it was the running back that was getting all the headlines.

As Northwestern was making a unprecedented run to the Rose Bowl in 1995 the popular face of the team was Darnell Autry. The future actor would rush for 1,785 yards and 17 touchdowns in helping the Wildcats to an outright Big Ten Championship.

But what really drove that team was their defense led by talented linebacker Pat Fitzgerald- a two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. The Wildcats held Notre Dame to 15 points, Michigan to 13 and Penn State to ten in critical victories en route to a 10-1 regular season and a season that turned the program around after decades of futility.

A score of seasons later defense once again rules in Evanston as Fitzgerald begins his tenth season as the Wildcats head coach. So far they haven’t been good-they’ve been dominant.

Three games into the 2015 season the Wildcats defense is first in points allowed per game (5.3)  sixth in the country in yards allowed a contest (235). Those numbers came against a talented Stanford squad that scored 41 points in knocking off sixth-ranked USC last week and a much improved Duke team they defeated this past Saturday.

“I think it’s the way that they are preparing. Hank and the staff are doing a good job,” said Fitzgerald of the defense. “But at the same time the guys are very, very focused.”

Against Duke they allowed just three points in the final three quarters and forced three turnovers to help the team to a 19-10 victory in Durham. The victory boosted the Wildcats to No. 17 in the latest rankings as they prepare for their final non-conference game against Ball State on Saturday night.

While the statistics standout to Fitzgerald, there was a particular play on Saturday that made the coach think his defensive unit can be one of his best in his decade at the school.

“We made a call but it really didn’t fit the personnel on the field and the D-Line comes off and they’re ripping my rear end. ‘They can’t call that. What are we doing,'” recalled Fitzgerald of the play. “It just shows you the depth of football IQ that this defense has right now.”

NOTRE DAME: Finally an easy week for the Irish?

SOUTH BEND – For a 3-0 team, Brian Kelly has endured quite a bit of stress during the first month of the football season.

His starting quarterback, running back, defensive tackle, tight end, and last week his safety went down with season-ending injuries. The last one was Drue Tranquill who tore his ACL while celebrating a big play in the second quarter of Saturday’s win over Georgia Tech.

Its gotten the Irish up to sixth in the recent polls even if it’s caused some heartache for Kelly-who entered this season with arguably the highest expectations of his tenure in South Bend.

For a least one week, however, Kelly and his team will enjoy the role of being a heavy favorite for the first time in 2015 as MAC opponent UMass comes to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time in school history. The Minutemen are in their fourth season as a FBS opponents after years of success in the FCS ranks and have struggled in adjusting to the higher level of football.

So far they are 5-33 since moving up and are 0-2 so far this season. But in a season where nothing is given, Kelly’s hardly getting overconfident even as a trip to No. 11 Clemson looms in two weeks.

“Well, you rely on your leaders to make certain that they hold everybody accountable to the way they prepare,” said Kelly when asked about not overlooking an opponent. “And ultimately, the way they play. And so if we really have the kind of locker room and chemistry that I think we have, then we should play very well, and if we play very well, we’re capable of beating anybody in the country. If we don’t, then we can lose to anybody.

“You put it heavily on your players to prepare the right way. And especially your seniors and your leaders to make certain that everybody across the board is doing the little things the right way.”

ILLINOIS: Cubit tries to lessen blow of UNC blowout

CHAMPAIGN – When the Illini scored a pair of easy wins at home to start the season the question was obvious: Is this team good or were the opponents that bad?

Illinois fans got a harsh answer with a trip east last Saturday.

The offense failed to score after getting inside the North Carolina redzone on the opening drive. They were down 20-7 at the half and then were lit up in the final 30 minutes in a 48-14 drubbing at the hands of the Tar Heels that made opening wins over Kent State and Western Illinois seems like a mirage of success.

For a team that dealt with controversy all summer and the firing of their coach a week before the season started, Bill Cubit had to be the one to deliver a bit of a “Pick Me Up” before they complete their non-conference schedule against Middle Tennessee Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

“You know what, you’re disappointed after the game but you’re never discouraged,” said Cubit when asked about the team’s mindset after the blowout. “As coaches, you go in there the next day, you watch the tape, you point out the good things and try to get the bad things rectified. Then you move on and that’s just the only way you approach it. We’re upbeat and we’re looking forward to this Saturday.

“We’ve got good kids.”

Giving some mental encouragement, however, won’t cure the many ills the Illini had during their loss in Chapel Hill. They allowed 471 yards to the Tar Heels and got worse as the game went along as many of the fears of Illinois fans from before the season were realized.

Yet Cubit points to simple improvements that could have made the blowout more competitive.

“We dropped nine balls and, really, that’s been a little bit of an issue; we’ve got 21 already in three games,” said Cubit. “Our tackling was not as good as it was the first two games. Some you’re going to have to attribute to North Carolina; give them the credit. Then our special teams and our coverage were not very good. They were the negatives. We had ourselves get back in the game, we got down to the one yard line, we had a holding penalty and then we got down there, threw a touchdown pass and we dropped that.

“If it’s good, it gives us a boost. It just seems that in the couple of years I’ve been here we’ve let things like that kind of snowball. If you look at it in the end of the third and the end of the fourth it just became one touchdown after another. I think mentally, we’ve got to do better than that. We know this is an issue and we’ve got to fix that.”

NORTHERN ILLINOIS: Another Power conference opponent for the Huskies

DEKALB – As it is many times for teams not in the traditional power conferences, Northern Illinois got a lot of attention for coming close to winning.

That’s what the Huskies have received nationally after giving No. 1 Ohio State a scare in Columbus last Saturday before losing 20-13. It was a spirited effort by Rod Carey’s team that saw them take the early lead, force five turnovers and a game in which they had the ball with a chance to tie on the final drive.

But there won’t be an easy game for Northern Illinois to prepare for their Mid-American Conference schedule. Once again a major conference opponent on the road awaits as the Huskies travel to Boston College on Saturday at Noon.

It’s the Huskies first trip to Boston College since the 1971 season and is their second of three-straight games on the road. The Eagles are 2-1 on this season and are also coming off a strong performance in a loss. Boston College held in with No. 9 Florida State on the road but couldn’t pull out the win, falling to the Seminoles 14-0.