By: Will Ragatz
The Northwestern defense absolutely dominated in a 27-0 victory over Minnesota last Saturday. It was just the latest quality effort by a unit that had already shut down the competent offensive attacks of Stanford and Duke this season. NU is now 5-0 and has moved up to No. 13 in the AP poll, and much of the Wildcats’ success this season can be attributed to defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz’s group.
That said, how does Northwestern stack up with some other elite defenses in college football? Is it reasonable to call NU’s defense the best in the country? Let’s take a look at the Wildcats’ defense, and the other top defenses around the country by analyzing the FBS rankings for seven important defensive stats.
Total Defense: To get an idea of who NU’s defensive peers are, we’ll try total defense. Northwestern is allowing 247.4 total yards per game, good for fifth-best in the country. The third and fourth place teams, N.C. State and Pittsburgh, have faced weak schedules and allowed significantly more points than NU has. That leaves just two worthy competitors. Boston College (3-2, 0-2 ACC) is holding opponents to an FBS-low 140 yards per game this season. NU’s next opponent, Michigan (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten), is giving up just 184 yards per game. Those numbers are both significantly more impressive than Northwestern’s, but total defense doesn’t tell the whole story.
Passing Defense: Northwestern, Boston College and Michigan have all been extremely effective at stopping opposing quarterbacks. In terms of passing yards allowed per game, BC is first in the country (96.6) while Michigan is third (112.6) and NU is seventh (130.0). However, opponents have thrown the ball more frequently against NU than either of the other two so NU is third (4.04) passing yards per attempt with BC first (3.83) and Michigan second (3.94).
Rushing Defense: BC is again first, allowing just 43.4 rushing yards per game, and Michigan is fifth with 71.4. NU’s run defense hasn’t been on the same level as their pass defense, as the Wildcats are allowing 117.4 yards per game on the ground which is only 26th-best in the country. All three have faced similar amounts of rushing attempts.
Scoring Defense: NU is first in this category, allowing just 35 points this season. Yes, that’s a mere seven points per game. However, Michigan is a close second, giving up 7.6 per game while BC is third at eight per game.
Third Down Defense: Can you guess who the top three third down defenses in college football are? Michigan is leading the way, allowing just a 19.4% success rate. NU comes in second at 20%, and BC is third at 20.3%. Not much separation.
Red Zone Defense: NU has allowed opponents into the red zone 10 times this season. Those opposing offenses have come away with a touchdown just once. BC has allowed two touchdown on eight trips while Michigan has allowed four on six trips. Northwestern has allowed opponents to reach the 20-yard line more than the other two, but once they get there, they score touchdowns the fewest.
Turnovers: This is another place where the Wildcats have an advantage. NU has forced 10 turnovers through five games, scoring two defensive touchdowns. Michigan has forced seven and BC just five.
Whew, those were a lot of numbers and rankings. Through five weeks, we have a good idea of who has three of the best defenses in the country. Unfortunately, we don’t have much separation after that, at least not statistically. NU has the best scoring defense, BC leads in total defense and Michigan has allowed the fewest red zone trips and lowest third down conversion rate. Let’s now examine who these defenses have faced, to see if that gives us any clarity.
Michigan gave up 24 points in a season-opening loss at current No. 5 Utah, but has responded by allowing only 14 points in the four games since, including back-to-back shutouts over BYU and Maryland. BC’s defense is legit, having allowed only two offensive touchdowns in three games against then No. 9 Florida State, Northern Illinois and Duke. However, the Eagles’ mind-boggling yards-allowed numbers are inflated by routs over two over-matched FCS schools in Maine and Howard. NU’s dominating performances against Minnesota, Duke and Stanford have already been mentioned
Okay, so that didn’t decide it either. As far as the question of if NU has the best defense in the land, the jury is still out. They are probably at least in the top three, but there’s a lot more football to be played,
Looking ahead: It is important to remember that five games is still a relatively small sample size. These defenses have a lot of season left to prove themselves. Luckily, we don’t have to wait long to see two of them get tested, as NU and Michigan face off in Ann Arbor this weekend. This will be Michigan’s first game without stud senior DE Mario Ojemudia, who is out for the season with an Achilles injury. Meanwhile, BC heads to Death Valley for a matchup with No. 2 Clemson and QB Deshaun Watson in two weeks.
These next two Saturdays may well determine just who actually has the best defense in college football.