After a season of challenges, the Wildcats’ defense returns to its roots

Northwestern struggled last season to create momentum-changing plays. In 2020, the Wildcat defense has generated them at will.

By Eric Rynston-Lobel

The reminders of 2018 reappeared in Iowa City for the Northwestern Wildcats on Saturday afternoon — a close win decided by timely interceptions. 

The ‘Cats improved to 2-0 after beating the Iowa Hawkeyes, 21-20. The last time they played at Kinnick Stadium two years ago, they clinched the Big Ten West title for the first time in school history.

Wildcat fans are no strangers to what happened next: a 3-9 season, four different quarterbacks, an anemic offense and a defense that averaged only 1.2 takeaways per game (103 out of 130 FBS schools). So far, the ‘Cats are on track to reverse all of those trends, but the takeaways have been particularly noticeable.

Last season, the Wildcat defensive backs had only three interceptions. Through their first two games this season, they’ve recorded six. Redshirt first-year safety Brandon Joseph described the renewed focus on turnovers: “This is a mindset, not just me, but the whole DB group has. I did it today. They did it last week,” he said after recording two intercpetions in the ‘Cats’ win over Iowa. “It’s a mindset that we have to get turnovers, and we’re gonna continue to do that every week.”

The emphasis on takeaways is nothing new. But the process of improving takeaways speaks just as much to the ‘Cats’ mental approach as it does to their physical talent. Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald has always preached the importance of winning the turnover battle, but he said all the credit goes to his players and staff.

“We’ve worked really hard to build better relationships. We’ve looked really hard at that as coaches and how we can be better communicators, better listeners, be more empathetic, be better relationship-builders, so we can have better trust. If we can have better trust, then we can all improve,” he said. “It’s not only on the field, but it’s also in our personal relationships. That’s been our mindset in the offseason as a staff, and I think it’s been some of the glue that has kept us together.”

The emphasis on developing trust in each other has shown through. Epitomizing the buy-in to the coaches’ messaging, Joseph said he and fellow safety Coco Azema caught balls after practice every day during the offseason to make sure they never missed an opportunity for an interception. “That’s why our hands are the way they are,” he said. 

Two years ago, now-senior linebacker Paddy Fisher was key to the ‘Cats’ turnover success, when he forced four fumbles and recorded an interception. With just five players who forced a turnover in 2018 still on the roster, the younger players have had to pick up the slack. Fisher described developing this mindset to create turnovers as a learning curve.

“It’s one thing to really start and begin making it muscle memory and second nature, harping on the takeaways,” he said. “When you move forward and progress, you get out of this learning stage, and now it’s repetition so many times that that’s all you’re thinking about…It just flows so smoothly, and it all comes together. It takes some time, and I think that we’re really starting to come together with that.”

In as much as the ‘Cats’ defense sorely lacked in creating momentum-changing plays in 2019, linebacker Chris Bergin used Saturday’s victory to explain why feeding off of momentum shifts is crucial: “Momentum is a powerful, powerful tool. We felt like we had it there in the second half thanks to our offense and Peyton [Ramsey],” he said. “We just rode that momentum and tried to create takeaways, and we did, and that’s what we talk about. That’s what we preach. That’s what we practice.”