Moving on from a movement: Behind superior defense, Northwestern eyes big things
EVANSTON, Ill.—In late summer, four Northwestern football players gathered in an apartment about a mile away from the university's 240-acre lakeside campus. Preseason camp loomed for a program that won just 10 total games and went to no bowls in the previous two seasons. With that in mind, sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker and junior cornerback Matthew Harris invited a pair of seniors, safety Traveon Henry and defensive end Deonte Gibson, to their place for a meeting about the defense that the quartet would lead in 2015. In that small space on Central Street, steps from their practice fields and home stadium, they set the rules for the unit this fall.
Defensive players would have to run on and off the practice field. Before stepping out of the locker room, every player would have to get his ankles, wrists and thumbs taped. The unit would have to create a certain number of turnovers in every practice. If anyone failed to meet a requirement, or if the group fell short of its goals, penance would have to be paid with up-downs or extra sprints. None of the rules were revolutionary, and some weren't even all that new—getting taped, for one, was established protocol. The strict self-policing, however, was a purposeful update. Comply, or else.
"Everybody [was] tired of having 5–7 seasons," Walker said after a recent practice. "We know we have the talent to be a contender in the Big Ten each year. We wanted to get back to that standard, and it starts with the little things."
Big things are now possible for 16th-ranked Northwestern (4–0). The Wildcats have their eyes on a West Division title as they open conference play at home on Saturday against Minnesota (3–1). Northwestern's fast start, which includes wins over Stanford, Eastern Illinois, Duke and Ball State, has been keyed by a smothering, sure-tackling defense. The Wildcats are giving up just 8.8 points per game and rank third nationally in scoring defense.
But even beyond the defense's self discipline, there is a feeling within the football program and the athletic department that Northwestern's return to prominence is in large part due to a to a return to normalcy. The movement to unionize players that began in Evanston in January 2014 officially ended last month, when the National Labor Relations Board declined to rule on the case, effectively scuttling the campaign. The NLRB's decision not only ended the movement, it also eliminated unionization as an occasional concern for the Wildcats' current players.
For the first time in 19 months, energy that players had been forced to spend dealing with the drive to unionize could be reinvested in football. Today, when a Northwestern player talks about paying dues, he is referring solely to the effort required to win. "[Not having to worry about a union] just allows guys to be football players here," Gibson says. "A situation of that magnitude, it's kind of hard to balance with your normal life. It took its toll on some people. Now that it's not there, it's a big relief for some guys."
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Pat Fitzgerald emerged from his regular Monday news conference in shorts and a short-sleeve polo shirt, a relaxed ensemble that belied the coach's exigent vibe. He said hello to a member of the football complex's custodial staff, but didn't stop, instead continuing a conversation over his shoulder as he walked up the stairs to his office. The 40-year-old Fitzgerald had spent 20 minutes praising the Golden Gophers while tempering his praise of the Wildcats, insisting that Northwestern still has a lot of work to do. Now he wanted to get in a workout before getting to that work.
Fitzgerald's sense of urgency dominates the Wildcats' program. He says that it took hold in January, after that second straight five-win campaign, and that it has not dissipated. "The guys came back with an attitude of, The lack of success stops now," he says. "It's one thing to say it. It's another to do it."
Surely there is satisfaction for Fitzgerald—an All-America linebacker for the Wildcats in 1995 and '96—that his team is winning with its defense. The 35 points allowed through four games is the fewest for Northwestern since it gave up 27 in the first four games of the 1961 season. The Wildcats lead the nation in third-down defense, having allowed opponents to convert just 18.6% of the time.
The play of the defense is less a revelation than the product of a slow build. Northwestern ranked 68th and 47th in scoring defense, respectively, in 2013 and '14, but in five of 12 games last season the Wildcats gave up 14 points or less. "Really for the last two years," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said, "we've had some games where we played damn good defense."
Some, of course, is not enough. Northwestern's defense hasn't been defined so much by its highs or lows, but more by its inconsistencies, like when it surrendered 48 points to Iowa last season on Nov. 1, and then a mere 10 to Michigan on Nov. 8.
The Wildcats' consistency in 2015 is, in part, a product of its players having grown up into a scheme. Fitzgerald cites improved communication as the first component of the defense's success. Northwestern has experienced players, especially at safety and linebacker, who know what to do. "It's what you expect and how you expect it," Fitzgerald says.
Hankwitz also notes that a couple of years ago the Wildcats started playing more press-man coverage on early downs. By doing so this season, while relying on established cornerbacks Harris and Nick VanHoose (who have a combined 57 career starts), the scheme probably has a better chance of succeeding than it might have before.
Still, the key to Northwestern's ability to suffocate offenses—to turn everyone else purple, as it were—might be explained even more simply.
"We've tackled as well as we ever have," Fitzgerald says.
About a year and a half ago, the Wildcats' defensive staff came across an online video released by the Seattle Seahawks titled (apparently to dispel any confusion as to what it was about), "2014 Seahawks Tackling." The instructional video was free to all and espoused a philosophy of tackling that, according to a description on Seattle's website, "takes the head out of the play and increases safety," while "maintaining the toughness and physicality" inherent to defense. The techniques shown in the video boiled down to rugby-style tackles, which the organization dubbed "the Seahawk Tackle." The video also emphasized the need to take a proper angle on an offensive player.
Fitzgerald has changed nothing about Northwestern's attention to tackling; the coach has long believed that players can't practice technique enough. And he did not drastically change anything about his team's approach to tackling principles—keep your head up, take a proper angle, hit hard, wrap up and run your feet. But beginning in the fall of 2014, his defensive assistants began applying the techniques and tweaks specific to the Seattle video. The Seahawk Tackle became a Cat Tackle, and Fitzgerald says Northwestern is now "almost exclusively" a head-behind tackle team.
Hankwitz, meanwhile, has taken to carrying around a bag that players attack at full speed, to gain confidence in their pursuit angles. He and the other coaches have harped on tracking an offensive player's inside hip to calculate the proper route to a takedown. "It's not that much different than in the past," Hankwitz says, "but it's enough different that it's really helped us."
Per the team's internal numbers, the Wildcats have missed a mere 23 tackles in four games. According to Fitzgerald, the first time any Northwestern tackler took a bad angle this season was on one play last Saturday in a 24–19 win over Ball State.
It is the result of what Northwestern's program has been teaching for some time: Players are more confident in the system and their fundamentals. "Guys understand, O.K., I have inside help, I have outside help, so they're more aggressive on their job and their job only," Gibson says.
"Watching the film, we've been running to the ball better than I've [ever] seen," Walker says. " Everybody is running to the ball. Even if the guy misses, we're all right there to have his back."
Tackling has become important to the Wildcats in a very basic way. Walker is the defense's breakout star, a 6' 1", 235-pound two-time Big Ten defensive player of the week who leads the team with 41 tackles, including seven for loss. But the Miami native can nevertheless recite every tackle that he has missed in much the same way a professional golfer can recall every shot of a round. There was the third down in the 16–6 victory over No. 21 Stanford on Sept. 5, when he broke on the ball late. ("I kind of just lunged and missed.") There was the time he dove too early and missed a potential tackle for loss in the 41–0 pasting of Eastern Illinois on Sept. 12. ("Should've just kept running.") And there was the third-down check-down pass to the running back in the 19–10 victory over Duke, when he dove again and missed—again. ("Which coach Fitz told me to stop doing, and I didn't listen.")
"You have to be your own worst critic," Walker says.
The refusal of Walker and the rest of the players on defense to shrug off shortcomings or mistakes has transformed the unit. "Coaches can only do so much," Henry says. "We're out there on the field together and we have to rely on each other. When it comes down to building upon what we set as standards, it's a little more genuine. It's a little more impactful when it comes from within."
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Improving its defense is the sort of problem-solving that Northwestern is more than happy to address. It beats a conversation about labor laws and union cards and using all of that as a means to improve the conditions under which athletes play college sports.
In January 2014 then senior quarterback Kain Colter announced that he was leading a group of Wildcats players seeking to be represented by a labor union, the first such effort in the history of college athletics. Six weeks ago, the NLRB dismissed the players' petition. Though eligible players voted by secret ballot on the certification issue back in April '14, the result of the vote was never known—the votes were impounded until the NLRB made its ruling and were not counted after the board's unanimous decision in August. As the process dragged on, the Northwestern players became something like political taffy, tugged and stretched from both sides of the debate as they faced questions about being at the forefront of a landmark movement.
How much of a burden this was depends on who answers the question.
"It wasn't a huge distraction," senior superback Dan Vitale says. "But there was always something kind of lingering there. We were always wondering, 'When is this going to show up again?'"
"At some point, you're going to get tired of explaining yourself," Gibson says.
"It's kind of like a weight off the back," Henry says. "Not having that cloud hanging over us."
"I'm not even going to lie—it was very much a distraction to the team, I think," Walker says. "Now we don't even discuss it anymore. It's just a breeze gone by."
The more relevant point is that the Wildcats had to deal with the issue at all. Henry says players weren't bombarded with propaganda from either side, but they nevertheless had more to consider than a playbook or a class syllabus. Conversations in the locker and film rooms occasionally drifted to where the process stood.
Simply put: If Northwestern and its coaches were talking about unionization at any time during the 20 hours per week that they are allowed by the NCAA to be together, they weren't talking about football.
"I hate to be this guy, but I'm not talking about that stuff anymore," Fitzgerald says. "I have zero interest in going back. Yeah, of the 20 hours, we had to take time. But I'm not going to allow that to be an excuse. You have to overcome things no matter what. I'm happy for the guys that they just get to go play football."
And they're playing well. They made a statement in the season-opening win over the Cardinal in Evanston. For months, Fitzgerald compared the meeting with Stanford to a bowl game. If the Wildcats truly were on track to put two dreary seasons behind them, standing up to Stanford's physicality would be a convincing first step.
The Wildcats held the Cardinal, who had scored 41.5 points per game in their last two outings of 2014, to two field goals and 240 yards of total offense. Northwestern's defense missed only four tackles.
There was no raucous celebration afterward. Just an increased sense of urgency.
"It kind of opened our eyes—man, we could be great," Vitale says.
That may be a bit much to expect for now, especially after the narrow victory over Ball State last Saturday. The Wildcats' offense is averaging a so-so 19.7 points against FBS competition. Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson has been solid, but put his team in a halftime hole against the Cardinals with an interception and other questionable decisions. And someone needs to become a reliable backup to sophomore tailback Justin Jackson, who leads all of FBS with 118 carries through four games.
There is ample room for improvement. There is also a favorable schedule that includes beatable Big Ten West peers, but not East powerhouses Ohio State and Michigan State. Aside from upcoming road trips to Michigan and Wisconsin, Northwestern has a generally an agreeable path. The Wildcats should at least be able to avoid another off-the-table plunge like they took in 2013, when they started with four straight wins—and hosted ESPN's College GameDay prior to a 40–30 loss to Ohio State on Oct. 5—only to drop seven in a row.
No, a team equipped with a sound defense and freed from a major distraction has a realistic chance to play meaningful games into December and beyond. It's only a chance, but Northwestern is more than willing to sign up for that.