As the North West offense struggled in 2021, it left the defense vulnerable. Because the NU offense had issues keeping up practices, they sometimes kept all 11 guys on the field defense too long. And as a result, it allowed opposing offenses to gain vast amounts of yards, move the ball at will, and most importantly, score points. This despite the multitude of talent the Wildcats had on this unit last season. That certainly put defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil in a tough spot.
The injuries that appeared didn’t help matters. In the end, the “Cardiac Cats” were the second-worst team in the Big Ten in total defense (429.5 ypg), the worst team in run defense (213.0 ypg), and third worst in points. allowed (29.0 ppm). Their best defensive ranking was against the pass: 8th (216.5 YPG). They were second to last in sacks (19) and steals (6).
This team could only go up from here, right? Well, not necessarily considering the Cats lost leading tackle Chris Bergin (in the Chicago Bears camp as an undrafted free agent) and All-America safety Brandon Joseph (traded to Notre Dame).
Pressuring the QB: Worse
Wildcats only fire 4 players who recorded sacks last year: DEs Adetomiwa Adebawore (team led with 4.5 sacks) and Sean McLaughlin (1.5), and LBs Bryce Gallagher (1) and Xander Mueller (0.5). It’s only 7.5 bags that come back.
And when you consider the Cats will play 6 of the Big Ten’s top 8 offenses (based on total offense) from last year (Ohio State, Nebraska, Maryland, Purdue, Penn State, Wisconsin), a pass rush consistent is crucial. In order to make that a reality, this team will need to see more production from players such as defensive tackles Jason Gold Jr. (13 career tackles, 0 sacks) and Jordan Butler (hasn’t recorded a tackle since 2020), as well as defensive end Devin O’Rourke (4 tackles last year). I also hope to see more blitz opportunities for Gallagher and Mueller.
Two players who can also help in this endeavor are a pair of new recruits: point carrier Anto Saka and defensive lineman Brendan Flakes. Saka – a 4-star freshman – recorded 46 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 9 sacks during his senior year at Loyola-Blakefield High School in Maryland. Flakes is a 3-star Florida player who recorded 68 tackles, 25 TFLs, and 13.5 sacks in his senior year of high school.
Northwestern also brought in 3 senior transfer DLs, so there are options.
Run Defense: Worst
In addition to the players mentioned above, the Wildcats are also bringing back linebackers Khalid Jones and Greyson Metz, as well as defensive backs Coco Azema, AJ Hampton Jr., Cameron Mitchell, Rod Heard, Garnett Hollis Jr., Jaheem Joseph, Tyler Haskins and Ore. Adeyi. When you put all those players together, NU are returning 373 of 821 total tackles from last year and 26 of 46 tackles from last year for loss. The experience is there, and the talent is there. But …
The Cats will face 5 of the Big Ten’s top 7 rushers from last year (Illinois, Ohio State, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin). They’ll need to add more to those numbers (especially in the TFL department), and Pat Fitzgerald’s team will especially need to improve on last year’s average by giving up 5.3 yards per carry (the worst in the conference). And they’ll have to do it without 5-year veteran Bergin, whose 141 tackles ranked 2nd in the nation last year.
Defensive passing: Worst
The Wildcats’ high school returning members combined for 23 of NU’s 34 pass deflections in 2021, with Hampton leading the Big Ten with 12. The other 11 came from the aforementioned Adebawore (3), DB Brandon Joseph (4) , linebacker Bergin (1) and defensive linemen Jeremy Meiser and Sam Miller (combined for 3). The last 4 players are no longer part of the team. Bergin and Joseph, along with DB Bryce Jackson and linebacker Troy Hudetz (who also disappeared from the program) are the ones who landed those 6 picks in 2021.
The losses of Bergin and Joseph are major for this program and probably cannot be compensated even with the long list of returning players. Joseph has had 9 of the team’s 20 interceptions over the past 2 seasons – a streak in which no one else has had more than one.
Special Teams: Worst
Gone is Derek Adams and his average of 41.9 yards per punt and 21 games of experience with the Wildcats. He also played 41 games at Kent State before his transfer, so NU are losing a very experienced punter.
He has done everything in his power to put the NU defense in a position to succeed, and his departure definitely sets this team back.
Junior Hunter Renner, transfer Luke Akers or sophomore Jacob Tabibian will take over. None of the returnees have appeared in a meaningful college game, but they’ve been training with the team this whole time, so they know the system well. And Akers is the son of NFL All-Pro David Akers and is listed as a kicker and punter, so there you go.
While a few new players will be slotted into some positions, the Wildcats are bringing back vital experience to others. The challenge this team will take on for the upcoming season is to turn inexperienced players into productive ones, while improving their numbers from last season. Northwestern will be a mid-pack defense at best this year. It would be a big surprise if they could catch up with the lost power of Bergin, Joseph and others.
Fitzgerald brought in 3 forward-7 defensive players through the portal – 2 DLs and an LB – all from the Power 5 programs. And it’s an even year, which bodes well for the Cats for a reason. any. So maybe there’s a chance that this outlook is too dire. We will know in a few months.