JACKSONVILLE, Fla -- On Sept. 1, in the season opener against Syracuse, the Northwestern defense collapsed. A 35-13 lead was erased when the porous Wildcats secondary allowed four unanswered touchdowns. The offense, like it was so accustomed to doing, preserved the victory.
Four months later, the script was flipped.
“The defense covered our butts today,” quarterback Trevor Siemian said.
The NU defense succeeded in every facet en route to a comfortable 34-20 Gator Bowl victory against Mississippi State. The Cats forced Tyler Russell into four interceptions – a rare series of errors from the steady junior quarterback. Aside from some big gains on outside rushes, NU controlled the line of scrimmage throughout.
The defense faced a great deal of scrutiny early in the season, perhaps for good reason. After solid performances in the three weeks following the Syracuse meltdown, they regressed at Penn State. NU let Matt McGloin catch fire, and gave up 21 points in the decisive final quarter.
A final wakeup call came at Michigan, when a miracle pass from Devin Gardner to Roy Roundtree spurred the Wolverines to an improbable 38-31 overtime win. In the final three contests, NU held opponents to 18 points per game. The Cats may have saved their best performance for last.
“It was just a great way to finish the season,” senior linebacker David Nwabuisi said. “… We knew we could come in here and play a great game and dominate the line of scrimmage. That’s what we do. We make them go through the air.”
The unit got off to a fast start when Quentin Williams returned an interception for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage.
“I think we got in his head a little bit,” Williams said.
“He started off the game very poorly,” MSU coach Dan Mullen added. “I think he was shaken.”
It sure seemed like it. Russell threw three interceptions in his first 11 passes, completing only four of those. While Mullen urged him to shake off the rough outing, NU continued to make plays.
The strong pass rush added another dimension. Williams added a sack, and honorable mention All-Big Ten selection Tyler Scott took down Russell on a pair of occasions. One of the most impressive players on the entire defense, Scott still has a year of eligibility remaining. Coach Pat Fitzgerald raved about his play.
“Tyler has just been a warrior,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s worked hard. He’s gotten so much stronger and more explosive.”
The NU offense also struggled. Siemian and Kain Colter combined to throw three interceptions. But when MSU attempted to rally, down just a touchdown with about 11 minutes remaining, Russell forced another throw and the defense converted yet again.
Nick VanHoose finished his excellent freshman season with a late interception. Shortly after, Venric Mark punched it in from three yards out, a crucial touchdown to give the Cats a 34-20 lead. Mullen said his players showed fight, but were crushed by the big play.
“They put themselves back into position and made a couple of critical mistakes at the very end,” Mullen said.
The game bucked convention. Northwestern won its first bowl game in 64 years, and it was the once-criticized defense that saved the day.
Follow on Twitter: @NicholasMedline