NCF Nation: Damien Proby

Cats still look to climb over hump

October, 6, 2013
EVANSTON, Ill. -- The first thing he did was thank the media, and then the fans, especially the fans, the ones who helped create an atmosphere unseen around these parts since he was the one out on Ryan Field making hits some 18 years ago.

And then Pat Fitzgerald offered a bit of an apology.

"Our students were absolutely amazing. I think they started their day at about 2 in the morning, and we're sorry we didn't finish the job for them and give them a great homecoming," said Fitzgerald, the eighth-year Northwestern coach and former Wildcats linebacker. "But unbelievable, the amount of support that we've received from our students. Unbelievable homecoming setting. Incredibly thankful for that."

This town proved itself to be more than worthy of all of the national attention that was washed upon it this past week, from the "College GameDay" circus to the announced crowd of 47,330 in attendance for the prime-time kickoff. Fans and alumni from both Ohio State and Northwestern flooded the L-trains coming from the city and helped give some validation to the moniker of "Chicago's Big Ten Team." Tailgaters weathered late-afternoon thunderstorms that threatened to end this party a few hours too soon.

Then the No. 16 Wildcats gave the natives plenty to cheer about, going blow-for-blow with the No. 4 Buckeyes before falling by a 40-30 final that gave little indication of just how tight the preceding 60 minutes had been.

[+] EnlargeKain Colter, Ryan Shazier
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRyan Shazier is blitzing more and getting more quarterbacks in his grasp.
"Our players went out there with the right attitude," said linebacker Damien Proby, who was responsible for the third of Braxton Miller's three turnovers when he forced a fumble in the third quarter. "We didn't play this game or approach this game for the media; we played this for ourselves, and we wanted to prove something to ourselves. And that's something that we still need to do, but we definitely took a step in that direction like we wanted to."

Northwestern took a 20-13 lead into halftime on the back of an opportunistic defense that forced two Miller turnovers and saw quarterback Kain Colter score two different times without throwing the ball -- once on a 9-yard third-down strike from co-signal-caller Trevor Siemian, later on a 2-yard rush. Ohio State's only touchdown through 41-plus minutes came on a blocked punt in the end zone, courtesy of cornerback Bradley Roby.

Juggling quarterbacks like they usually do, the Wildcats' biggest crime for much of the game was stalling in the red zone, settling for three short Jeff Budzien field goals that gave them a 10-point lead in the third quarter.

Carlos Hyde was too much, though, as the Buckeyes went back to the basics and relied on the 6-foot, 235-pound bull to barrel his way to the tune of 168 rushing yards and 38 more receiving yards. Hyde reached the end zone three times in the second half, the middle of which, with 11:29 left in the game, was ruled a score after review, giving Ohio State a 27-23 lead. It had come after Northwestern's only turnover of the game, a Siemian pass picked off by Doran Grant.

Siemian finished 13-of-18 for 245 yards with two touchdowns, keeping a number of plays alive with his feet. Colter was 12-for-12 for 98 yards.

Both benefited greatly form the return of Venric Mark, who tallied 103 total yards in his first extended action of the season.

"There were definitely plays down the stretch that we could've made, and it could've been a different outcome," said end Tyler Scott, who notched one sack and had forced and recovered Miller's first fumble, setting up Northwestern's first score. "It was third-and-[2] at the goal line and Hyde sticks the ball out, and if we got a stop, they might've been kicking a field goal and it might've been a different game, but we've just got to look at the film, see where we can improve."

Both teams exchanged touchdowns on the next two drives, before Colter bobbled a fourth-and-1 snap at the Ohio State 34 with less than three minutes to play, diving on it and falling just short of the first down on a play that was upheld after Fitzgerald's challenge.

Northwestern got the ball back with 21 seconds left, and a Joey Bosa recovery in the end zone of a failed lateral attempt provided window-dressing for the Buckeyes as the horn sounded and Urban Meyer improved to 18-0 as Ohio State's coach.

Said Fitzgerald: "There's a team getting on the bus going back to Columbus that knows it just got into a fight with a pretty darn good football team."

Good enough, it would seem, to potentially get another shot at these Buckeyes in two months.

Asked about the potential of a rematch in the Big Ten title game, Fitzgerald said "it would be a great problem."

Echoed Proby: "That's a good problem to have as a program."

Different problems for a different program, one that felt the need to seek forgiveness for not punctuating an exhilarating day with a historic win.

Big Ten Power Rankings: Week 4

September, 23, 2013
Remember two weeks ago when we were debating Ohio State versus Michigan as the Big Ten's top team? Well, the Buckeyes have created some separation from Michigan and the rest of the league with two dominant offensive performances. Michigan, meanwhile, either has a massive hangover from beating Notre Dame or a lot of issues to sort out.

We gave the Wolverines the benefit of the doubt after the Akron game and kept them at No. 2. After Saturday night's slopfest at Connecticut, we can no longer keep Michigan in the second slot. Northwestern looked lackluster for the second straight week but avoided the major scare Michigan has endured. Wisconsin, meanwhile, might be the league's second-best squad. We'll find out a lot about the Badgers this week in Columbus.

Minnesota and Iowa make nice moves this week, while Indiana takes a tumble.

As a reminder, we keep these rankings consistent with how we vote in the Top 25. Here's one final look at last week's power poll.

Let's get to the rundown ...

1. Ohio State (4-0, last week: 1): We'll finally get a gauge on these Buckeyes as they open Big Ten play Saturday night against Wisconsin, but the recent results have been encouraging. Braxton Miller's absence once again didn't faze Ohio State, which scored 34 points in the first quarter and received a nice boost from running back Carlos Hyde in his season debut. Backup signal-caller Kenny Guiton continued his surge with a school-record six touchdown passes. Miller likely returns this week, but the Buckeyes' offense clearly is more than just one man this season.

2. Northwestern (4-0, last week: 3): For whatever reason, Northwestern looks worse against weaker nonleague foes than seemingly stronger ones. The Wildcats had more positives against Cal and Syracuse than Western Michigan and Maine, although they were never in serious danger of losing in the past two weeks. Linebacker Damien Proby sparked a takeaway-driven defense Saturday. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian struggled but have two weeks to prepare for Ohio State, when running back Venric Mark is expected back.

3. Wisconsin (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten; last week: 4): Credit Gary Andersen's players for not letting last week's unfortunate ending linger as they opened Big Ten play against Purdue. Wisconsin went back to what it does best, overpowering opponents with the run game, as Melvin Gordon and James White combined for 292 rush yards and four touchdowns. The Badgers' defense bottled up Purdue, surrendering only 12 first downs, 45 rush yards and 180 total yards. You have to like how Wisconsin is performing before this week's showdown in Columbus.

4. Michigan (4-0, last week: 2): The Akron game could be forgivingly dismissed as a letdown. But when many of the same issues surface for the second straight week against a poor opponent, it's reason to be concerned. Michigan won't stay perfect much longer if quarterback Devin Gardner keeps turning over the ball (he leads the nation with 10 turnovers) and the offensive line endures periods of inconsistent play. Coach Brady Hoke and his staff have plenty of items to address this week before the Jug game against potentially undefeated Minnesota.

5. Nebraska (3-1, last week: 6): After a turbulent eight days, Bo Pelini wanted his players to have some fun in their final nonleague tuneup. The offense had plenty despite playing without top quarterback Taylor Martinez, eclipsing 300 pass yards and 300 rush yards. Reserve quarterbacks Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg III both performed well. The defense had a lot less fun, however, surrendering 465 yards in a performance that Pelini labeled its worst of the season. Nebraska has to get a handle on its defense this week before opening Big Ten play against Illinois.

6. Minnesota (4-0, last week: 7): Knock San Jose State if you must, but the Spartans provided the biggest test for Minnesota to date, and the Gophers passed it with flying colors. Minnesota showed the physical dominance coach Jerry Kill has been waiting for, piling up 353 rush yards and six touchdowns behind quarterback Mitch Leidner and running back David Cobb. Although San Jose State's David Fales showed why he's an NFL prospect, the Gophers continued to force turnovers. Minnesota hosts Iowa this week in a game that has more than bacon on the line.

7. Michigan State (3-1, last week: 5): The Spartans looked like the better team for much of Saturday's game at Notre Dame. But many of the same issues that surfaced in close losses last season -- stalled drives, dropped passes, not enough takeaways and missed field goals -- surfaced in a 17-13 setback. Coach Mark Dantonio and his players say this feels different, and that they can overcome their errors to make some noise in a wide-open Legends Division. The defense remains championship-level, but there are other issues to sort out, namely quarterback.

8. Penn State (3-1, last week: 8): Kent State's woeful offense turned out to be the perfect cure for a Nittany Lions defense that struggled mightily in a Week 3 loss to Central Florida. Safety Ryan Keiser and cornerback Jordan Lucas helped trigger Penn State's first shutout since 2010, as the Lions allowed only nine first downs and 190 total yards. The run game once again surged behind Akeel Lynch (123 rush yards) and others. Penn State's defense will face much greater tests when Big Ten play begins in two weeks.

9. Iowa (3-1, last week: 11): Kirk Ferentz's crew is clearly on the rise after its most complete performance in recent memory. Iowa received numerous contributions on offense, two punt return touchdowns from Kevonte Martin-Manley and a pick-six from B.J. Lowery -- all during a 38-point first half against Western Michigan. Lowery added another pick-six in the second half and stomped the Broncos. After a rough start to the season, Iowa has the momentum it needs heading into a pivotal Big Ten opener against Minnesota.

10. Illinois (2-1, last week: 10): The Illini sat back and watched the rest of the Big Ten in Week 4, enjoying the first of two open weeks. They'll have an excellent chance to improve to 3-1 this week against an 0-3 Miami (Ohio) squad that was shut out Saturday against Cincinnati and has scored just 21 points in its first three games. This is the perfect opportunity for Illinois' defense to rebound after getting gashed by Washington in Week 3. Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase tries to bounce back after completing just 9 of 25 pass attempts.

11. Indiana (2-2, last week: 9): Just when Indiana appears ready to turn a corner, it becomes Indiana again. For the second time in three games, Indiana limped out of the gate and fell behind, never finding a good offensive rhythm and struggling to stop Missouri's balanced attack. Missouri piled up 623 yards, a Memorial Stadium record for an Indiana opponent. The Hoosiers' defense remains far too vulnerable, and quarterback Nate Sudfeld struggled, throwing three interceptions. There's a lot to fix in the open week before Penn State comes to town.

12. Purdue (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten; last week: 12): Trips to Madison haven't been kind to the Boilers, and Saturday's proved to be no exception as Darrell Hazell's team took a step back after an encouraging performance against Notre Dame. When you can't run the ball or stop the run, you have no chance, and Purdue struggled mightily in both areas. Hazell admits Purdue must do some "soul searching" following a rough start, and things don't get any easier this week against Jordan Lynch and Northern Illinois.
Every defense talks about the A-word -- aggressiveness -- and Northwestern's is no exception.

For the better part of the past two seasons, the Wildcats' defense too often has found itself in a, well, defensive posture. Opposing offenses have moved the ball too easily against the Wildcats, particularly on third down, which used to be a strength for the unit.

It's why Wildcats coaches place such a premium on the A-word entering the 2012 season. To get there, they bring up another A-word.

"It's an attitude," defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. "It isn't just schematics. We're going to do things to try to be more aggressive schematically, but we're not going to blitz every damn play. We're going to pick our spots, and we're going to do things. But we said we want to have a more aggressive mentality getting to the ball and being more physical.

[+] EnlargePat Fitzgerald
Reid Compton/US PresswireAfter ranking last in the Big Ten in sacks last season, Pat Fitzgerald's defense is looking to be more aggressive in 2012.
"They've embraced what our goals and objectives have been, and we're making progress."

Northwestern likely will decrease its use of an ineffective three-man rush that consistently led to third-and-long meltdowns last season and dropped the team to 114th nationally in third-down defense (50 percent conversion). Defensive end Quentin Williams is the lone returning player who recorded multiple sacks in 2011, so Hankwitz knows he can't rely too much on the line getting home on its own. The Wildcats ranked last in the Big Ten and 106th nationally in sacks last season (1.31 per game).

But at times, Hankwitz will lean on the front four and expect them to cause more problems than they did in 2011.

"We've got to be more aggressive with our calls, but we've got to also be more effective when we do rush the passer," he said. "You're not going to bring the perfect thing every time where somebody comes free, so you've got to beat guys one-on-one."

After communication breakdowns plagued the defense during a five-game losing streak, Hankwitz saw improvement in the final five contests. Players embraced the offseason objectives outlined in their first meeting in January, and the strong retention between spring practice to fall camp allowed coaches to build rather than work on reinstalling plays.

Although the defense is green at spots, namely the secondary, where redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose and two other new starters enter the mix, the unit features a number of familiar faces who had their pride challenged last season and in recent months.

"Our defense was very motivated through the positive talk they heard through the blog sites and wonderful articles they had to read all offseason," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said with just a hint of sarcasm. "And they lived it. They know they were not pleased with the way they performed, and preseason, for the first time I used some outside stuff for motivation. You get what you deserve, and we deserve everything that was said about the guys.

"And they took it personally. Guys like Bus [linebacker David Nwabuisi] that have been out there and Tyler [Scott] and Brian Arnfelt and Quentin Williams, Damien Proby, Ibraheim Campbell -- they were not pleased with the way they played, and we weren't pleased with the way we coached them and we performed. The great news is I’ll be done talking about that crap [soon]."

Campbell, a safety who led the team with 100 tackles as a redshirt freshman, describes the aggressive mindset as never being satisfied.

"If you had a PBU [pass broken up], you should have had a pick," he said. "If you made a tackle, it should have been a TFL."

A defense with plenty to prove returns to the field Saturday at Syracuse, which ranked 90th nationally in offense last fall but boasts a veteran quarterback in Ryan Nassib and some good receivers. The Wildcats hope embracing the A-word can translate into more Ws this fall.