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Northwestern's Hankwitz goes on the defensive

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Mike Hankwitz has coached defense long enough to know when a problem can be isolated and immediately fixed.

Unfortunately for Hankwitz, Northwestern's defensive decline this season can be attributed to multiple factors.

  • Injuries have hit the unit especially hard. All-Big Ten defensive end Corey Wootton is still working back into form following ACL surgery in January, and fellow defensive linemen Corbin Bryant and Adam Hahn are also not 100 percent. None of them participated in spring ball. The team's top defensive back, safety Brad Phillips, dealt with elbow and calf injuries in preseason camp after undergoing shoulder surgery earlier in the offseason. Injuries have kept two starters, cornerback Sherrick McManis and middle linebacker Nate Williams, off the field for games and thinned the depth behind them.

  • The linebacking corps is enduring some growing pains after losing two starters from 2008. Outside linebacker Ben Johnson played primarily on special teams last year after missing some time with an injury. Junior Quentin Davie started 11 games last season but is learning a new position this fall, Hankwitz said.

  • Players are simply not executing on game day. Missed tackles have been a problem throughout the Wildcats' last three contests, and the team has lost opportunities to secure takeaways at key times. Hankwitz spotted three missed interceptions in Saturday's loss to Minnesota. The line hasn't put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

"It’s a lot of little things," said Hankwitz, the team's second-year defensive coordinator who fostered massive improvements in Year 1. "Sometimes it hasn’t carried over from practice. Part of our problem is a lot of guys are fighting through injuries, and they haven't been able to practice as much as we’ve needed them to. The linebackers are brand-new players. And we aren’t getting the consistent execution we were getting last year.”

Defense was Northwestern's calling card in 2008, as it ranked fourth in the league in both points allowed (20.8 ppg) and rush defense (126.4), tied for first in sacks (34) and finished third in both red zone defense (78.6 percent) and third-down defense (34.7 percent). Despite returning eight starters this fall, the defense has backslid in several key areas, looking more like the unit that struggled mightily before Hankwitz's arrival.

Northwestern has surrendered 72 points and 823 yards in consecutive losses to Syracuse and Minnesota, hardly offensive juggernauts. The defense's tackling struggles against Minnesota stunned head coach Pat Fitzgerald, who described the performance as "awful."

Things need to get fixed before Saturday when Northwestern visits Purdue, which boasts and improved offensive line several big-play threats, including running back Ralph Bolden.

"We don’t feel we’re that far away," Hankwitz said. "We’re trying to show them how close we are. If we all do our job a little better and more consistently, a lot of these things wouldn’t happen. We’re right there. We have to go do it in a game."

The defense hasn't executed zone blitzes as well as it did a year ago, leaving gaps for opposing ball carriers to shoot through. Hankwitz also admits he has had to adjust the way he calls games for several reasons, including the new offenses Northwestern has faced in all four games.

"You don’t have as much background on them, as much experience," he said. "You play somebody the year before, you have a lot better feel for their philosophy. We’re trying to do the things we did last year. At times we’re limited a bit because of youth and the injuries.”

The defense can't afford another step back this week, but Hankwitz sees signs of progress as key players like Wootton and Phillips work through injuries and young players like Johnson get more comfortable.

"Our guys are disappointed, but we’re not discouraged," he said. "We're trying to show them how close we are. As much as challenging them, it’s encouraging them and making them realize they're not that far away."