Hip-hopper Kanye West would say Northwesterns 2013 defense is harder, better, faster, stronger... and smarter.
James Martins group has been a three-quarters unit, this season, one whose starters have generally been relaxing on the sideline by the fourth quarter. Even if the Trojan defense was on the sidelines early in 2012, Martins first season at Northwestern, it wasnt relaxing.
Last year, being new, we wanted to get people in the right positions all of the time, he said, and that hindered us a bit.
The Trojan starting unit left last weeks 52-22 win over West Florence with a 49-5 lead in the third quarter, after helping hold the run-centric Knights under 100 yards rushing as a team. Northwestern 12-0 and hosting 10-2 York Friday night in the second round of the Class AAAA Division II playoffs has outscored its opponents 499-127 in the first three quarters of games this year, but only 67-51 in the fourth, when the starters have often already ended their night.
Stats can be misleading and deceiving because some of those yards are coming off of backups, and points are coming off of backups, said Northwestern coach Kyle Richardson. For the most part this year our starting defense has played three quarters, just like Friday night. Our starting defense held them to 66 yards of total offense.
Northwesterns offense gets much of the attention, but the teams defense has carried its weight this season. With the two units humming along together, the Trojans have yet to trail in the second half of a game this season.
Theyre playing fast and our system is really easy for the kids to understand, said Richardson. Thats what its about, our kids playing fast on both sides of the ball. Thats what were doing on offense, thats what were doing on defense, and were getting some good results from it.
Northwesterns defense has flowered in its second year under Martin, who came to Northwestern last season after five years as the head coach of Charlottes South Mecklenburg High. He simplified Northwesterns defense, allowing the Trojans college football prospects to react, without the complex reads required in previous seasons.
We spent a lot of time re-evaluating players positions and films, just how can we get things faster, Martin said earlier this week. I think a lot of it is players knowing what were doing for the second year, which made it a lot simpler for them. They understood a lot more, got to see a lot of corrections, and put the pieces of the puzzle together, and now theyre playing the way we are right now.
It helps to have athletic talent. Senior defensive backs Jaquavious Mackey and Corey Seargent have lived up to billing this season, with Mackey, who has 62 tackles and four interceptions, being named to the North-South All-Star game, and Seargent, who leads the team with 131 tackles in addition to three picks, was selected for the Shrine Bowl. Senior linebackers Russell Hubbs and Josh Miller have been ever-presents in the middle of the defense, the pair combining for nearly 200 tackles. Those guys have carried the load while juniors like Chris Bouyer, Dante Seargent, Desmond Leak and Andarius Whitlock grow into contributing roles.
In the back weve got some seasoned veterans, said Richardson. When youve got a guy like Mackey and a guy like Seargent that can do some things athletically and just with the speed that they bring, they clean up a lot of the messes.
The Trojans have a 23-9 turnover advantage this season, including some key takeaways in Northwesterns closest game of the season, a 42-35 win over Byrnes. Northwesterns best defense the last few years has been its offense, so holding opponents to 33 percent third down completion this year has enabled Mason Rudolph and company to have maximum scoring opportunities, keeping the pressure on the opposing teams defense instead of Martins.
While Northwestern got smarter in the offseason, it got tougher during the first four weeks of the regular season against the likes of Gaffney, Charlotte Catholic and Byrnes. No test was better than confronting smashmouth Catholic and running back Elijah Hood, the North Carolina commit that has paved over high school tacklers in record numbers the last four years.
We took that challenge to make us better, said Richardson. We did a really good job against him, and I feel like its toughened us up and made us better.
Plus, said Martin, It helped us be well-rounded, so when we get to region and the playoffs, weve seen a lot of formations, which helps us make a lot of automatic checks that we need to have.
The Trojans held Hood to 189 yards, impressive considering hes topped 200 eight times this season, and also limited him to 5.3 yards per carry, his second-lowest per-game average of the season, and just one touchdown, his second-lowest scoring game of the season.
Martins defense also had a solid showing against York in the two teams first meeting this season, a 45-15 Northwestern win in late October. Standout Cougar running back Ryan Moore finished the game with 94 rushing yards but he had just 54 yards headed into the fourth quarter facing a 38-15 Northwestern lead, before piling on 40 more yards.
We did a good job on 21 (Moore) earlier in the season, but none of that matters now, said Richardson. Hes gonna come out fired up and weve got to match that challenge.
The staunch defensive effort against York was a massive improvement over the two teams 2012 encounter, when Moore ran for 170 yards and three scores. What didnt kill the Trojan defenders only made them stronger. Kanye would be so proud.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T