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Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes to turn page on bad defensive season

NU coach PFitzgerald celebrates with his players after big defensive stop last seasagainst Nebraska. | AP

NU coach Pat Fitzgerald celebrates with his players after a big defensive stop last season against Nebraska. | AP

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Updated: September 24, 2012 7:52AM

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald resorted to using negative press and Internet clippings to motivate his team last season. When the subject was the Wildcats’ defense, he had plenty to choose from.

‘‘For the first time, I used some outside stuff,’’ Fitzgerald told reporters this week. ‘‘Thanks to you guys for the motivation, and I don’t blame you. You get what you deserve. We deserved everything that was said about the guys. They took it personally.’’

NU often struggles defensively, but that was especially true last season. The Wildcats finished 10th in the Big Ten in rushing defense, 12th in passing defense and 11th overall. They had one of the lowest sack totals (17) among Division I schools.

Given all that, it’s no surprise the success of the 2012 team might hinge on a defense nobody expects to dominate. If the unit can be opportune enough to produce key turnovers and stops, it would be enough.

‘‘You have to judge us off this year and not last year,’’ cornerback Demetrius Dugar said. ‘‘We’ve got a new group of guys out there. Not that the guys last year didn’t get it done, but we had issues here and there. I feel like if we can mentally bring it all together, with the athleticism we have, we can definitely have a big year.’’

The undersized Wildcats often have trouble shedding blocks and can’t always get pressure with their front four. While Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz are confident they will get more pressure from players such as Brian Arnfelt, Chance Carter, Will Hampton, Deonte Gibson and Quentin Williams, among others, they admit NU must find other ways to pressure opposing quarterbacks.

‘‘It has to come from everybody,’’ Hankwitz said. ‘‘You can’t just say one guy is going to provide the pressure. We’re going to do different things as coaches. We’re going to work harder on it. We’re going to try to get different people in different positions. It’s going to be a solution by team; it’s not a solution by one guy or one thing. It’s going to be multiple things we’re going to do to create more pressure.’’

Fitzgerald said he likes his group of young linebackers. Missed assignments and blown coverages in the secondary contributed to the bloated passing stats the Wildcats allowed last season, especially early. Some of those mistakes were made by safety Ibraheim Campbell, who went on to lead the team in tackles and was named a freshman All-American.

Dugar, a senior, is the only other member of the expected starting secondary to have logged much playing time. Senior Quinn Evans, who transferred from Stanford and has a year of eligibility left, provides valuable experience.

‘‘I see a very athletic group,’’ Evans said. ‘‘The most surprising thing coming in was how many guys can run. We have so many fast guys back there in the secondary. We just have a ton of guys that can run. We worked real hard this summer. I think there are very special things to come.’’

Fitzgerald hopes so. The most decorated defensive player in NU history can’t wait for the Sept. 1 season opener at Syracuse because the focus will shift from last season to this season.

‘‘The great news is I’ll be done talking about that crap in, like, a week,’’ he said. ‘‘Hopefully we show up and play.’’

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