Hankwitz wants Wildcats' defense to get more physical

In several respects, 63-year-old Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz is as old-school as it gets.

He played his final year of football and entered the coaching profession under Bo Schembechler at Michigan.

Prior to joining the Wildcats in 2008, he served as defensive coordinator for such coaches as Bill McCartney, Gary Barnett, Glen Mason, R.C. Slocum and Bret Bielema.

His hobby? Collecting football helmets — the older the better. He searches eBay regularly for those old leathery buckets without facemasks.

One area where Hankwitz isn't so old-school? He's neither a yeller nor a cusser, which makes his summation of the 48-27 loss to Illinois at Wrigley Field so shocking.

“They beat our a-- last year,” Hankwitz said. “So we're not making excuses. We didn't execute as we're capable of and we weren't as aggressive as we needed to be. So hats off to them for that game.”

That's the only thing more humbling than losing to your rival: Having to admit you were dominated physically.

Remember in 2003 when Northwestern ran on all 41 of its second-half plays in a 37-20 win at Illinois?

The Wildcats rolled up 444 rushing yards that day, which might well have been the beginning of the end for Illini coach Ron Turner.

“If you can't stop the run,” Turner said on that Nov. 22 afternoon in Champaign, “you have no chance of winning.”

That formula certainly held true last year at Wrigley Field. With fullback Jay Prosch seemingly burying an NU linebacker on every play, Illinois powered for 519 yards in last year's win. That represented the school's largest total in 66 seasons.

Senior defensive tackle Jack DiNardo told the Chicago Sun-Times and that the Wildcats' primary job in Saturday's game is, in so many words, to regain their manhood.

“I can just speak for the defense, but it's really not going to take much game-planning,” said DiNardo, who missed the last two games with an injured groin.

“We really just got to get out there and get our pride back, get our respect back and get back to the football we're used to playing around here.”

Illinois coach Ron Zook, perhaps fearful his guys won't take NU's defense seriously after it allowed 381 rushing yards on Sept. 17 at Army, predicts a renaissance.

“I guarantee you their defense is going to play extremely well,” Zook said. “I would venture that they will play lights-out against us this week.”

There's only one way for Northwestern's defense to feel better about itself — and that's to achieve on Saturday.

As for the Wildcats' offense, it enters Saturday in a much better state of mind than last year's game when NU posted a season-low 318 total yards with 3 turnovers.

The reason? Dan Persa will be on the field instead of sitting on the sidelines with his ruptured right Achilles' tendon propped up.

“We just weren't confident with ourselves with everything that was going on,” said senior slot receiver Jeremy Ebert, who hooked up with Persa for 8 TDs in 10 games last year.

“I think we felt a little sorry for ourselves and we didn't play up to our potential.

“When you're playing a great team like Illinois, they had a lot of athletes that could run and we struggled with that.”