ORANGE CITY, Iowa -- The past two weeks the Northwestern defense has been tested.
It has passed.
Two weeks ago the defense helped hold off a determined Doane team 28-25, and Saturday the Red Raiders did not allow a point in the fourth quarter to allow the comeback that led to a 40-28 victory.
"It is absolutely huge because the Red Raider defense as a unit feeds off of our offensive momentum and our offense feeds off our defensive momentum,” Northwestern junior linebacker Sean Powell said. “So when we can come out and get stops or turnovers it really correlates to how the offense does. It is absolutely amazing to me that we have bonded like that as a team.”
Northwestern is sitting at 6-0 overall and 5-0 in the GPAC but a veteran like Powell, who leads the team with 55 tackles, knows that competitive games now will pay dividends later for a squad that reached the quarterfinals of the playoffs a season ago.
“If we don’t have our close games like last week against Doane or this week against Dordt, then we won’t know how to play even tougher games down the road that mean a lot like playoffs and it is when or go home.
“If we get tested and are down a little bit we need to be able to recall memories of us playing from behind.”
“We have a really deep league and you have to be able to handle those situations when things get tense and tough. Your players have to be able to respond and handle those situations,” Northwestern Coach Matt McCarty said. “That is what you are going to face when you get to the playoffs. It is good for our guys and we have a lot we can learn and get better from.”
Northwestern has a defense with plenty of playmakers as safety Garrett Sayler is second on the team with 35 tackles while linebacker Tanner Machacek and corner Bryce Van Beek are next with 33 each. Freshman linebacker Ben Granstra leads the Red Raiders with three sacks.
“We can really work well together once everyone trusts everyone because we are talented and our coaches put us in amazing positions,” Powell said. “As long as we can do our job we are going to be one of the top defenses in the nation I believe.”
The Red Raiders are 14th in scoring defense a game at 17.2 points and 12th in pass defense. They sit 11th in total defense.
The talented defensive secondary is led by senior Van Beek who picked off Dordt quarterback Brock Lamle twice on Saturday to give him six on the season, one off his total from last year when he led the NAIA. He also has three pass breakups this season.
"Absolute ballhawk," said Powell. "I think he has magnets in his gloves."
Van Beek's play is impressing his coach.
"He has some amazing ball skills and he is always around the ball,” McCarty said. “If it is a run play he is around the ball, if it is a pass play he is around the ball. He has tremendous instincts.”
McCarty said that the past couple of weeks have helped identify some keys for his team going forward.
“You want to fine playmakers on your defense and we have seen guys step up and make plays when they needed to,” he said. “That is big and that is what you need defensively.”
The Red Raiders will likely get their biggest test of the season in two weeks – they have a bye coming on Saturday – when top-ranked Morningside comes to Orange City for a game that will likely decide the GPAC champion.
“They are going to be the toughest opponent we play all year so we need to come out ready in these games that are tough and close,” Van Beek said. “We know it is going to be a tough game against Morningside, but we found ways to win these games. We are going to have to do the same thing against Morningside. It is huge.”