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Secondary excellence gives NU primary edge
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 9/9/2008 12:07 AM

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Is this a distant coincidence or a direct correlation?

Northwestern has had a cornerback or safety good enough to earn all-Big Ten honors (first or second team) in just five of the last 15 seasons.

Conveniently enough, those five seasons (1995, 1996, 1997, 2000 and 2005) arguably double as the school's best teams during that span.

The only quibble would be whether the 1997 team, which finished 5-7 after losing to three Top 10 teams in a four-week span, was better than the 2003-04 editions that went 6-7 and 6-6, respectively.

Why bring this up as Northwestern prepares for Saturday's home game with Football Championship Subdivision power Southern Illinois (11 a.m., BTN)?

Though it's still early, these Wildcats appear to boast a secondary with one all-Big Ten caliber starter - if not more.

Junior safety Brendan Smith won the team's defensive player of the game honor in the Syracuse opener for, among other things, returning an interception for a key touchdown.

In Saturday's 24-20 win at Duke, junior cornerback Sherrick McManis stepped forward to earn defensive player of the game honors. "Batman" registered a career-high 9 solo stops against the Blue Devils.

"I'm really proud of the way Sherrick McManis played," said coach Pat Fitzgerald. "He had 16 opportunities Saturday where he was at the point of attack and he won 15 times."

"I feel I'm a lot better than I was last year," McManis said. "I see things a lot easier because I'm older. The game is easier to me, I guess you could say."

McManis jumped into NU's starting lineup late in his true freshman season when Marquice Cole - the last Wildcat defensive back to earn all-Big Ten honors - went down with an injury.

Now McManis has a chance to mentor a new running mate at corner who figures to be a fixture through 2011.

Redshirt freshman Jordan Mabin will make his first career start against SIU after delivering for dinged-up Justan Vaughn at Duke.

Mabin, who was a runnerup for Ohio's 2006 Mr. Football honor as a Tyrell Sutton-like running back, racked up 5 tackles and forced a fumble that he recovered.

"Jordan's just a great football player," Fitzgerald said. "We've got a good problem out there. We'll go with the hot hands."

Junior safety Brad Phillips rounds out a secondary that helps Northwestern look good in the early defensive rankings.

The Wildcats lead the Big Ten in third-down conversion defense (26.7 percent), rank third in pass-efficiency defense (99.1 rating) and 29th nationally in scoring defense (15.0 points per game).

McManis, like several others on the team, credits new defensive coordinator/secondary coach Mike Hankwitz for the team's improvement.

"We're playing an aggressive defense," McManis said, "we're an aggressive team and Coach Hank puts us in the right places."

Rough landing: Northwestern's trip to Duke didn't begin auspiciously. Flying into the remnants of Tropical Storm Hanna, the Wildcats' plane encountered turbulence and hit the landing strip with a bang.

"Some people near us on the plane were sleeping," said quarterback C.J. Bacher. "They woke up thinking we had crashed."

Bacher could chuckle about that on Monday, but it wasn't too humorous on Friday.

You think redshirt freshman receiver Charles Brown, a Public League product who was on his first airplane ride, will be eager to fly for the Nov. 1 game at Minnesota?

Hoops whispers: Bill Carmody's Wildcats have one scholarship remaining for the Class of 2009 - and it looks like it's on the verge of being filled.

Naperville Central's Drew Crawford, a 6-foot-5 swingman who elicits comparisons to former NCHS all-stater Anthony Parker, narrowed his list weeks ago to Northwestern and Wake Forest.

Parker, of course, became a 1997 NBA first-round draft pick and has been a starter with Toronto for the last two years.

Incidentally, Crawford's father, Dan, has been an NBA official for the last 24 years. He worked Game 2 of the recent NBA finals.