by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
Snippet of the Day: Restoring Order in the Backfield
In the second half, all hell broke loose.
Northwestern's secondary had done a fine job all season suppressing memories of its failures both last season and at the Carrier Dome. After allowing Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib to complete greater than two-thirds of his throws for 470 yards in the season's opening weekend, the Wildcats haven't allowed greater than 291 passing yards in a game since. After surrendering four touchdowns through the air to Nassib, the Wildcats have surrendered just three over their last four games combined. Against Vanderbilt, Boston College and South Dakota, Northwestern held opposing quarterbacks to roughly 50 percent completion rates, while keeping most throws confined to the front seven for short pickups. In the final game of their four-game home stand, the Wildcats appeared to have the Hoosiers under control as well. At halftime, Indiana had just 89 passing yards. Thirty-nine of those came on one throw from Cameron Coffman; besides that throw, he was just 9-of-17 for 50 yards.
Then, in came Nate Sudfield, the first quarterback since Nassib who appeared at all capable of challenging the Wildcats downfield. And Sudfield went to work, picking apart Northwestern's secondary. There were two straight passes downfield to Kofi Hughes, the first a leaping snare for 28 yards, the second a lob down the middle of the field for 35 yards and a touchdown. Hughes was well-covered, but with the defender mistiming his jump, Hughes managed to snare the ball without much difficulty. The fourth quarter featured much of the same mishigas. Sudfield found Cody Latimer for an outstanding grab over redshirt freshman cornerback Nick VanHoose. VanHoose literally never seemed to jump, and so Latimer came down with it for the 33-yard pickup. Similar to jockeying for a rebound in basketball, Latimer had effectively boxed out VanHoose to make the grab.
"The first one, he got up before me," VanHoose said. "(It's a) 50-50 ball. He's on scholarship too. He's going to get some. I'm going to get some. So, I'd say it was 50-50. But the other one that he got on me, I should have made the play. I was in perfect position and I should have made the play, just didn't. So, sometimes you have your good days, sometimes you don't."
Two drives later, Sudfield again reared back and found Latimer for a 44-yard gain. Again, senior cornerback Quinn Evans was directly on him, but he failed to jump effectively, and somehow a 50-50 ball turned into an easy grab for the sophomore receiver.
"I think their contesting was fine," coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday. "There is kind of an old philosophy out there in secondary coverage with wide receiver routes that he who jumps first catches the ball, and on all of those routes, we jumped second, so we'll try to jump first this week. It's not a whole lot more complicated than that."
When all was said and done, the Hoosiers had picked up 177 passing yards in the second half, with four passes of 28 yards or greater. Sudfield finished 9-of-16 for 157 yards, and suddenly, Northwestern had itself a problem.
"We've been pretty soild for the last three weeks," Fitzgerald said Saturday. "I thought we were pretty solid all game. Those 50-50 ball opportunities, we have got to win on those."
The sheer ease Indiana's receivers demonstrated in plucking 50-50 balls out of the sky did not bode well for Northwestern, particularly with Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin licking his chops for this Saturday's meeting at Beaver Stadium.
Fitzgerald emphasized Monday that his team needed to work on its coverage of the wheel route. Northwestern has practiced for it before, and fully expected Indiana to run it on Saturday, but the Wildcats still came up short, and so they will go back to work on it this week. Other than that, Fitzgerald didn't seem overly concerned with the state of his secondary.
"Unfortunately, we had talked about that in practice and expected it, and we'll have to practice it some more," Fitzgerald said Monday. "We're going to continue to see it, but we just need to be poised in the moment. I've got great confidence in those guys."
Stat of the Day: All of the Lights
For Northwestern, there's still a certain excitement about having its games aired on national television. For Penn State, it's simply the same old. The Wildcats and Nittany Lions' noon matchup from Beaver Stadium will be aired live on ESPN, meaning that Penn State will have been on either ABC, ESPN2 or ESPN every single week of the season. Indeed, its trip to Kinnick Stadium next weekend will mark the first time all season that the Nittany Lions have been relegated to the less easily accessed Big Ten Network. Of course, Penn State will be back on ESPN the following week to take on Ohio State. Only at a school like Penn State, could a team with losses to Ohio and Virginia, still be on the best networks week after week after week — literally.