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Northwestern Snippet and Stat 9/21

by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
You could forgive Northwestern fans for wiping their brow every time an opposing quarterback unfurls a deep ball.
Given the way the secondary played in 2011 and the way it opened the 2012 campaign at Syracuse, deep balls against Northwestern seemed more of an adventure than a long shot. Perhaps the Wildcats hit a low point at the Carrier Dome, where when Ryan Nassib wasn't finding receivers for 30-plus yard passes downfield, the Northwestern defenders were earning yellow flag after yellow flag. Through all of this, junior defensive end Tyler Scott was feeling a little bit guilty.

"Last year, that's one of the key reasons why our pass defense wasn't as good as it could have been. We didn't help the secondary very much last year," Scott said. "It kind of hurt to have all the blame put on the secondary, because it's not just the secondary that is involved in the pass game. It's up front too. We weren't doing our jobs up front to help out the secondary."

The defensive line is doing its part now, particularly Scott, whose three sacks account for 60 percent of the team's total and whose four tackles for loss represent a quarter of the team's total. After finishing last in the Big Ten with just 17 sacks last season, the Wildcats already have five this season, and managed to force both Jordan Rodgers and Chase Rettig out of the pocket on numerous occasions.
So, after surrendering 50-plus yard pass plays to Syracuse and Vanderbilt, Northwestern tightened up and kept Boston College from completing any long balls downfield. Even after Chase Rettig tried to attack the Wildcats' weakness downfield with a couple of deep balls that sailed on him, coach Pat Fitzgerald was unfazed.
"Well, last I saw, when you miss a throw, it's an incomplete," Fitzgerald said. "It's like a long foul ball in baseball. It's still called a strike."
The seventh-year coach said that his backfield was generally doing a fine job in coverage and played a significant role in forcing Rettig's overthrows.
"We had good coverage. I didn't see guys open," Fitzgerald said. "I feel like we're in pretty darn good shape. We had one missed assignment that we let a guy potentially be open, but they had a different route combination on. We had one other missed assignment on one other play. Those are the two things that I'm more concerned about than the other deep throws. Those throws were overthrown because we're in great shape."
So, while Northwestern fans might still instinctively blanch when a quarterback winds up and lets one go, Fitzgerald's greater concern right now is on the shorter throws that are getting by his linebackers.
"My bigger concern is our undercoverage at linebacker," Fitzgerald said. "This has kind of become a broken record with that. I'm not very pleased with where we're at with that group right now. We've got to work our tails off at matching routes better."
And if teams continue to attack Northwestern downfield, senior safety Jared Carpenter will not feel slighted.
"I would not necessarily say picked on, because it's not just our secondary that's really, I guess you could quote-on-quote say, under attack. Football has kind of turned into more of a passing type of a game, so offenses are throwing the ball a lot more all across the country," Carpenter said. "We definitely relish the more opportunities that we have to make plays in a game, to get turnovers. Like I said, the more they throw it, the more opportunities we have to get an interception, to make big plays that change the game."
Much has been made of how Northwestern was able to hold Boston College to just 25 rushing yards. The Wildcats, of course, surrendered 13 points on just 316 yards of total offense to the Eagles, a far cry from their season opener at Syracuse, when they surrendered 482 yards and four touchdowns through the air alone. Yet, equally notable is the reduction in big plays allowed by Northwestern's defense. After surrendering rushes of greater than 20 yards and passes of greater than 50 yards to both Syracuse and Vanderbilt, Boston College's longest rush on Saturday was a mere 10 yards, and its longest pass, a fairly pedestrian 34 yards.