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On Northwestern's Hail Mary Defense

Did Northwestern have the best personnel on the field to defend against Nebraska's Hail Mary?

Eric Francis

I'm not going to go into detail on how Northwestern put itself in a position to lose on a Hail Mary pass at the end of the Nebraska game (not scoring a touchdown following second-and-goal from the one yard line just about a minute before the pass, and allowing the Huskers to convert on fourth-and-15 earlier in the drive when multiple defenders had a shot at the ballcarrier before the first down marker). But following the result of the converted Hail Mary attempt that won the game for Nebraska, along with last year's version that saw Michigan get into game-tying-FG range with a similarly tipped pass, the question must be asked: did Northwestern have the best personnel on the field to defend against the Hail Mary?

The Wildcats rushed three men, leaving eight in coverage on the play (Nebraska had six blocking: five offensive linemen plus the running back). This is pretty standard on such plays in order to maximize the number of defenders in coverage, and I have little issue with this, especially since the pass rush was getting pressure on the QB throughout the drive (including a sack) even though they were outnumbered by blockers two-to-one on most downs.

Northwestern had eight defenders deep on the play to defend four receivers. Here they are, along with their listed height:

LB Chi Chi Ariguzo (6'3")

LB Damien Proby (6'0")

S Ibraheim Campbell (5'11")

S Traveon Henry (6'1")

S Jimmy Hall (6'2")

S Davion Fleming (5'10")

CB Matt Harris (5'11")

CB Dwight White (5'10")

That's an average height of 6'0" going up against receivers who were taller than almost all of them (note that the two linebackers were covering anything underneath and were not in the end zone when the ball arrived, so without the 6'3" Ariguzo the average height would be even lower).

It's pretty clear that Campbell should be back there, the ball-hawk and big hitter that he is, and Hall, being the tallest DB on the depth chart, is also a clear choice. Henry has also nabbed an acrobatic interception this season and can make some good hits as well (it turns out according that he's the one credited with tipping the football on that play).

But, the presence of some of the others lead to questions. Yes, it makes sense to have DBs on the field since they are the most experienced at defending the pass and making tackles. But, it was clear that Nebraska's only chance at a win was throwing the ball into the end zone and hoping for the right guy to come up with the football. The formation before the snap told Northwestern as much, and Fitz even took a timeout to prepare. Why couldn't Northwestern put some tall receivers on the field to get more of a height advantage and/or jumping ability to try and come down with the football (or have better leverage to knock it down versus tipping it up)?

Here are some options NU had on the bench:

WR Rashad Lawrence (6'2")

WR Cameron Dickerson (6'3")

WR Kyle Prater (6'5")

WR Pierre Youngblood-Ary (6'3")

Replace a couple of the other DBs with two of these guys and NU has a better shot at the ball (a 7" height difference between a 5'10" DB and a 6'5" Prater could go a long way), plus some of these guys, like Lawrence, are known for their jumping prowess. Put them on the goal line and let them know what their priority is: catch the ball or ensure it hits the ground (knocking it forward is better than going up in the air or behind).

I'm not saying that NU should throw them out on the field without any practice, but instead run some drills with them so that they are prepared. The 'Cats should have seen an advantage in this following the aforementioned 2012 Michigan game (albeit in a slightly different scenario). It's nitpicking, but given what happened, it sure looks like it may have given NU a better chance at coming out of Lincoln with a win.