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10 bold Northwestern football predictions: No. 1

The wait is nearly over. At long last, after eight trying months, the 2013 college football season is upon us. In just 10 days, Northwestern will meet Cal in its primetime season opener. This last week and change can be excruciatingly slow, so to ease your anxiety, we’re rolling out 10 bold predictions, one each day, to lead you into August 31. Some of these may sound crazy (some of them won’t), and we probably won’t be looking back four months from now celebrating our foresight, but preseason sports predictions aren’t meant to be perfect, anyway, and erring on the bold side is much more fun than playing it safe. With that said, let’s begin: the real stuff, the actual football, will be here in no time.

No. 1: Northwestern will rank among the Big Ten’s top-five pass defenses.

A negative perception of Northwestern football has taken root in recent years. Most people have come to identify the Wildcats as a bad pass defense. They cite recent games against Illinois (2011) and Michigan (2012) as proof to their point, and talk about how Northwestern just isn’t athletic enough, or hasn’t recruited well enough, to defend the best receivers in the Big Ten.

Perceptions aren’t always grounded in fact. Often times, they are invented out of thin air. The truth about Northwestern’s pass defense? Well, maybe a little bit of both. The Wildcats did field the worst pass defense in the Big Ten in 2011, allowing 8.5 yards per attempt, but turned around and posted an improved, if respectable, 6.6-yard mark last season, seventh in the conference. So the pass defense did improve, but it still wasn’t great, and certainly nowhere near as good as the rush defense, which jumped from 4.49 yards-per rush allowed in 2011, ahead of only Minnesota (4.87) and Indiana (5.30), to 3.77 in 2012, fourth best in the league.

The pass defense also gave up a lot of big plays, quite often in critical situations (the Roy Roundtree nightmare lives on) and it struggled mightily to stop opponents on long down-and-distance situations. According to Football Outsiders, opposing offenses threw it against the Wildcats on 73.8 percent (nearly eight percent higher than the national average) of passing downs – what FO defines as second down with 8 or more yards to go; or third or fourth down with five or more yards to go – and found plenty of success therein, picking up many a first down along the way. NU ranked 95th in the country in defensive S&P, a measure of situational success, in these situations.

There are some adjustments that need to be made, but moving into the top five of Big Ten pass defenses – which last season, would have meant bettering Penn State’s 6.3 yards per attempt figure – is not a huge leap by any logical stretch. The core of the problem is third downs; if Northwestern can learn to more effectively employ its DB-heavy sets on obvious “passing downs” – sets that could see Jimmy Hall line up in the nickel, an alteration of the traditional four down lineman in a 4-3 to get more pass rushers on the field, and other adjustments – it should be more successful cutting down opponents’ third down conversion rates.

This is not an easy improvement to make. But I do think the Wildcats are more talented, and more athletic, in the defensive backfield than they were last season. Sophomore Traveon Henry made strides in the spring that carried over into fall camp. Daniel Jones was the punching bag for a lot of the secondary’s lapses last season, but convincingly won the No. 2 corner spot over Dwight White, and looks more confident than ever. Ibraheim Campbell and Nick VanHoose anchor the unit, and both are on track to have great seasons.

Jumping from last season’s seventh-place finish into the top-five is not a negligible rise. But it is achievable. Not reaching that baseline would breathe new life into the “Northwestern can’t defend the pass” meme. The Wildcats can, and should, put an end to it.