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Northwestern's Pass Rush Takes Pressure Off the Secondary

What do you do if you have four great defensive ends, but traditionally only play two players at that position? If you’re Northwestern, the answer is simple: play all four.

This isn’t a new defensive formation or an innovative new way to put together a defensive line. Rather, it’s simply a way to get four of the best players on the NU defensive front all on the field at the same time, particularly when the team needs a pass rush. It came in handy Saturday night in NU’s 48-27 drubbing of Syracuse.

“We just do that on third down or second-and-long and stuff like that,” defensive end Dean Lowry said. “It’s more to get more pass rushers on the field.”

NU has pass rushers aplenty this year, and the defensive ends make up arguably the best unit on the team. Tyler Scott is a candidate for first team All-Big Ten honors, Lowry and Deonte Gibson look prime for a breakout year and Ifeadi Odenigbo is a former top recruit who has come into his own after a redshirt year.

This isn’t the first time NU has moved two of its defensive ends inside — the “cheetah package,” said coach Pat Fitzgerald — but this might be the best group of ends NU has had to run it. The Wildcats shift Scott and Lowry inside, leaving Odenigbo and Gibson on the ends. NU has also played with two defensive ends on the outside and Scott in the middle.

“Those guys are all pretty talented and play well within the framework of what we’re asking them to do,” Fitzgerald said.

Other teams are taking notice, too.

“We’re kind of seeing a reoccurring theme here the last two weeks of a lot of three-step drop by our opponent,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s, I guess, a good sign that we’re seeing a lot of quick game, but we’ve got to kind of adjust our pass rush.”

It’s a complete 180 from last season. Last year, teams preferred to test NU’s suspect secondary with deep passes — Syracuse picked on the Wildcats’ defensive backs as much as anyone last season. This year, however, because of NU’s arsenal of pass rushers, teams can’t take as many deep shots and feel like they have to get rid of the ball quicker. That’s led to a lot more screen passes and passes to the flat that have been blown up by the linebackers — Collin Ellis has become the master of sniffing them out.

That change is especially important after the injury to cornerback Daniel Jones. His replacement, Dwight White, hadn’t played a down of college football before the Cal game, and while Cal did test him — and beat him — deep once, he has been able to slowly adjust without having to worry about too many throws over the top. That wouldn’t have been an option last year.

“Really, for both (Nick VanHoose and White) not a lot of work today,” Fitzgerald said. “Lot of quick game.”

There are still some concerns with the pass rush. The defensive tackles have left some to be desired at times, but even that group — inexperienced as it may be — is improving.

“I thought our d-line, again, adjusted to the volume of the three-step and quick game we saw from Syracuse and did a nice job of that,” Fitzgerald said.

One of the adjustments: tipping balls at the line of scrimmage. Defensive tackle Chance Carter had a couple tipped passes and Lowry even intercepted one.

“We try to stress rips, strips, tips, because tips equal picks,” said safety Traveon Henry, apparently master of rhymes. It’s a motto that has worked well for the Wildcats in their first two games: they’ve come away with 7 interceptions so far.

While the secondary needs to hold its own this season, a lot of the Wildcats’ success — or demise — this season will come at the mercy of the defensive line, which has the power to shape opponents’ game plans and force short passes. So far, the line is holding its own, no matter if there there are two, three or four defensive ends on the field at a time.