It's no secret that Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz isn't Dick LeBeau when it comes to sending more than the front four defenders after the quarterback. Sure, Northwestern has run some delayed blitz schemes and they have gotten creative with the front four with some twists and stunts, but by and large, Northwestern's defense relies on its front four to create pressure.
Northwestern has the players to do it. Ifeadi Odenigbo, Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson have all proven to be skilled pass rushers against top competition. Xavier Washington has had his moments this season and Max Chapman and Chance Carter both have a sack to their names.
This season, though, Northwestern ranks 68th in the nation in sacks per game with two.
But that doesn't tell the whole story.
Northwestern's pass rush has been wildly inconsistent in 2014.
Even among the game-to-game inconsistencies, one thing is clear: Northwestern's pass rush has been especially suspect during the past two weeks in losses to Minnesota and Nebraska.
In those two games, Northwestern pressured the quarterback a combined three times with just one sack.
What changed? How did Northwestern go from this:
To some of the cleanest pockets out there:
My first thought after looking back over the loss to Minnesota was that Northwestern just didn't have the opportunities to get after the quarterback because Minnesota only threw the ball 15 times and they didn't need to throw it any more than that. Taking away a third and 19, Minnesota's average distance on third downs was 4.5 yards.
That gave me reason to believe that Northwestern's lack of a pass rush was just due to lack of opportunities.
But against Nebraska, Northwestern did have plenty of opportunities to get after Tommy Armstrong and make him uncomfortable. Nine of Nebraska's 15 third-down attempts were from a distance of seven or more yards, situations where it was almost certain the 'Huskers would have to throw and Northwestern still wasn't able to generate a pass rush.
Pretty good quarterbacks, such as Tommy Armstrong, are made way better without a pass rush. And very average quarterbacks like Mitch Leidner can seem much more serviceable and even dangerous with a clean pocket. It doesn't matter how well Northwestern's back seven play if the quarterback has a chance to pick apart the defense.
If this trend continues, just imagine what Everett Golson and Notre Dame might do to the Wildcats in mid-November...