There’s plenty to choose from when dissecting what went wrong for Northwestern against Cal on Saturday, but for the sake of time and sanity, let’s just pick one to talk about: the secondary. That unit definitely was not the worst group on the field but they were probably the ones that performed the farthest below expectations, especially in the first half.
Take Cal’s first touchdown, for example. Cal QB Jared Goff went with a short roll out pass to the right side of the endzone to Bryce Treggs. Cornerback Nick VanHoose was defending Treggs’, but VanHoose wasn’t even within 5 yards of him and Cal easily took the early 7-0 lead. Cal’s second touchdown, a quick toss to the back of the endzone, was also thrown to VanHoose’s man, this time receiver Kenny Lawler.
But don’t think this is all on VanHoose; there’s plenty of culpability to go around. The Bears’ third touchdown was a 76-yard pass play during which Trevor Davis bolted right past safety Traveon Henry, who was apparently moving in slow motion.
In all, the secondary gave up 300 passing yards (actually less than in last year’s game against Cal) but on only 23 completions (as opposed to 40 in 2013), for an average of 13 yards per completion. For reference, NU’s defense gave up 11.5 yards per completion last year, and that was not a good defense.
The frustrating part is that this unit should not be bad. All of the starters from last year returned (VanHoose, Dwight White, Ibraheim Campbell, and Henry), plus they’ve added some talented younger players including Matthew Harris at cornerback and Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro at safety. In fact, the secondary was frequently called NU’s best position group this offseason. They did not play like it in the first half.
The good news is that the secondary improved after halftime. Campbell actually had a decent day with an interception and 11 tackles, plus some timely pass breakups in the fourth quarter as NU nearly made an epic comeback. And, after a touchdown on its first drive of the second half, Cal did not score for the remaining 24 minutes of the game.
After the game, coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "Those vets need to make plays when they present themselves." He didn’t mention VanHoose or Henry by name, but you can be sure he was one of several players to whom that was directed.
At the end of the day, this is just one loss. A really, truly terrible loss, but just one, nonetheless. It’s fairly likely that the secondary’s performance in the first half was the worst of the worst, an anomaly, and that it won’t be nearly that bad for most of the season. But it’s on Campbell, undoubtedly the leader of the defense, to get them back on track.