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Film Room: Evaluating cornerback play and defensive scheme versus Cal

Most of the pass defense blame against Cal has been directed to Nick VanHoose. But is this criticism warranted? Let's look at the film.

Studying game film is integral for any sports team. It prepares players and coaches for their opponents and reveals team strengths and weaknesses after wins or losses.

When I watched Cal upset Northwestern 31-24 Saturday, I remember being amazed by how easily Cal seemed to move the ball up the field, especially in the first half. I knew Cal QB Jared Goff was talented, but he reminded me of Peyton Manning at times the way he picked apart NU's secondary. I wanted to know why Cal appeared to face almost no resistance in the passing game.

So, like those athletes and coaches, I consulted the tape. Over the last couple days I re-watched every Northwestern defensive snap from Saturday's loss.

After their team loses, the first thing fans do is point fingers. Following NU's loss to Cal, there was plenty of blame to go around (mostly on twitter). Some blamed the loss on bad preparation and play calling. Others called out players, and one of the most heavily criticized players was junior cornerback Nick VanHoose.

I wanted to see how much of the blame directed at VanHoose was justified, so I decided to more closely evaluate his performance. Did he really play as badly as some people thought? If so, why? The answers become clear in the game film.

VanHoose recorded six tackles and two pass defenses. But this basic statline only tells part of the story. The film tells the rest.

VanHoose was targeted a total of eight times. Five of those targets were catches. The majority of these catches were huge plays in the game. VanHoose also made some positive plays. Let's take a look at some of these plays. In each play pay close attention to size of the cushion between VanHoose and the receiver.

Early in the first quarter VanHoose blew up a screen play with a vicious hit.

However, on the next play (a 3rd and long) VanHoose gave up the following 15-yard catch for a first down.

Later in the drive, Cal had the ball at the 2-yard line and went for it on 4th down. VanHoose slipped on the play and failed to tackle Bryce Treggs, who scored the game's first touchdown.

At the end of the first quarter VanHoose conceded another touchdown in the redzone. On this play Cal had the ball at the seven-yard line. VanHoose allowed receiver Kenny Lawler to cut inside and win position, which is a big big big no-no on the goaline. Lawler used his body to shield VanHoose and hauled in the touchdown. Just like that Cal was up 14-0.

So just to recap, after one quarter of play VanHoose had given up three catches and two touchdowns. All three of these catches were mostly VanHoose's fault. That cannot be said for the remaining two.

Before I explain why that is, here are a few more plays VanHoose was involved in.

On this play in the third quarter, VanHoose was playing well off the receiver and still got turned around and gave up the first down.

In one of the few instances he was playing press coverage, VanHoose did a great job of sniffing out a screen and making the tackle early in the fourth quarter.

On this play in the fourth quarter, VanHoose took a bad angle on a tackle. Sure the receiver (Chris Harper) is blazing fast, but VanHoose has to make this play.

Finally, with 1:33 left in the fourth quarter VanHoose let up arguably the most important catch of the game. With three timeouts left, the Cats, down seven, still had a chance for one last drive if they could force a three and out. But Van Hoose played 10 yards off his receiver on a 2nd and 10 and gave up this easy 13-yard catch to Lawler.

While it may seem like it, this game-sealing catch was not VanHoose's fault. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz had both corners playing with way too much cushion.

According to the ESPN broadcast, head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff thought the Cal offense could not sustain a drive, so NU focused on not giving up the big play. That's why, for most of the game VanHoose and sophomore Matt Harris ran what's known as a loose-man defense and played an average of about eight yards off their receiver.

Aside from the 76-yard bomb from Goff to Trevor Davis, the Cats didn't allow any big plays. So in that sense the strategy worked. But Fitzgerald and his staff were wrong. The Golden Bears could sustain drives. They proved it. The intermediate catches the loose-man defense allowed came back to bite Northwestern. Hard. I think Hankwitz realized this mistake at halftime because to his credit VanHoose and Harris played with a little less cushion after the break. Remember that VanHoose made a nice play on that screen the one time he played press coverage.

But going back to that 2nd and 10 inside two minutes of the final whistle...That is not the time to be playing a loose-man defense. It is not the second quarter. You cannot afford to give up intermediate catches. You can't allow a first down. Press coverage is a must. Instead, both corners gave their speedy receivers plenty of room to operate and the Cats may have lost as a result.

VanHoose clearly did not have his best game. Goff picked on him, especially in the red zone (4 targets). When he dropped to pass he almost always looked over to VanHoose's side. And when he did let those passes fly Goff had great success. But not all of that success should be blamed on VanHoose. Goff is a great young quarterback and his receivers are very talented.

Moreover, the Northwestern cornerback defensive scheme didn't do VanHoose any favors. Other than blocking, VanHoose made contact with his receiver only once within five yards to my count. He and Harris disrupted hardly any routes by being physical within five yards.

Earlier I made a comparison between Goff and Peyton Manning. One of the only defenses that stymied Manning last season was the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. The Seahawks are known for their physical corners who make life tough for opposing receivers. In my opinion the NU coaching staff was too conservative with their defensive scheme. VanHoose and Harris should have been more physical with the Cal's receivers.

VanHoose should get some of the blame for Northwestern's defensive struggles against Cal. But the coaching staff deserves more. They came in with a defensive strategy that clearly backfired and failed to make enough necessary adjustments throughout the game. I hope they've realized their mistakes because the cornerback scheme needs to change for Northern Illinois. If they haven't realized this yet, they will. The tape doesn't lie.