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The revitalization of Northwestern's pass rush against Stanford

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Northwestern got constant pressure on Kevin Hogan Saturday after struggling to get to the quarterback in 2014.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern's pass rush was not very good in 2014. As explained in an article on last week, it was the glaring weakness of a defense that was, all in all, pretty solid. But what was so frustrating was that the potential on the defensive line hadn't yet turned into production

That had to happen in 2015. It was also, as I wrote, imperative last Saturday:

Northwestern must hit Kevin Hogan if it hopes to upset the nerds from Palo Alto on Saturday.

Apparently Pat Fitzgerald and Mike Hankwitz were listening — or reading as the case may be. Because the Wildcats did exactly that. The defense was all over Hogan, dropping him three times for sacks. Along with the three sacks — each of which will be broken down shortly -- Northwestern caused at least five more QB hurries over the course of the game, two of which probably should have resulted in Anthony Walker interceptions.

Last year, NU's problems transcended the pass rush though. The entire defense struggled on third downs. The Wildcats ranked in the 40s in defensive S&P+ on both first and second down, but were a below average defense on third downs, ranking 71st. They conceded first downs on 38.7 percent of opponent third down attempts.

Saturday, against a Stanford team that converted 42.2 percent of their third down attempts in 2014, one would not have expected the Wildcats to fare much better than last year's average, especially with Hogan, a very good fifth-year senior quarterback, in charge.

But NU exceeded even the wildest of third-down expectations, allowing the Cardinal to convert only 20 percent of its third down attempts. Stanford went 3-15, and of the three successes, two came on a third-and-2 and a third-and-1. NU's defense on passing downs was stellar.

Of course Stanford's receivers dropped a few on-the-money passes in crucial situations, so we can't give Northwestern 100 percent of the credit. That, however, does not negate the fact that purple jerseys were in Hogan's face all day, preventing the Cardinal from developing any semblance of rhythm through the air.

So how did Northwestern manage to ruin Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren's weekend? Well, blitzing helped.

Mike Hankwitz called a very good game. He wasn't necessarily sending any jailbreak blitzes, but the Wildcats mixed things up with several different looks that ultimately overwhelmed the Stanford O-line.

Sack No. 1

The first sack happened on the first play of the second quarter on a big third down for a Stanford team trying to get something going offensively. Northwestern lines up with its NASCAR personnel (Odenigbo, Lowry, Chapman, Gibson), and with Nate Hall showing blitz on the weak side. After the quarterback begins his cadence, Gibson, Chapman and Lowry shift one gap to the left.

Northwestern rushes five at the snap and, initially, the Stanford line does a decent job adjusting. Both guards double team Lowry, and the running back (sort of) picks up the blitzing Hall. But, after the entire line is engaged and the pocket starts breaking down, Anthony Walker knifes in on a delayed blitz and takes down Hogan along with Odenigbo.

It isn't often we see Northwestern send six on third and long. It appears Northwestern was in man coverage, with Walker one-on-one with the running back. Thus, when the back stayed in to block, Walker had a free run at the quarterback.

Sack No. 2

The Wildcats dropped Hogan again with a six man rush during Stanford's very next possession. This time Walker comes on a delay, and Traveon Henry creeps up on a safety blitz while the rest of the secondary drops into cover 3.

Lowry blows by the right tackle, forcing Hogan to step up only to get drilled in the back by Henry. This sort of aggressive play calling suggests that Hankwitz and company trust the secondary enough to send multiple blitzers, something rarely seen in 2014.

Sack No. 3

Finally, the best of the bunch comes on Stanford's final possession. With Stanford in desperation mode, Northwestern drops seven in (what looks like) two deep man coverage, while the four best pass-rushing lineman pin their ears back.

It looks like Hogan simply panics when he sees his first and second reads are covered, resulting in an Odenigbo sack.

Now, say what you want about Hogan's pocket presence — on this sack, or throughout the day. But this fourth-quarter play was a microcosm of what we saw from Northwestern's front four all day. Especially in passing situations, they continuously collapsed the pocket, disrupting Hogan's rhythm, throwing off his footwork, and forcing him to throw with bodies in his face.

Just as Hogan failed to live up to his billing Saturday, so did Stanford. The Cardinal's shortcomings had a lot to do with NU's success, especially the defense's. But the majority of the teams on NU's schedule have less offensive talent than Stanford. And it's fair to say that if the Wildcats' defense continues to unsettle quarterbacks the way it did Saturday, it could lead Northwestern to big things, no matter what the offense does.

Does it single-handedly make Northwestern the favorite in the Big Ten West? Probably not. But it makes the Wildcats a legitimate contender.