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Northwestern defense: How to repair the worst pass rush in the Big Ten

Plus, a little hypothetical 3-4 discussion...

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

In the game of football, few things are more demoralizing than watching an opposing quarterback lounge in the pocket with enough time to balance his checkbook, check his email, and prepare a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before hitting his receiver for a big gain. Against Northwestern, that happened a lot last year. NU's defense finished dead last in the Big Ten with 17 sacks, while more than half the conference's teams had at least 29.

However, despite the dismal pass rush, the Northwestern defense was still in the middle of the pack in the conference (seventh in scoring defense, eighth in passing yards allowed). The sky's the limit for this year's defense if the Wildcats can find a way to put more pressure on the passer. And this weekend, Northwestern must hit Kevin Hogan if it hopes to upset the nerds from Palo Alto on Saturday.

There are two ways to get to the quarterback: 1) Rush more players than the offense has blockers, or 2) Win one-one-one battles in the trenches. Northwestern didn't do a whole lot of either last season.

Now, last year's numbers may be a bit deceiving. "The sack total was a little misleading only because we hit the quarterback and caused two or three interceptions and we didn't get credit for sacks," says defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, now entering his eighth season as defensive coordinator.

He is right about that. A couple of Northwestern's 15 interceptions in 2014 were the result of pressure on the quarterback, like this one from the upset win over Wisconsin:

Odenigbo didn't receive any credit for this play in the box score.

But only two defensive lineman registered more than 1.5 sacks last year. That's not good enough.

Those two, though, were Ifeadi Odenigbo and Dean Lowry. Odenigbo had three, and Lowry led the team with four. Six of those seven combined sacks occurred while both Odenigbo and Lowry were on the field together, which is important to note since Odenigbo was used almost exclusively in passing situations.

With the exception of a couple sacks off blitzes by Chi Chi Ariguzo and Anthony Walker, the only times opposing quarterbacks felt consistent pressure from the Wildcats were when Northwestern brought in Odenigbo and bumped Lowry inside to a three technique defensive tackle. Assuming Hankwitz employs the same strategy as last season, the passing situation personnel should look like this:

Oftentimes NU will go to a nickel package on obvious passing downs. But what's important is the front four. Because it's this front four that was responsible for most of Northwestern's sacks last season.

Here's one example from last season where Odenigbo, Lowry and Gibson are all in the game on third down:

Here we see Odenigbo force Cal quarterback Jared Goff to step up into the collapsing pocket, allowing Lowry and Gibson to bring him down.

And here's another clip of Odenigbo wreaking havoc:

It seems the solution to Northwestern's pass rush woes is simple: put Odenigbo in the game. The Centerville, Ohio native has seen limited reps during his Northwestern career because he's lacked the size and strength to hold his own against the run, but that could change. Here's Hankwitz on Odenigbo earlier in the offseason:

"He's got pass rush ability, he's still got to learn to be a two-way player. Otherwise you're going to be limited to playing in pass situations. That was probably the number one thing. And we had some pretty good defensive ends that could do that on the earlier downs, so that's why he was more of a role player. But he's continued to get better in those areas, so we're counting on him playing more."

Back in July, Odenigbo said he weighed 254 pounds, meaning he's packed on 35 pounds since his freshman season. Hopefully the added weight and experience will translate to more playing time, as the Wildcats can't afford to have their most talented pass rusher watching from the sideline.

Let's digress for a moment...

Many (myself included) wondered why four-star recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo chose Northwestern over the likes of Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame back in 2012. What's just as perplexing is that the undersized Odenigbo — who, in my opinion, was born to be a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL — decided on a school that plays with four down lineman.

Allegedly Pat Fitzgerald considered moving to a 3-4 early in his tenure as head coach, but ultimately elected to stick with the 4-3. So, just for the sake of fun speculation, what if Northwestern ran a base 3-4 front? Based on the current depth chart, even with Northwestern having recruited for the 4-3, it would probably look something like this:

A 3-4 front would allow Northwestern to keep its best pass rushers on the field without becoming vulnerable to the run.

It just so happens the two toughest games on the schedule this year are against 3-4 teams. Both Stanford and Wisconsin tallied more than twice as many sacks as Northwestern last season, and both finished top five in FBS in total defense.

There's a common belief that a successful 3-4 scheme requires an enormous, super-talented nose tackle. Many would say that Northwestern could not consistently land such rare players. I disagree.

According to its team website, Stanford does not have a single defensive lineman over 285 pounds this year. Last year, star nose tackle David Parry was a former walk-on. Similarly, the player slated to start at nose for Wisconsin this year, Conor Sheehy, weighs only 272 pounds.

A healthy 305-pound Greg Kuhar would start on either of those teams, and there's no reason to believe guys like Tyler Lancaster and C.J. Robbins could not play the position as well. I'm just saying it would be interesting to see what Northwestern could do with the added pass-rushing options that come with a 3-4 front.

Now back to reality...

Okay so that probably isn't going to happen. Northwestern will be running the same old 4-3 this season. Nevertheless, there's still plenty of room for optimism because the Wildcats have experience at every position on defense.

Even if the defensive line does not improve as much as I anticipate, Northwestern can put more pressure on quarterbacks simply by blitzing more. This year's secondary is good enough to handle the added stress that comes when a front seven sends five or six guys on a given play, and the added pressure on the quarterback would likely result in more takeaways.

Watch Anthony Walker come on a delayed blitz and strip Austin Appleby last year against Purdue:

That poor running back never had a chance.

If there has ever been a year for Northwestern to take more risks defensively, this is it. Hankwitz has the talent at his disposal. Hopefully another year of maturity and a couple new blitz package wrinkles will make for a better showing in the sacks column this season.