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Northwestern’s secondary needs to improve in a hurry

The struggling unit could cause the Wildcats to miss out on a winning season

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Way back in early September, Northwestern football was a mess, top to bottom. It felt like just about every single position group on the roster was struggling.

Since then, and especially during the Wildcats’ two-game, 92-point Big Ten winning streak, things have turned around for almost all of those units.

The offensive line has gotten significantly better. With that, so too has Clayton Thorson, his receivers not named Austin Carr (who was awesome from week one) and the running game. On defense, Ifeadi Odenigbo and the D-line have started racking up sacks and the linebacking corps has turned things around. Heck, even Jack Mitchell hasn’t missed anything in a couple weeks.

The secondary must have missed the memo.

They were lit up for 424 passing yards by Michigan State last Saturday and may have cost Northwestern the game if Solomon Vault hadn’t bailed them out. Jerry Brown’s unit allowed 10 passes of 15+ yards, including touchdowns of 86 and 57 yards.

“Our secondary play was abysmal,” said Pat Fitzgerald after the game. “Our focus, our discipline, our communication. That group’s gotta get a lot better. Period.”

Although that was their worst performance of the season, it wasn’t pretty through the first five weeks either. The Wildcats are dead last in the conference in passing defense, allowing 276.3 yards per game and a 65.6 completion percentage.

It’s been a dramatic fall from grace for the “Sky Team,” which currently doesn’t deserve to carry over that moniker from a season ago. In 2015, Northwestern allowed an FBS-low five passing touchdowns and surrendered just 192.7 yards per game through the air.

Holding this season’s secondary to that standard would be unfair, though. That was an entirely different unit with veterans at every position. That depth came crashing down pretty quickly. Two of those veterans graduated and this year’s team has played almost the entire season without both of its starting cornerbacks. Those circumstances forced young players like Trae Williams, Montre Hartage and Jared McGee into prominent roles.

The youthfulness excuse worked against Duke, Nebraska and maybe even Iowa, but their performance against the Spartans was a major disappointment, considering Hartage and Williams have each been starting for over a month now.

“We’re getting some guys right now with a baptism under fire, so to speak,” said Pat Fitzgerald after the game. “They’ve gotta grow up, and they’ve gotta grow up in a hurry.”

Many of the big passing plays the secondary has allowed have been one-on-one matchups where someone just gets burned.

It’s happened to Trae Williams:

It’s happened to Alonzo Mayo:

It’s even happened to the one remaining member of the 2015 starting secondary, Godwin Igwebuike (who has mostly been great this season):

Even when Igwebuike had great coverage, Michigan State somehow scored:

These kind of plays happen, but to see them happen with this type of frequency is concerning to say the least. These (the first three at least) are easy throws for Big Ten quarterbacks to make and plays that change games in an instant.

Perhaps even more concerning are the plays in which the corner has safety help and the defense still allows a big play.

Here’s an example from all the way back in the dark days of the 2016 season, against the mighty Illinois State Redbirds.

In this play, Hartage starts about six yards off the line of scrimmage. He lets the receiver (Anthony Warrum) get by him, knowing he has safety help if it’s a go route. Then, when Warrum heads toward the sideline, Hartage actually has decent coverage. However, he doesn’t appear to find the ball until it’s too late and Warrum is picking up a 36-yard gain. Kyle Queiro makes a good read on where the play is going, but hesitates at one point in his pursuit and can’t get there in time. It’s a great throw, but really, one that Hartage has to knock down.

That one pales in comparison to the most recent example. With Northwestern leading Michigan State 33-24 late in the third quarter and the Spartans starting a drive at their own 14, the secondary allowed this to happen:

That’s an 86-yard bomb from Tyler O’Connor to RJ Shelton that put Michigan State right back in the game, at least until the ensuing kickoff. Here’s another angle that shows the coverage breakdown.

Mayo is the corner on this play, but it’s not like he was in single coverage. Or at least that’s what he thought. Despite Shelton pretty much sprinting straight forward as soon as the ball is snapped, Mayo doesn’t sprint with him right away, presumably because he thinks he has safety help. At first, it appears Igwebuike might be there, but he’s focused on TE Josiah Price. Queiro is on the other side of the field, which means Mayo is all alone. And he doesn’t stand a chance.

“Those long passes, they come from a lack of communication from the safeties to the corners, letting them know what we’re doing, what coverages we’re in,” McGee said.

Whatever the reasons may be, Northwestern’s secondary has been downright awful this season, especially when it comes to surrendering explosive passing plays. That’s something that has to get fixed before this Saturday’s game against Indiana. Quarterback Richard Lagow and the Hoosiers are averaging 285 yards per game through the air, second in the conference.

On Monday, Fitzgerald said the secondary would practice really hard this week in preparation for Indiana and that he might even influx some competition for the DB spots.

“We’ve got some other guys, we’ll maybe see if we can have some competition,” Fitzgerald said. “Right now, we’re running out of guys at that position and those guys have got to play with better focus and better discipline.”

With dates against a streaky Lagow, Ohio State Heisman candidate J.T. Barrett and surprising Wisconsin QB Alex Hornibrook looming, the Wildcats better hope they can fix this problem, fast.

Whether or not they do so could define the remainder of the season.