The player who just shut down one of the Big Ten’s best receivers wasn’t even supposed to be a starter this season.
Sophomore Montre Hartage, who barely played as a true freshman in 2015, entered the year third on the cornerback depth chart. By Week 3, though, both Keith Watkins II and Matthew Harris had been lost for the season, and he was thrust into action. That led to mixed results.
There were highs, most notably his highlight reel interception against Indiana, but there were far more lows as the inexperienced Hartage learned on the fly. His struggles even continued into Northwestern’s loss against Wisconsin two Saturdays ago, as Badgers receiver Jazz Peavy got the better of him on numerous occasions.
Early in this weekend’s beatdown of Purdue, it appeared as though Hartage’s woes might even get worse. The first two plays in his matchup with the Boilermakers’ best receiver, DeAngelo Yancey, were easy first down completions.
Two catches for 28 yards in the game’s first 70 seconds. Notice how far off of Yancey Hartage was on both receptions, especially the second one. Yancey, a big, talented senior who entered the contest averaging 96 yards per game over Purdue’s last four, seemed like he was headed for a big day.
And another first down pickup by the duo. Could be a long day for Montre Hartage. https://t.co/m7ZD4xDsTj— Inside NU (@insidenu) November 12, 2016
Yancey’s next catch didn’t come until midway through the third quarter, a seven-yard gain with his team down by three scores. It would be his last.
After those two initial plays, Hartage completely dominated the matchup. He had two interceptions and two breakups before Purdue QB David Blough finally stopped targeting Yancey. It was an eye-opening performance and easily Hartage’s best game of the season.
“Montre is a guy who was thrust into action here in a position where you’re going to have great players to go against each week,” said coach Pat Fitzgerald. “I think he’s really stepped up.”
Hartage’s first big play came late in the first quarter and provided a huge spark with Northwestern sitting in a 10-0 hole. Facing a third-and-7 deep in his own territory, Blough tried to hit Yancey on a slant. Hartage was all over it.
At first, this seems like an overthrow from Blough, who leads the country in interceptions. But look at it again and watch how Hartage reads the route and uses his physicality to slow down Yancey and get himself in perfect position for his third pick of the season. Here’s a close-up.
“Watching film, he’s a pretty aggressive guy, so when he stuck me outside and tried to be physical and get back inside I knew it was a slant,” Hartage explained after the game. “Just jumped the route and made a great play on it.”
That interception was a testament to Hartage’s pre-game preparation. Later in the game, he also demonstrated the ability to make in-game adjustments.
Early in the second quarter, again facing a third down, Blough tried to find his go-to receiver. Yancey ran an out route, just like he did on the two early catches. But Hartage wasn’t going to be fooled a third time. Recognizing the route and knowing he had help behind him, Hartage closed hard on Yancey and broke up the pass.
“Initially, I was trying to bail, trying to get a feel for him,” Hartage said. “He got a couple catches on me early so I decided to hang in there a little longer and made some plays.”
Giving Yancey, who came into the game averaging over 20 yards per catch, some cushion early on is understandable. Fitzgerald talked about wanting the secondary to keep guys in front of them and not get beaten deep like they had several times earlier in conference play. At some point, though, a corner can’t keep giving up first down completions by playing too far off his man.
That was the adjustment Hartage made. However, making that adjustment opens up the potential to be burned by the long ball. Late in the first half, with Northwestern up by just four, Hartage was tested deep and showed off his versatility in making another huge play.
Yancey gets a step on him, but Hartage uses his speed to close the gap. He got lucky that Blough’s ball was slightly underthrown, but it was still a play that could’ve easily turned into a leaping catch for Yancey or, more likely, a pass interference call, if it wasn’t defended correctly.
Watch how Hartage turns his head at the last second, gets his hand up to affect Yancey’s vision and makes contact at the perfect time to avoid being flagged.
That could’ve been a big momentum swing before the half. Instead, the drive stalled out and Purdue was forced to punt.
On the 18 plays Purdue ran in the third quarter, Yancey was targeted just twice. Then early in the fourth quarter, with Northwestern up big, Hartage put the icing on the cake of his career day with a second interception.
It’s a bad throw from Blough as he rolls left, but Hartage is right there with Yancey and able to make a play yet again.
On the day, Hartage held Yancey to just three catches for 35 yards on 10 targets. As a result, Blough and the rest of Purdue’s offense rarely got going. Given how well Northwestern played offensively, it may not have mattered, but it did tell us one thing.
Montre Hartage has a chance to be really good.
He looked like a true shutdown corner in a formidable matchup on Saturday. Hartage has speed, great instincts, and the 6-foot-0, 190 pound Georgia native also has excellent strength and tackling ability.
Hartage has come a long way this season, but is still far from a finished product. Luckily for Fitzgerald, he’s just a sophomore. With Watkins coming back next season, two more years of Hartage and a number of young talents behind them, Northwestern appears to be in good shape at the cornerback position going forward.
That’s not something we could say a couple months ago.