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Defensive secondary, gameplan adjustments necessary ahead of Pinstripe Bowl

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The Wildcats’ injury-ridden secondary struggled versus Illinois. Now it faces one of the nation’s premier attacks.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Northwestern Wildcats have reached bowl eligibility. It took until the season's final game for Northwestern to grab its sixth win after falling to the likes of Illinois State early in the season. With just that exception, though, the Wildcats defeated the teams they should have and fell to everyone better than them, except Iowa. They played six teams ranked in the top 50 in FPI this year and went 1-5 in those contests. Now awaits the No. 23 Pittsburgh Panthers, ranked 24th in FPI.

Even in some victories, NU struggled to defend opposing passing games. On the year, it ranks just 108th nationally in passing yards allowed, despite good showings in many other defensive categories. The team is pretty good in the red zone (26th in the nation in opponent scoring percentage) and on third downs (31st); it has a top-25 scoring defense and solid running defense. Those factors often push opponents to attack through the air against Northwestern, meaning the Wildcats are somewhat a result of their own strengths. But there are issues in the secondary as well.

In its final regular-season game, against a downtrodden Illinois team, Northwestern struggled to contain Illini quarterback Wes Lunt. He threw for 377 yards and two scores and routinely found two receivers open: Malik Turner and Justin Hardee. Of the team's 28 completions, 20 went to those two players, and Turner caught both touchdowns. When the Wildcats didn’t get pressure, Lunt had little trouble, and the Illini moved the ball effectively all game long.

Part of the issue, a shortcoming that has plagued Northwestern all year, is how the defense performs before those swing downs of third and fourth and in the red zone. The team ranks outside the top 100 teams in the country in standard-down line yards allowed and near the bottom of the Big Ten in first downs allowed. The unit is also well below average behind the line of scrimmage, ranking poorly in tackles for loss and 91st nationally in adjusted sack rate. These issues were on display versus the Illini, who consistently got 7 or 8 yards per throw on high-percentage curls and other short routes with little pressure in Lunt’s face.

These are all pieces that add pressure on the secondary. Montre Hartage and company haven't been as bad as the numbers would indicate because the guys in front of them haven’t helped consistently.

Some solutions do exist for Northwestern as it prepares for the Pinstripe Bowl. The Wildcats could try bringing more pressure, relying on Hartage, Godwin Igwebuike and others to play in space. This would give opposing quarterbacks less time to sit back and search for openings. An alternate method is to have the corners press up on outside receivers. This cuts off quick routes, forcing quarterbacks to wait for secondary routes to come open. It’s a strategy we’ve seen employed in the redzone, where there’s less space to work and therefore nonsensical to play so far off.

It's not totally fair to mark down the secondary when it had to face three of the elite teams in the country, three ranked teams and several quarterbacks who could play at the next level. Add in the losses of Keith Watkins II and Matt Harris for the season and Alonzo Mayo, Trae Williams and Kyle Queiro at various points during the campaign and some struggles are certainly understandable.

Nevertheless, head coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff, namely defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz have three-plus weeks to fix the nagging issues that plagued this team before a bowl matchup. The 8-4 Panthers have a balanced offensive attack led by quarterback Nathan Peterman, himself a possible pro prospect, and running back James Conner. The Wildcats could bring more pressure, but Peterman is mobile and has only taken nine sacks this year — his passing offense is 19th in the nation per S&P+. Previous evidence shows NU dropping guys into coverage, though. Whatever the strategy may be — ideally, the Wildcats can manufacture without bringing too many extra men, but that seems to be a longshot — Northwestern’s chances to end the season with a win depend largely on what the defense can do to stop (or at least slow down) one of the nation’s top offenses and give its own offense a chance to beat a very suspect Pittsburgh defense.