Four games into the 2016 college football season and one thing is very clear, the Northwestern Wildcats defense is not anywhere near its 2015 level. Saturday night might have proved it’s not a very good unit in general..
Despite optimism surrounding the defense’s ability to replace the talent exodus following last season, the unit has not lived up to even moderate expectations of continued success. After the first three games, the secondary was banged up, the linebackers had been inconsistent and the defensive line was getting very little push up front.
Then Nebraska’s offense came to Evanston and Tommy Armstrong Jr proceeded to torch Northwestern’s defense for 378 total yards on his way to a career night.
“We saw early on exactly how they were going to play and just kept doing what we were doing, taking those small gains and making sure we were moving down the field,” Armstrong Jr. said. “Then we continued to see how they were adapting to it and changed it.”
Northwestern gave up a whopping 556 yards Saturday, with 310 of those coming on the ground. Armstrong contributed 246 yards and one touchdown through the air and a career-high 132 yards on the ground. The final score of the game was only 24-13, but if Nebraska had held onto the ball better on the endzone’s doorstep, it would have been 38-13. Northwestern simply got outplayed all night.
“I don’t think there were a whole lot of plays that we couldn’t have stopped, it just looked like we didn’t execute, like we fit things wrong,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It looked like we stayed velcroed to blocks, our secondary support was taking bad angles and missing open field tackles.”
On the ground, Nebraska was doing basically whatever it wanted, averaging 8.72 yards per carry and moving the ball at will whenever they used the read-option. And we’ve seen this story before.
Early on, Northwestern was committing to the running back too early on the read-option, allowing Armstrong to break free for big gains. Then once the quarterback run game was established, Northwestern was freezing whenever Nebraska would run a read-option play, allowing for large holes to open up for the running backs. It was the perfect one-two punch for Nebraska and it was exploited all night long.
“It was a great mixture [of playcalling], really good stuff I thought,” Nebraska head coach Mike Riley said. “The ability to run the tailback or the quarterback, it’s just a great mix. [Armstrong] had some great plays, some big plays throughout the game.”
What’s most worrisome is the fact that Northwestern didn’t have too many structural breakdowns or terrible misreads and blown assignments; Nebraska was just gaining yards at will with sheer force. Northwestern players were taking bad angles, not making tackles and consistently getting beat for 8-10 yard gains.
“It’s mind boggling to me, mind boggling,” Fitzgerald said about defending the read option. “We did it right all week in practice.”
Through the air, Armstrong missed a few open receivers, but overall was very efficient, taking advantage of the Northwestern coverage, or lack thereof. With the cornerbacks refusing to play press coverage—a strategy that worked well against Duke—Armstrong exploited the defense for an easy eight yards per attempt. Every curl or out route was wide open as Montre Hartage and Trae Williams were lined up 10 yards off of their wide receivers. It was the ultimate “taking what the defense gives you,” and it allowed the Cornhuskers to easily move the ball.
“Just playing what we see, that’s what we kind of gameplanned for,” Armstrong Jr. said. “We knew that they had some athletic d-lineman so we wanted to establish the running game to open up the passes and we did that.”
It’s easy to sit here and say that Northwestern just ran into a very good Nebraska offense on Saturday, and while that is true, it ignores the big picture. Northwestern’s defense is not good. Yardage-wise, this was the second-worst performance in the Mike Hankwitz era.
So far through four games, the defense has given up 1,740 yards, exactly 435 yards per game. To put that in perspective, the 2015 defense gave up 3,726 yards for the entire season. Currently 2016 Northwestern is on pace to give up 5,220 yards by season’s end.
The defense has been able to limit the damage, only giving up 17 points per game, but that’s a bit of a misleading number given the fact that Illinois State and Duke only scored a combined 21 points with almost 800 total yards of offense. You can give credit to the team for solidifying somewhat in the redzone, but at some point you have to be able to get off the field.
Northwestern is giving up 177.7 yards per game on the ground and 257.5 yards per game through the air. The defense can’t get off the field on third down and that combined with an inconsistent offense has caused a series problem in terms of time of possession.
There are several issues with the current iteration of Northwestern football, and many of them were put on full display against Nebraska under the lights. What’s scarier is that for the first time in over a season, it’s the defensive side of the ball that looks like it simply has no answers.