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Inside the Play(s): What was wrong with Northwestern’s defense?

The Wildcats had no answer for the Cornhuskers’ running or passing attack

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Every week, our Ian McCafferty will go back and critically review one or more plays from the past Saturday's game. These are the plays that, more than any others, were crucial in determining the outcome of the game. He'll check the film and break down the how and why of those decisive few seconds.

This has been a particularly bad season for having a clear cut play to break down, so once again, we’re going to be looking at a plethora of plays this week to try and figure out what exactly went wrong for Northwestern against Nebraska. The focus today is on the defense and how Nebraska gashed Northwestern for 566 yards, dominating both running and passing the ball. We’ll look at a couple of big plays in three different play types. Running back rush, deep pass and quarterback run.

(All video via BTN)

Something is wrong with Northwestern’s defense.

Whether it’s because of injuries in the secondary, losing a lot of talent this offseason, or something else entirely—it’s not as if the offense has exactly held up its end of the bargain—the defense has not been great through four games.

Nationally, the defense is 100th in total yards allowed with 1740, but 22nd in points allowed at 17.0 per game. Thus, the defense has been able to maintain an identity of “bend don’t break,” but if it continues to give up 435 yards per game, that identity won’t last.

Saturday against Nebraska was the worst performance by a Northwestern defense by total yards since the 2012 matchup with Syracuse. While looking at a few plays from the game won’t let us completely diagnose the problems with the defensive unit, it’s a good start.

The Breakdown

Defense against the run

The two plays featured here are the crazy 49-yard run by Terrell Newby and a fourth-quarter 32-yard Mikale Wilbon run. Both plays are runs up the middle out of the shotgun, and provide similar results (fumble on the former aside).

Play One

Pre-snap alignments:

Nebraska has eight players on the line, and Northwestern has seven in the box. It’s run formation vs. run defense, which means the team that is stronger and more effectiveat the point of attack will win the play and, well...

Northwestern is smothered at the line by Nebraska’s offensive line and a huge whole opens up on the right side. Not a single Northwestern defensive lineman gets penetration or even push into the backfield, giving Newby a clean running lane. However at this point the play isn’t lost: Anthony Walker has a clear angle to shoot that gap and meet Newby in the hole.

The only problem is that Walker doesn’t do that. He’s not even close. He rushes straight ahead and straight into the line. This leaves the a huge running lane for Newby and by the time Walker has recovered, Newby is already past him into the second level. Still at this point, there are four players in front of Newby so the play isn’t a lost cause yet. However, over the next two seconds, Godwin Igwebuike (16) is skillfully blocked away from the play and Trae Williams (29) takes a terrible angle to the ball carrier, leading to this:

At this point Newby outraces Jared McGee (41) and Montre Hartage (24) to the pylon, only to fumble while diving toward the endzone. Even though he inexplicably failed to score, the play showed that Northwestern’s defense was executing poorly. And you can’t argue that the players were too tired either—this was in the first minute of the game.

Play Two

There’s nothing too special from the formations in this shot. Just recognize that Nebraska once again had a lot of large men on the offensive line in a clear running situation. It paid off:

Northwestern’s defensive line is pushed back once again, and this time Nebraska even has three lineman at the second level. There’s no real running room up the middle so Wilbon gets ready to bounce it outside, which is where Joe Jones is waiting to make the tackle, or at least he appears to be.

Two things happened between these two pictures. First Jones goes too far up the field and is suddenly out of position as Wilbon blasts past him, but what makes this play possible is the play from Nebraska’s left tackle. He takes Xavier Washington, turns him towards the near sideline and just pushes him back for five or so yards. This is what springs the entire run. It essentially becomes an off-tackle run right up the middle because of how dominant the offensive line is on the play. Seriously, the entire Northwestern defensive line is shifted at a 90 degree angle.

Nebraska blocks every defender in the second level, which means Wilbon has plenty of running room. He jukes out Igwebuike and there’s nothing but green in front of him, at least until Hartage drives him out of bounds.

Defense against the pass

The secondary is banged up, and it showed against Nebraska as Tommy Armstrong picked on Trae Williams time and time again. The two plays here are a 59 yard completion to Alonzo Moore and a 27 yard completion to Cethan Carter.

Play One

This one’s simple. Nebraska lines up in an I-formation with two wide receivers while Northwestern lines up with five defensive lineman, two linebackers and four defensive backs. What’s important here is that the two safeties are only eight yards off the ball when the play begins. Now look at where Northwestern’s linebackers and safeties are above...

...compared to where they are after the play-action fake. All four players bite on the fake and suddenly Trae Williams is left out on island with Alonzo Moore. That’s the play right there.

Williams just gets plain torched on a double move, something secondary coach Jerry Brown and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz have preached is simply unacceptable. Northwestern manages to get some pressure on Armstrong Jr., but he releases a perfect pass and Moore hauls it in for the huge gain.

Play Two

This play is a beautiful piece of trickery from Nebraska.

Wilbon motions as the play begins, and Northwestern immediately reads screen pass. Nate Hall rushes forward to cover the screen and Igwebuike moves up to cover Hall’s zone. Except it isn’t a screen. They both just let Cethan Carter run right past them.

There he is in the bottom right corner. There’s no one covering him and no one ahead of him, which leads right to this:

It’s a breakdown in coverage and if Carter doesn’t fall down, it would have led to a touchdown.

Defense against the Read Option

The worst showing for the defense on Saturday was against the read option, as Armstrong Jr. gashed the defense with his legs again and again. The first play here is a 37-yard run for Armstrong Jr. and the second play is a 20-yard run for Armstrong Jr.

Play One

This play is a simple read option play out of the shotgun where Armstrong Jr. winds up holding onto the ball. However, most of Northwestern’s defense reacts as if the running back has the ball. He does not have the ball; Tommy Armstrong has it.

Both linebackers rush up to the line and suddenly it’s up to the secondary to make a stop on a run play, yet again. However, Jared McGee is fooled worse than anyone else on the field. Look at where he is above (near the ref) and now...

He’s taken himself out of the play. Brett Walsh does his best to fight off his block, but he’s simply not fast enough to catch Armstrong Jr. For a little bit of fun, pay attention to where Trae Williams is right now while getting blocked.

Here we are fifteen yards further down the field and Trae Williams is still being blocked by the same player as Armstrong Jr. runs by him. Igwebuike takes a bad angle and misses his tackle and the only thing that stopped this from being a TD was that Armstrong Jr. stepped out of bounds.

Play Two

The second play is startlingly similar to the first as Northwestern’s linebackers once again take themselves out of the play.

As soon as there’s a play fake, both linebackers move up and get caught up in the line. Xavier Washington collapses in on the running back, completely ignoring Armstrong Jr. He has a lead blocker in front of him, and this is beginning to look awfully similar to the touchdown Clayton Thorson scored just a few plays earlier in this game.

Armstrong Jr. bursts through the second level and there’s no one with a good enough angle to get to him. He comes one Igwebuike tackle away from scoring a touchdown.


The defensive breakdowns are the entire unit’s fault, not just one positional group. The defensive line is getting no push, the linebackers are out of position and the defensive backs are blowing coverages. It’s bad all around.

On the ground, teams are going to continue to gash Northwestern for big gains if the d-line continues to just get blasted off the ball on every play. They have to get more penetration. This is where the Wildcats absolutely miss Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson. The linebackers also have to do a better job of not just running straight into blocks. Yes, that’s easier said than done, but they’re making it more difficult on themselves by not being in position to make a play. They can’t rely on Igwebuike to tackle the ball carrier every play.

In the secondary, it’s time to consistently give Trae Williams help on the outside from the safeties or linebackers. The redshirt freshman doesn’t have a ton of experience and teams will continue to pick on him until Matthew Harris can come back. Nebraska rarely threw in Montre Hartage’s direction because the Huskers didn’t need to. They got all the yardage they needed on Williams’ side.

As far as the read option, they just have to do a better job of not committing too early. Fitzgerald said that they were defending it great in practice and it was just “mind boggling” to him how they played it on Saturday. Let’s just hope that it was one bad game and not yet another major weakness.

Whatever the deep-seated problems are, the Northwestern defense needs to clean it up heading into October, or it’s going to be quite a long month for the Wildcats with Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin — all teams that can and will hammer the ball on the ground — on the schedule.