Here’s just one more disturbing stat from the catastrophe that has been the 2016 season thus far: Northwestern is 71st in the nation in yards per play allowed at 5.6 yards per.
Last year, the Wildcats were eighth at 4.5 yards per play.
And it doesn’t get any easier whatsoever with a highly-productive running offense awaiting in Iowa City this weekend. The Hawkeyes will pound and pound and pound away, using both LeShun Daniels Jr. and Akrum Wadley, he of 204 yards and four touchdowns last year in Evanston. Daniels Jr. was injured for last year’s contest, but he’s healthy now and putting up gaudy numbers as the Hawkeyes’ lead back: 52 rushes for 301 yards (5.8 yards per carry) and three touchdowns through four games. He’s a load to tackle (6-foot-1, 225 pounds), and he moves very well for a guy of that size.
But it’s not as if he’s an unstoppable force. North Dakota State held him to just 29 yards on 14 carries in its upset win at Kinnick. If Northwestern is to leave with the same result, it will likely have to stop the run as well as the Bison did two weeks ago.
So how can Anthony Walker, Jaylen Prater and co. do just that against Daniels Jr.? A look into the film room helps us out.
(NOTE: All plays courtesy of Big Ten Network.)
What Daniels Jr. does well: Run downhill with vision
What Northwestern can do about it: Fulfill lanes diligently
Daniels Jr. will take advantage of any mistakes you make. He’s an experienced runner who always hits the hole hard and takes every advantage of any daylight he has. In the above example, North Dakota safety Robbie Grimsley (No. 5) comes crashing down toward the middle way too hard, leaving a hole big enough for a truck to drive through.
Even though North Dakota State gets good penetration, once Daniels Jr. sidesteps it, he’s off to the races. The support from the linebackers and secondary absolutely has to be consistently present if NU is to pull off the win.
This play was called back for a pretty questionable holding call, but that’s not the point. Lose your lane discipline and Daniels Jr. will make you pay.
This is a similar play in that the key defender chooses the entirely wrong lane. This time, though, it’s a linebacker: No. 29, Kane Seeley. Good luck making any sort of play on the ball carrier when you’re this far away from him.
The Hawkeyes love to pound the ball up the middle, regardless of who is in the backfield. Anthony Walker Jr. is going to be in a position similar to what Seeley is in this play. He’ll have to be much better than what we’ve seen out him so far this season and what we saw out of him last year versus Iowa (four tackles, no sacks or tackles for loss).
What Daniels Jr. does well: Get upfield once he gets to the edge
What Northwestern can do about it: Pursue the play as a unit from start to finish, string out runs, rally to the ball and take good angles from the cornerback position
Although Daniels Jr. is not very fast put once he gets to the edge, he has good footwork to avoid potential tacklers, and he is quick enough laterally to gain something when not much is there. We’ll break this area down with three examples: What Northwestern cannot do, what Northwestern can live with, and what Northwestern has to do consistently to win.
This is what we saw far too much of last year when the Hawkeyes ran around, over and through the Wildcats at Ryan Field: missed tackles from the secondary. The corners have to be cognizant of maintaining their lane discipline but also coming up and making tackles. Last year’s group did neither, and this year’s young tandem of Montre Hartage and Trae Williams have struggled in the department so far this year.
“We try to emphasize to keep the ball inside and in front,” defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz told Inside NU. “The corners are gonna have to be ready to tackle.”
Defensive backs coach Jerry Brown believes in his youngsters, though.
“Contain and tackle,” Brown said. “I don’t, and none of our defensive coaches believe in recruiting ‘a cover corner.’ A cover corner denotes to me that he covers but he doesn’t tackle. We recruit cornerbacks that play football: that cover, that tackle.”
This play shows both Daniels Jr.’s lateral quickness and how Northwestern will have to pursue the ball. The Bison get good penetration inside with both a defensive end Stanley Jones (No. 94) and linebacker MJ Stumpf (No. 41). Daniels Jr. skips away from both, but the defensive pursuit is dogged. Cornerback Jalen Allison (No. 21) forces Daniels Jr. wide before Grimsley (No. 5), the guy who missed his lane in the first play of this piece, finishes him off. Daniels gains some yardage, but it’s minimal, and something the Bison certainly could live with.
The Bison do a fantastic job on this play, getting penetration from the very start and immediately taking up blockers after that. Watch linebacker Pierre Gee-Tucker (No. 47) smartly get in the way of the fullback, occupying Daniels Jr.’s lone lead blocker and slowing down the running back in the process.
But that’s not all that makes this play impressive. After Gee-Tucker is engaged, several Bison rally to the ballcarrier: four tacklers end up taking down Daniels Jr. in the backfield. This is going to be key for Northwestern: not letting Daniels Jr. get the edge and gang tackling when plays get strung to the outside.
Don’t expect anything special from the Hawkeyes. From our post-game press conference notes after last year’s game:
Fitzgerald said that nothing Iowa did really surprised him. What maddened Fitzgerald, though, were missed tackles by cornerbacks and poor angles. Even when Northwestern defenders got to Iowa's ball-carriers, he said, there were far too many missed plays: "It just looked like fundamental [mistakes] today."
If there’s more of the same, it will be a dreadfully long day in Iowa City. But North Dakota State was able to do almost everything right in this area in its upset earlier this year, so there is hope. Daniels Jr.’s longest carry was seven yards on that day. It will take a similarly inspired effort from all three levels of the defense — penetration from the line, lane integrity from the linebackers and sound tackling from the secondary — to give the Wildcats a chance.