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Is the spread offense Anthony Walker’s kryptonite?

‘The Franchise’ showed his mortality in Northwestern’s season-opening loss to Western Michigan.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

September 5, 2015, Evanston, IL — Northwestern out-grinds No. 21 Stanford 16-6, limiting Christian McCaffrey and the rest of the Cardinal offense to just 240 total yards. Anthony Walker registers 10 total tackles and 0.5 sacks en route to a colossal upset victory in Evanston.

What a difference a year makes.

On September 3, 2016, the Wildcats found themselves on the unfavorable side of a season-opening upset, falling 22-21 to the Western Michigan Broncos at home. Expectation is a fresh obstacle for this team, and the Wildcats crumbled in the face of it Saturday.

The question to ask now is why. There are a number of factors to look at when pinpointing the reason for Northwestern’s disappointing loss. The defense struggled to generate a pass rush to disturb WMU quarterback Zach Terrell’s rhythm—who would have guessed Brett Walsh would have the only sack of the day?—while the offense at times proved incapable of protecting its own signal caller, Clayton Thorson. The Wildcats lost the turnover battle and were doubled up in time of possession. They allowed Western Michigan to convert all four of its fourth down conversion attempts. All of this, though, is beside the true point.

I (along with almost all of the rest of my colleagues) predicted a Northwestern victory in this game, operating under the assumption that, regardless of which side of the ball the Wildcats were on, they would have the best player on the field. Justin Jackson delivered, carrying the ball 23 times for 124 yards and three touchdowns in the game. On the defensive side of the ball, though, Northwestern’s best player, Evanston’s very own superhero, Anthony Walker, struggled mightily to effectively defend against Western Michigan’s high-powered spread passing attack. He finished the game with seven tackles and zero passes defended, despite being put in coverage situations early and often.

Your Dictionary defines kryptonite as “anything that causes someone’s ultimate weakness.” Well, on Saturday, we may have found Anthony Walker’s ultimate weakness, the one thing that can make even ‘The Franchise’ appear mortal: the spread offense.

We knew going into the contest that Western Michigan’s offense was a force to be reckoned with. With multi-time 3,000 yard passer Zach Terrell and big-time receiving talent Corey Davis headlining the Bronco offensive unit, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald knew his side’s secondary would have its hands full all day. He was, in fact, very complimentary of the Western Michigan offense in advance of the contest.

His answer to combat the dangerous Bronco passing attack involved running a lot of two-linebacker nickel packages, wherein Northwestern lined up four on the defensive line with five dropping back into coverage, as is displayed in the picture below. (Interestingly, instead of testing his youthful cornerback depth, Fitzgerald moved Kyle Queiro to nickel corner and brought Jared McGee in as the safety opposite Godwin Igwebuike.)

That’s Walker and Jaylen Prater lined up just over the top of the Wildcats’ four-man front on the line. Notice the emphasis on coverage in the secondary: Northwestern is lined up in man across the line of scrimmage with two safeties offering help over the top.

This alignment leaves a defense susceptible to slants, posts and other quick-hitting routes in the middle area of the field if it doesn’t get excellent coverage play from the linebackers. Fitzgerald banked on Walker stepping up to the task throughout the game, but in key moments he proved incapable, which is not a word many thought we would ever use to describe Anthony Walker.

“I have to get back to doing my job,” Walker said Tuesday. “That’s everybody, all 11 guys have to do their job and that’s the only way our defense works.”

Walker’s mortality was never on more display than on a defining sequence in the contest: Western Michigan’s opening drive of the second half. The Broncos had struggled to finish drives the entire first half, but marched 72 yards into the Northwestern end zone in just six plays after receiving the second half kickoff, scoring in just 2:29 and claiming their first lead of the game.

Look at the second play of this drive, following a first down run by WMU running back LeVante Bellamy:

Walker begins the play lined up in the middle of the field at around the 43 yard line. The play action fake from Terrell causes Walker to lurch forward, a result made possible by a consistent Bronco rushing attack all day. Now on his heels following the fake, Walker is forced to retreat to pick up Davis streaking across the middle of the field, which he actually does well. Just before the throw, though, you can see Davis blow by the back-pedaling Walker and by the time the ball got to him, there were no purple jerseys in the vicinity to contest the catch.

Walker is at his best when he’s running downhill, whether that be in a blitzing scenario or to bottle up an inside run. These are the situations he has thrived in his entire career, but these are not situations Western Michigan allowed him to be in in this contest. In fact, just two plays later, the Broncos again used a play action fake to knock Walker off balance and get him way out of position:

And then, on the final play of the drive, Walker gets caught flat-footed and allows D’Wayne Eskridge to leak out behind the line of scrimmage and tip-toe around two beautiful blocks and into the end zone:

Walker’s defensive struggles were at the root of Northwestern’s disappointing season-opener, but none of this to say it’s panic time for the Wildcat defense or Walker himself. At least not yet. Even the mightiest of heroes have their off days—Walker admitted he was trying too hard to make the big play rather than focus on making the correct one—and it’s clear to see now that Western Michigan caused more matchup problems for the Wildcat defense than many anticipated.

“You have to be able to let that one loss go away,” Walker said. “It can’t stick in your head and you can’t let it wear on the season.”

That will be Northwestern’s mantra heading into this weekend’s matchup with the Illinois State Redbirds, a matchup the Wildcats will be substantially favored in. Regardless, Saturday’s game revealed some major issues on the defensive side of the ball for this team and, if it wants to sniff the heights it reached in 2015, these issues must be resolved sooner rather than later.

And it all starts with Anthony Walker.