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A thin secondary may force the Wildcats to revert to more conservative coverage schemes

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Can Northwestern succeed defensively while sagging back in coverage?

NCAA Football: Indiana at Northwestern Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

If you have some NCAA eligibility left, Northwestern could use you in the secondary next week against Wisconsin.

Northwestern has approximately 2.5 healthy cornerbacks. Montre Hartage and Trae Williams are back, now with a year of experience under their belts. Unfortunately, their backups can’t say the same. With this week’s announcement that Brian Bullock and Roderick Campbell are out for the year, it’s déjà vu for the Wildcats’ secondary. Marcus McShepard, who has been injured since Nevada and is up in the air for Wisconsin, is the only other cornerback on the roster who had played FBS football before this season. The depth at cornerback is nonexistent.

Luckily for the Wildcats, they still have safety Godwin Igwebuike, who is still a one-man “no fly zone”. Northwestern’s nickel scheme almost always involves three safeties anyways, with Kyle Queiro usually coming down to play nickel corner and Jared McGee replacing him at safety. But it’s still a tall order to get through a competitive Big Ten game using only three corners. Throwing untested players to the sharks against a top-10 team is almost bound for failure. Another injury would obviously be disastrous.

Thus, Northwestern might revert to 2016’s strategy in the secondary, which involved playing a lot of soft coverage to prevent getting burned by big plays. After injuries to Matthew Harris and Keith Watkins last year, Northwestern was facing a similarly difficult situation at the cornerback position heading into Big Ten play. Hartage and Williams played off their receivers, showing willingness to give up underneath routes while refusing to get beat over the top and controlling the run game. Limited evidence shows that despite improvements from Hartage and Williams, Northwestern is employing the same strategy this year.

Northwestern’s secondary was not dominant in 2016. But they were able to do an adequate enough job at bending without breaking to win key games down the stretch by relying on the strengths of their defense: pass rush and safety play.

On Saturday, this strategy paid dividends. Bowling Green’s quarterbacks completed 27 out of 44 passes, but for only 256 yards, 5.8 yards per attempt. Their only completion that picked up more than 21 yards was a short crossing route where a quick receiver picked up 25 yards after the catch. Northwestern went in with a clear strategy in the passing game: don’t get burned. Monte Hartage often played as much as 10 yards off of receivers, with Trae Williams mirroring him for most of the night. Bowling Green used that space, hitting short crossing route after short crossing route, but the Falcons were never able to truly make the Wildcats pay, ending up with only 7 points on the night.

One might wonder why Williams and Hartage are still playing such a conservative scheme despite starting for a full season. The answer, as far as can reasonably be surmised off of just one game’s worth of data, is twofold. First, as simple as it sounds, playing off of receivers allows for easier recovery between plays. Having less ground to cover makes players less tired and takes less out of them, and with the aforementioned lack of cornerback depth Northwestern needs to keep their starters in for as long as possible and limit their risk of injury as much as possible. Secondly, a lack of consistent press coverage makes it easier to cover for the inexperienced corners when they inevitably get a couple of snaps. When Moe Almasri, Alonzo Mayo, and JR Pace enter the game, it’s easier for Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro to help them, as they are both used to other corners covering similarly and will have less need to help those other corners. Also, Williams’ main issue has been getting burned on deep passes. Northwestern’s off-coverage strategy makes it easier to compensate for this issue.

This conservative defense was often criticized as the Wildcats put it into practice last year. Some of those critiques were valid: Northwestern was unable (and still is) to get consistent stops on third and long using the technique. But the main reason it often didn’t work is because Northwestern was unable to generate consistent pressure to go along with it. The Wildcats had flashes of stellar pass rush, like Joe Gaziano’s safety against Michigan State and Ifeadi Odenigbo’s phenomenal performance against Iowa. Oftentimes, those breakthroughs led to wins when coupled with offensive success. But too often the pass rush was stagnant.

That stagnancy has carried over into the early part of this year. Though Gaziano and Tyler Lancaster have seen individual success, the front seven, which has one of the lowest havoc ratings in the country, needs to show consistent pressure. For starters, Northwestern could blitz more. When the Wildcats have rushed four, they haven’t been able to even collapse the pocket most of the time. The Wildcats could allow Brett Walsh and Nate Hall to blitz more frequently. Together with a deep-lying pass defense, these exotic blitzes might allow tons of short completions, but the defense is already designed for that. If Mike Hankwitz and the Wildcats want their coverage scheme to work, they must figure out a way to get pressure.

Northwestern’s matchup with Wisconsin next week offers a great chance for them to test out some blitz packages. Wisconsin’s pass offense has been pretty efficient, with junior Alex Hornibrook averaging 9.1 yards per attempt and throwing only one interception thus far. However, the Badgers haven’t proven their pass protection ability this year, perhaps the only thing they haven’t proven. Hornibook has not been credited with an official rush all year, and their sack rate allowed on passing downs ranks a lowly 57th in the country, their offense’s worst rank on any advanced statistic.

With Hornibrook’s lack of mobility and the Wisconsin offensive line’s early struggles, the Wildcats will have a chance to get after Hornibrook if they are willing to bring pressure. Tight end Troy Fumagalli, who has been targeted on a whopping 32 percent of Wisconsin’s passes thus far, will probably find space against a deep-lying Northwestern pass defense, but if Hornibrook sees constant pressure he can only hit Fumagalli so many times. Northwestern will have the chance to get after the quarterback against the Badgers, and if they can simultaneously eliminate the deep ball they will give their offense a real chance to get a win.

It’s not as if Northwestern will never play press coverage again. The pure ability of Hartage in particular makes that an impossibility. But situationally, it makes sense for Northwestern to transition to softer coverage schemes as their cornerback depth continues to get shredded for the second consecutive year. As long as they introduce some exotic pressure packages and get consistent safety play (both pretty big ifs), they’ll be able to survive. With the offense seemingly firing on all cylinders, that might be all they need to do.