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Film Room: Northwestern’s tackling woes against Stanford

One of the biggest reasons the Wildcats struggled in Palo Alto was a severe lack of success in getting guys on the ground.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Stanford John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Inside NU film room is back! Every game week, one of our writers will clip past highlight reels and use game footage to help us breakdown a key component of Northwestern’s previous matchup or future opponent.

While the NU defense only let up 10 points against the Cardinal last weekend, the unit struggled mightily to corral Stanford receivers and backs on first attempts in open space. Our second installment of the film room takes a look at Northwestern’s tackling struggles.

Prior to NU’s week one contest, captain and middle linebacker Paddy Fisher noted that the team rarely practices live tackling, and that he was somewhat worried about their ability to do it in week one after not having tackled since the Holiday Bowl. Fisher’s comments, in response to a question about the tackling struggles in the Miami-Florida game, proved to be a moment of foreshadowing for Northwestern’s efforts in Palo Alto.

It seemed as though the Cardinal had countless big plays on Saturday that stemmed from a missed tackle from an over-eager Wildcat defender. Northwestern’s lack of live tackling practice, as Fisher alluded to, was evident. But, as his head coach emphasized postgame, getting the balance between staying healthy and practicing tackling exactly right is a constant struggle.

“Did we tackle to the ground every day, no, but we practice really hard without going live. It’s a long season, you gotta maximize every day and keep the team healthy,” Fitzgerald said. “But as a former defensive player, there’s an old saying that, ‘if you can’t make a tackle unblocked, you’re really hurting the defense.’”

With that said, let’s take a closer look at the tackling issues that plagued the NU defense against Stanford.

First Quarter Foreshadowing

The difference in yardage gained when the first defender misses a tackle can be significant. When it happens throughout a game, it is often the difference between winning and losing.

In the clip below, you can see early signs of Northwestern defensive backs over-pursuing the Cardinal ballcarrier. While Travis Whillock does a great job of eventually catching up to the receiver and bringing him down, the tackle is preceded by a miss from Trae Williams.

The cornerback may have kept his eyes on the hips rather than the numbers, a common cause for a would-be tackler over-extending and getting tripped up. In this instance, he’s saved by Whillock’s recovery, but Northwestern can’t be consistently relying on bail-out plays from their safeties as the season progresses. Time and again, the Wildcat secondary failed to make the all-important first play on the receiver.

A similar sequence unfolds later in the quarter when neither of two defensive backs was able to wrap up the receiver, allowing extra yards after the catch and a subsequent first down.

The ideal contact point for these tackles would be at the numbers, but the failure to do so results in aimless dives at legs, allowing the receiver to muscle forward for a few critical extra yards.

Late Game Breakout

As the contest continued, the missed tackles began to result in bigger-yardage plays that really allowed Stanford to push the ball down the field. It’s fair to assume that with a backup quarterback and NU struggling to tackle, David Shaw wanted to put his receivers in open-field situations where they could take defensive backs in one-on-one scenarios. Giving backup QB Davis Mills those easy completions proved to be an effective strategy that resulted in multiple huge gains for the Cardinal despite the ball being caught behind the line of scrimmage.

In this instance, A.J. Hampton comes flying in on a screen pass, allowing the receiver to easily evade him. He does a good job of identifying the call, but recklessly tries to make a play. Fortunately, the play was brought back due to a hold, but that type of tackling form has to change.

You can see a carbon copy of the play below, though this one wasn’t negated.

Finally, a costly moment occurred between the tackles late in the fourth quarter. Needing to force a punt, Whillock shot the gap on an inside run, but was unable to bring the ball-carrier down, resulting in a first down.

Again, the would-be tackler doesn’t even come close to bringing the target down. These aren’t instances where Northwestern players are just getting outpowered, they’re just over-pursuing tackles and the result is cheap yards after minimal contact. Ideally, these one-on-one tackles are consistently executed, but at the very least, NU defenders need to do a better job of making substantial initial contact to slow the ballcarrier down so reinforcements can come in and finish the job.

The main culprits in these clips are Hampton and Whillock, but junior weak side backer Blake Gallagher was another player that really struggled in the middle. Unfortunately, the video available from Fox Sports’ compressed game replay doesn’t provide examples of Gallagher’s difficulties, but it’s worth noting that the Big Ten’s 2018 leading tackler didn’t have his best stuff on Saturday either.

NU’s defense has two weeks to correct the issue, or UNLV and more talented teams on the schedule will continue to exploit what was a display of tackling inability that we don’t typically see from Mike Hankwitz’ defense. In order for the Wildcats to execute the ‘bend don’t break’ defensive scheme that has worked so well for them in the past, these woes will have to be corrected.