There are few things more frustrating to watch as a football fan than when your team is trying to hold on to a lead and falls back into prevent defense, giving up 15-yard passes with no resistance whatsoever.
Throughout his Northwestern tenure, Mike Hankwitz has been known for his bend-don’t-break defense. He doesn’t like to bring a ton of pressure, part of the reason the Wildcats have been known to cede yards between the 20s. However, the pass rush has come alive in the past two weeks, and Hankwitz wasn’t afraid to pick his spots to blitz against Wisconsin.
Trailing 14-7 with 14:13 left in the game, the Badgers faced a third-and-9 on Northwestern’s 26-yard line. Quarterback Graham Mertz dumped off a screen pass to wide receiver Jack Dunn for a modest three-yard gain, setting up a fourth-and-6. Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst decided to be aggressive and go for it, realizing that a successful field goal try would only cut the NU lead to four, and the Badgers would eventually need a touchdown anyway.
Instead of rushing only three and dropping eight into coverage, which we have seen many times before, Hank brought a seven-man rush that even Wisconsin’s stout offensive line couldn’t handle. Cornerback Cam Ruiz, who now has two sacks on the year, lines up as if he’s going to cover the Badger slot receiver, but instead he makes a beeline for Mertz.
Since the offensive linemen are focused on linebackers Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, who are also coming on a blitz, there’s a clear path to the quarterback for Ruiz as left tackle Cole Van Lanen is preoccupied with Eku Leota and left guard John Dietzen focuses on Fisher. Blake Gallagher and Grayson Mann also got home before Mertz could even gaze his eyes downfield as three players took him down. The sack forced a turnover on downs, resulting in a huge momentum swing to Northwestern’s side.
A tip of the cap to one Mike Hankwitz, who not just fooled Wisconsin offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph with this look but simply overpowered the Badgers at a critical moment.
Northwestern added a field goal from Charlie Kuhbander on the ensuing drive, making it a two-possession game. Neither team scored again, and the Wildcats left Ryan Field with a 17-7 victory.