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Stopping Bo Nix: What Northwestern must do to shut him down

It’s about the legs.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern faces a tough defensive test against a pretty young Auburn team. The Tigers sport SEC Freshman of the Year in running back Tank Bigsby, but Wildcat defenders also have Bo Nix’s name circled. The sophomore quarterback has started 23 games games and earned SEC Freshman of the year honors last year, but 2020 has been a different story.

Nix has not had the fairytale season for which Auburn fans had hoped. Ranked in the preseason top 10, the Tigers fell to Georgia as from Nix where he threw for fewer than 200 yards on 40 attempts, completing only 55% of those throws and also turning it over once. This game, as well as subpar outings against South Carolina and Alabama, brought the “Bo Picks” moniker back into existence.

With all that being said, NU hasn’t faced any nonconference opponent to this point, and its first SEC test will still be a tough one. This Auburn team has talented receivers that the Wildcats’ Sky Team will need to be ready for.

To find out how to stop him, I looked through the defensive clinic Kirby Smart’s Georgia defense put on against Auburn to see how NU can go about stopping him.

Make him flustered

Nix has legs, and it’s news to no one that Northwestern has struggled against mobile signal callers. But he has yet to develop the pocket awareness and composure Auburn fans have been longing for. Here, Nix is flushed out of the pocket with an inside blitz similar to the one that brought down Justin Fields on the first drive of the Big Ten Championship Game, but he avoids the pressure, and instead of taking what the defense gives him, he tries to make too much happen and forces a ball into traffic that should’ve been picked off.

We see this same attitude in guys like Carson Wentz in the NFL. They are naturally talented enough that even when the defense picks them up right, they can find a way to escape. But what they can make up for with ability can be negated with poor decision making.

Nix also doesn’t read the blitz well on the line, or he at least doesn’t react to it correctly. While he does recognize the pass rusher sprinting toward him before it is too late, he doesn’t change the pass protection at the line of scrimmage before the play or make an effort to get rid of the ball quickly knowing the blitz is coming. Hiding blitz packages in dummy coverage looks like Georgia does here is exactly what confused Justin Fields, so Northwestern may find success with similar schematics.

Nix again fails to read the pressure from the line of scrimmage.

Though he does motion to create a five-out set and move the running back to the outside to try and get a read of their coverage, he does nothing with the information he gains. When the receiver moves to the outside, he sees the linebacker moving with him and correctly assumes man coverage. However, he doesn’t recognize the safety creeping down toward him, an early indication of a corner blitz. A Georgia slot corner disguises a blitz by pretending to be in coverage, only to bring late pressure. The added five-man pressure brings confusion to the Auburn offensive line, and while ultimately the rush comes from the other side of the play, Bo is left in another dangerous situation.

Northwestern needs to force Nix into ill-advised, cross-body throws, and they can do that by disguising blitzes to confuse not only him but his offensive line.

Nix falls victim to the same disguised DB blitz here as earlier in the game.

He does react to the pressure quickly and gets rid of the ball but is lucky it isn’t intercepted. Northwestern can bring delayed pressure from the secondary to force him to make plays without thinking and make mistakes in the intermediate and deep throwing areas.

You can sort of get the memo by this point: Nix does not do well under pressure.

Kirby Smart calls for Georgia to bring an extra linebacker along with the defensive front, and, flustered, Nix chucks up an off-balance deep ball into double coverage.

Here he faces just a four-man rush but vacates the pocket (toward the pressure) and throws a very inaccurate ball on the run.

For as unpolished as his game has been, Nix has all the tools to burn defenses, like a great ability to scoot.

Northwestern needs to package specifically for a scramble or even designed quarterback runs and must employ a spy to watch Nix making something happen with his feet. Running is almost always on his mind, and any NU fan is familiar with the notorious third down scrambles that keep the defense on the field.

Dare him to throw

Georgia did a great job covering Nix’s running lanes and short throwing options, as demonstrated in this play. They kept the box stacked with nine defenders already visible and two safeties deep. Though there is a linebacker lined up against an receiver (which would normally be an advantage for Auburn), Georgia is fine with that because it has a quarterback spy to stop a Nix scramble, the linebacker is on a slot (so if he’s beat it is likely only a short gain), it’s playing press coverage on the two outside receivers and it has two safeties deep to make up for the mistakes of linemen being beat.

Furthermore, Georgia’s stacked box helps to prevent against the run with Bigsby. Especially because the ‘Cats trust their secondary so much, they should play more aggressively on Auburn WRs and dare Nix to take deep shots.

The Bulldogs bust a coverage below, giving Nix an incredible opportunity to air it out deep and score a touchdown, but he fails to take advantage of it, even with his receiver having three yards of separation. It’s a touchdown if he hits him.

Though there is nothing to take away coverage wise from Georgia, Northwestern must force Nix to make nice throws like this if he wants to score and not give up the checkdowns or easier throws they like to hold opponents to.

In summation, Mike Hankwitz shouldn’t hesitate to stack the box and bring pressure. NU’s secondary, even without Greg Newsome, has shown it can largely win its one-on-one matchups, so the Wildcats can make up for what they lack in run defense by rushing Nix and forcing throws with haste.