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FILM ROOM: How Northwestern’s pass protection faltered against Michigan State

With two games left on the schedule, the Wildcats have plenty to address up front.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Against Michigan State last Saturday, Northwestern’s offense faced a 17-point, first-half deficit for the second time this season. At that point, the Wildcats had already dealt with a couple of crucial offensive mistakes, though one was certainly aided by a missed call that led to a turnover. But it was only as they struck out on the comeback trail that the team’s most significant weakness against the Spartans specifically began to get exploited.

Throughout the past month, Northwestern has struggled on the ground. Facing the Spartans, the situation in the trenches was no different, as NU finished with just 88 sack-adjusted rushing yards on 33 carries. But what really ended up dooming the Wildcats’ offense down the stretch, alongside an ill-timed case of the drops, was the worst display of pass protection they’ve shown all season, concentrated in the final three quarters.

Michigan State’s defensive line is certainly one of the bright spots on the team, but entering play last Saturday, it had not managed more than two sacks or four hurries in a game this season, even against opponents like Michigan and Rutgers. In a blowout loss two days ago to an Ohio State team that was missing multiple starters up front due to COVID-related reasons, they managed three sacks and four hurries.

So this performance against Northwestern stands out, and it wasn’t because the Spartans used a bunch of exotic blitz packages or did anything extremely unique. I charted three times all game that Michigan State got home sending more than five.

The first time, they sent six against a seven-man protection scheme plus a chip from Charlie Mangieri, and it was largely picked up, but the coverage was good enough to force Ramsey to look for an exit that didn’t really exist due to the sheer amount of rushers.

Next, it was a five-man rush against seven protectors that somehow led to true first year Marshall Lang getting matched up one-on-one against speedy standout corner Shakur Brown as Charlie Mangieri looks on without an assignment next to him, which I can virtually guarantee isn’t how the Wildcats drew it up:

I’m not sure if this poor pre-snap recognition falls on Mangieri or Ramsey or even someone else, but it wouldn’t be the last Spartan blitz the Wildcats failed to identify in a manner that essentially cost them a play while on an important third quarter drive down four:

This one is just a total mess. Even though the slot corner is showing blitz, nobody calls any attention to it or stays in to chip and the blocking scheme just completely fails to account for the extra man. Likely the fault of a combination of Ramsey and Gerak (or whoever else up front is supposed to note potential blitzers), this one comes purely from a failure to be ready for adjustments.

But while these situations look really bad on tape, they aren’t the biggest problem moving forward. The sheer amount of times the Wildcats got flat beat by pass-rushers, particularly up the middle, in the final two-and-a-half quarters is staggering. Charlie Schmidt, filling in at right guard for an injured Ethan Wiederkehr for the second straight game, had the toughest time.

By my count, Schmidt was directly beaten four times in that stretch, which, for an interior lineman who isn’t facing a dominant pass rusher, is about three or four too many, even in one-on-one situations. First, Evanston product Naquan Jones got past him to force a slightly early throw and incompletion deep into a drive on which the Wildcats would be forced to settle for a field goal one play later.

From there, it was the Drew Beesley show. First, on a simple discard in which he got to Ramsey in about two seconds flat, but the quarterback still managed to get the ball away.

Later that same drive, as the Wildcats tried to set up for a field goal, two running backs stayed in to chip but nobody helped Schmidt:

Then, at the very end of the game, he destroyed Schmidt inside to force an intentional grounding and rack up his second official sack of the game.

Schmidt had far from his best performance: even outside of those four clips, he consistently gave a ton of ground up the middle to Jacob Slade, even forcing Ramsey to vacate the pocket once or twice, and got mostly beat a second time by Naquan Jones in the third to force a throwaway.

But the sophomore was also working one-on-one for virtually the entire game in his first start of the season. Whether because running backs had to help out on other rushers, as seen in the clip above when Vogel gets blown by off the outside edge, or because Gerak and Urban teamed up on the other side all game long (and still got beat by Slade on a key late third down), even when Schmidt was facing Beesley, the Wildcats largely hung him out to dry.

And he was far from the only lineman to lose individual battles. Here’s Urban getting wrecked on a spin move in a rare one-on-one against Slade.

Or how about Skoronski, who had probably the best game of the group, finally getting beat both outside and inside in the fourth quarter, though the first one wasn’t so bad, and Vogel certainly didn’t help from the other side of the line on the second:

Clearly, this was a group effort, and it isn’t something Northwestern is going to be able to fix simply with the return of Wiederkehr. Though Illinois doesn’t have much pass rush to speak of, it’s still a Big Ten defensive line and far from its worst position group. More crucially, Ohio State’s front has impressed, looking dominant in most games, even with Chase Young’s graduation, on its way to 17 sacks in five contests.

If the Wildcats don’t clean things up in pass protection, they won’t get a chance to take advantage of a Buckeye secondary that looks shaky in a potential Big Ten Championship matchup. Right now, with the way their linemen have looked in one-on-one situations and the difficulties they’ve had with properly deploying extra blockers, the offense might not even get the chance to get off the blocks.