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FILM ROOM: Why Northwestern’s defense struggled against Michigan State

Jim O’Neil’s defense didn’t get the jolt it wanted— or expected — courtesy of countless unforced errors

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Michigan State at Northwestern Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In nine games last season, Northwestern’s defense allowed just under 146 rushing yards per contest. After the first snap of the 2021 season, the Wildcats had already surrendered over half of that.

The game really does change in the blink of an eye.

Entering 2021, the ‘Cats had suffered several losses on defense, including the departures of Greg Newsome, Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher and Earnest Brown IV — not to mention the retirement of Mike Hankwitz. Even then, most expected NU’s defense to still be above average under new defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil.

With Newsome and Hankwitz at Ryan Field on Friday night, the O’Neil era could not have gotten off to a much worse start.

If it wasn’t bad enough watching live or in-person, I’m here to analyze how things went so disastrously for NU’s defense against the Spartans. You may find the magnitude of errors alarming. On the flip side, there’s effectively nowhere to go but up.

Without further ado, here’s a look at how doomsday struck.

Let’s begin with Kenneth Walker III’s initial touchdown of the evening, a play that will haunt Wildcat fans for quite some time.

The first mistake that I noticed involved senior linebacker Peter McIntyre (#40). A large reason why Walker has so much empty space along the left side is that McIntyre tries to stop the play by entering a gap that was already plugged by a defensive lineman being double-teamed. If McIntyre had angled more towards the outside, Walker likely would have been brought down by a defender.

When Walker gets to the second level, disaster strikes. Bryce Jackson (#22) is the only player with a legitimate chance at halting Walker. Unfortunately, Jackson cannot make the tackle, and a touchdown ensues.

Another problem on the play that was a tad more minor was cornerback Rod Heard (#24) getting chipped hard by Michigan State wide receiver Jayden Reed, exposing even more green grass ahead. Granted, this issue was more miniscule — Jackson should have made the play regardless.

Unfortunately, the ‘Cats’ first defensive play was far from the only one in which tackling was simply subpar.

On MSU’s second possession, O’Neil’s unit forces a 3rd and 7. During the play, O’Neil calls a zone blitz with six defenders bringing pressure, as defensive back Coco Azema (#0) shows blitz but is actually assigned the flat.

Azema does a nice job recognizing that running back Connor Heyward is in his vicinity and promptly ranges over. Consequently, though, both Azema and A.J. Hampton, Jr. (#11) get bulldozed. It’s always imperative to bring down ball carriers, but they especially must get wrapped up on 3rd down.

Several plays later, Walker garners another chunk run thanks to a subpar play by McIntyre.

Initially, McIntyre intends to enter the A gap and prevent Walker from trotting up the middle, which is sound. However, McIntyre recognizes too late that Walker is actually moving to the outside and the LB is too slow to react, culminating in a near touchdown.

This type of play is truly what separates the good linebackers from the outstanding ones —and also makes Northwestern fans miss the likes of Fisher.

One play later, and Walker lifts the Spartans to a 14-0 lead.

Truthfully, this is a good defensive alignment by O’Neil, as the Wildcats have ten men near the ball with Michigan State effectively on the left hash.

At first, NU’s defense does a solid job crashing down upon the line of scrimmage on what appears to be an HB Dive. However, Walker shrewdly cuts the ball outside, leaving defensive end Adetomiwa Adebawore (#99) as the only defender with a real shot at preventing a TD. Adebawore is blocked by the pulling Heyward and then struggles to reorient himself by flipping his hips to get around his man, leaving Walker untouched for six.

Northwestern’s struggles were not just limited to acting upon ball carriers, though: the ‘Cats were also not at their best in terms of coverage.

Here, Hampton occupies more of the flat and Heard possesses a hook curl over the middle. The area of concern is that they both gravitate towards Heyward out of the backfield, leaving Reed wide open for a sizable gain. In this case, I’d attribute more fault to Hampton, as he should understand that Heard has already locked onto the player in front of him. This play generally reflects that NU looked out of sorts with more fine-tuned defensive elements.

Even though certain snaps won’t appear as impact plays in the box score, it’s important to recognize lapses no matter the outcome of a play. Take these two instances below:

In the first, defensive back Cameron Mitchell (#2) acts as the free safety during a Cover 1, as he’s the only player with a deep zone. Mitchell stays with Reed well for most of the route, but backtracks just as the ball reaches Reed’s hands, enabling Reed to get to the apex of the catch point without disturbing him whatsoever. Luckily for Mitchell, Reed can’t hang on.

In the second of such plays, LB Chris Bergin (#28) takes a somewhat imprecise pursuit of QB Payton Thorne on a boot. Bergin is a bit slow to recognize the play, and once he does so, he takes several steps straight rather than laterally, leaving WR Jalen Nailor open up the sideline (though he drops the pass).

It seemed that Northwestern’s defense embodied the phrase “one step forward, two steps back” more and more as the night went on.

During this read option in which Thorne keeps the rock, defensive end Jeffery Pooler, Jr. (#5) does a good job acknowledging who is the legitimate runner. Nevertheless, he lacks the speed to actually chase down Thorne.

In direct contrast with Pooler, McIntyre charges towards the running back before failing to get wide enough to pursue Thorne effectively. In fact, McIntyre is nearly blocked by his own teammate in Azema.

Actions after the final whistle can tell the story, and they certainly do here, when Bergin commits a late hit on Thorne. Whether expressing frustration or unable to stop his momentum, a captain must know better than to warrant a 15-yard penalty by striking a quarterback well out-of-bounds.

Several plays demonstrated suboptimal overall defensive play, including this screen pass that resulted in Michigan State’s third score of the night.

From the get-go, the play seems inauspicious, as defensive lineman Joe Spivak (#1) falls down before the screen develops. Spivak was the defender with the best ability to tackle RB Jordon Simmons from behind, and subsequently, Mitchell attempts a very questionable dive tackle nearly six yards in front of Simmons as both Bergin and Azema are walloped by an offensive lineman.

Admittedly, there were probably two holding no-calls on this play committed against McIntyre and Adebawore. Holistically, though, it encapsulates Northwestern’s defensive struggles.

All night, the Spartans just seemed one step ahead of the Wildcats, and that was never more clear than it was on Walker’s third touchdown.

O’Neil seems to have a good formation in place, yet Northwestern’s defense is confused by the designed commotion and inches too far to the right, leaving the D with little chance to catch the lunging Walker.

You know things went poorly when even NU’s All-American sometimes looked out of sorts. All in all, Brandon Joseph had a solid showing, but there were elements to clean up.

In this case, the MSU offensive line slides to the left, employing a CAGE block in which the center and guard double before the center moves upfield. After a bad missed tackle by Pooler, Joseph is caught taking an imprecise angle, going downhill rather than traversing to the sideline.

This play is nearly a carbon copy of the prior one. Linebacker Bryce Gallagher (#32) gets into the backfield and creates chaos, but Adebawore can’t grab Walker, and Joseph comes up empty.

Finally, this end around reveals it all.


Holistically, there’s little that Northwestern’s defense did right. O’Neil’s players didn’t win much at the line of scrimmage, didn’t block shed incredibly well, could not make routine tackles, took circuitous angles and flat out did not look game-ready.

Truthfully, I’m not sure one Wildcat defender had a good game. Joseph and Hampton seemed to show the most flashes of the group, but even they were fallible at times.

Credit must be given where credit is due: Payton Thorne and Kenneth Walker III both rose to the occasion, and their efforts shouldn’t be discredited. If the Spartans maintain their momentum after leaving Evanston, they could finish far higher than expected in the Big Ten East.

To me, though, this game said more about the edge — or lack thereof — that O’Neil is establishing with his defense. Few adjustments seemed to have been made, as MSU had ten plays of over ten yards in the first half and seven such plays in the second half.

All in all, I don’t think O’Neil’s calls were the issue; it was the execution of such plays that was problematic. Fundamentally, every defender needs to play better — but no, let’s not execute the entire team, Brian Kelly.

Without a doubt, O’Neil and the Wildcats have the toolkit to put together a premier defense. In order to do so, though, the former NFL defensive coordinator must guide the hammer to strike the nail head on.