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FILM ROOM: Examining Northwestern’s defensive struggles against Wisconsin

Jim O’Neil’s defense very much regressed against Graham Mertz and Braelon Allen.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Northwestern Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

During Northwestern’s four-game losing streak to Duke, Southern Illinois, Miami (OH) and Penn State, something rather unexpected occurred: the Wildcats appeared to flip the script defensively. After surrendering 31 points in each of its first three contests, Jim O’Neil’s unit gave up only 34 combined points to the RedHawks and No. 10 Nittany Lions, including five takeaways in Happy Valley.

While NU’s defense still looked like a far cry from its 2020 iteration, fans were assuredly eager to have seen some form of improvement on that side of the ball, even if results were not following.

The concept of defensive adjustments became all for naught right from the initial snap on Saturday. The ‘Cats were trounced by Wisconsin 42-7, yielding 515 yards — the most they’ve permitted in nearly a full year. Despite some solid individual performances and a few stifling plays, O’Neil’s defense fell back on old habits very quickly.

From coverage busts to poor pursuit to missed tackling, below is a breakdown of several defensive facets that plagued the Wildcats in their embarrassing loss.

One of the larger concerns for NU was not being able to actually stop ball carriers. The idea of corralling 6-foot-2 Braelon Allen is much easier said than done: Allen feasted to the tune of 23 carries for 135 yards and a whopping nine missed tackles forced.

On this first-and-10, Allen collected a gaudy 33 yards; there are miscues at every level in this play. First, Rod Heard tries to come flying in from the third level but takes a bad angle and totally whiffs on Allen. From the linebacker spot, Bryce Gallagher triggers downhill but is grabbed immediately by center Joe Tippmann, who ultimately flattens the LB. Jeremiah Lewis and Greyson Metz both miss, too, and Allen chugs ahead inside the NU 30.

Likewise, the Wildcats also experienced difficulty with runs in space. During this third down jet sweep, Adetomiwa Adebawore blows by the tight end (and is arguably held) but isn’t in good position to make an arm tackle. Though Mueller is in behind, he comes up empty, as does Gallagher. Even when Garnett Hollis Jr. finally grabs UW’s Vinny Anthony II, the receiver plunges forward for a new set of downs. Not only were many of the angles on this sweep suboptimal, but even when defenders could have made stops, they simply didn’t.

In total, Pro Football Focus credited Northwestern with 18 missed tackles, its highest mark of the season. The tape would back that notion, with most runs involving ‘backs not being brought down on first attempts.

NU even allowed receivers to rip off significant gains, including on this Chimere Dike house call. Appearing to play a variation of zone match with man coverage to the field (far) side and zone to the boundary (near) side, Heard can’t keep stride with Dike. From there, Cam Mitchell fails to make a desperate tackle, while Heard and Garner Wallace are too slow to stop Dike. This play went for 52 total yards, about which 40 were after the catch.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t as if every Wisconsin carry went for 10+ yards. The ‘Cats did make a fair number of stops in short-yardage situations, like this third-and-four from near midfield. With Allen taking the Wildcat snap, Metz and Gallagher roam downhill and fight through blocks to get initial contact and then actually wrap up Allen short of the line to gain.

The other major area in which Northwestern was horrendous was a lack of fundamentally sound coverage.

Let’s begin with the Badgers’ first score on the day: a 15-yard touchdown pass from Graham Mertz to Skyler Bell. UW runs a play fake from under center, which gets both Northwestern’s linebackers and Mitchell to encroach upon the LOS. Mitchell, breaking on the play action and not the receiver, has Bell run right past him for one of the easier pitches and catches you’ll see.

Jim Leonard’s team’s final touchdown occurred on a more conventional play, yet one that featured bad reps nonetheless. In man against Markus Allen, Hollis gets beaten initially on the flat China route, losing leverage and then stumbling as he attempts to recover. A missed tackle by first-year Devin Turner seals the Badgers eclipsing the 40-point mark.

In particular, the ‘Cats could not maintain coverage downfield as the play broke down. Arguably no example is more apt than Allen’s 23-yard passing touchdown.

Although Allen steps up to avoid the wider rush, Northwestern does well to contain any running threat outside. The only issue? Nobody has noticed Chez Mellusi leaking out of the backfield. A failed tackle from Lewis would cap the highlight-reel play, one that lacked communication from O’Neil’s grouping.

Mertz did nicely to move within the pocket, such as during this third-and-eight. With nobody open initially, the QB steps forward and lobs a pass to a wide-open Dike for six. It’s difficult to determine what caused this space without the All-22 angle, but the ‘Cats in the secondary must stay true to their assignments rather than peeking at Mertz.

Sacking the quarterback has not been a forte for Northwestern whatsoever, with just nine actual takedowns on the season; likewise, the ‘Cats have struggled to consistently create pressure, notching only six on Saturday. One of which was this rush by Sean McLaughlin on a blitz, but McLaughlin does little to disturb Mertz. Instead, the gunslinger rolls out and finds Dike, who has once again been left alone in the defensive backfield.

While individual players can (and should) be held responsible for these types of errors, the cohesiveness and down-to-down play of a defense ultimately falls upon the shoulders of its defensive coordinator. Subsequent to two better outings, O’Neil’s unit repeated much of its sloppy play with its inability to shed blocks or make stops.

In order for Northwestern to even stay competitive — let alone win once — in its final six games of the season, O’Neil’s defense must reconvene and remain disciplined to avoid similarly forgetful showings.