Coming from a traditionally ground-and-pound conference, Northwestern fans would be forgiven for wondering which team on the field Saturday was the true representative from the Big Ten — because in a lot of ways, Western Michigan looked the part.
The Broncos held the ball for more than 39 minutes and ran more than 30 more plays than the Wildcats did. And while the Western Michigan offense wasn’t gashing the NU defense in its time on the field — the Broncos averaged just 5.0 yards per play on the game — the Cats’ inability to produce short-yardage stops allowed Western Michigan to control the flow of the game.
On third- and fourth-downs with less than two yards to go, the Broncos converted seven of eight attempts, all on the ground. In the process, they exposed a defensive weakness for NU that could become a bigger story against the bruising rushing offenses of the Big Ten.
The first play highlighted here happened in the second quarter, with Western Michigan sitting at its 44-yard line and in the midst of a 19-play, 10-minute drive that would end in a field goal. The Broncos went with a power look on the play, using a fullback and extra blockers on the line.
Redshirt freshman lineman Joe Gaziano (No. 97) is the strong-side defensive end on this play and gets stymied by a double team, while sophomore linebacker Nate Hall (No. 32) gets pushed several yards back by Western Michigan’s motioning tight end to open a hole for Jamauri Bogan to hit for the first down. With a few of his teammates beat at the line, All-American linebacker Anthony Walker (No. 1) gets caught in the fray around him and is unable to flow to the gap and make the play at the line of scrimmage.
This next play happened in the third quarter, with Western Michigan going with the power look again while sitting at the Cats’ 33-yard line and working on another long drive that would end in a field goal.
On the spot again as the strong-side end, Gaziano gets blown away from the point of attack by a double team right at the snap. Meanwhile, Walker has clean space in front of him but misreads the play as going outside, stepping out of his gap only to be sealed by a block from Western Michigan’s fullback. Bogan bursts through the ensuing crease to easily get the first down.
The Broncos went back to the same play on the goal line in the fourth quarter to score what would end up the game-winning touchdown.
This time, it was the big senior lineman C.J. Robbins (No. 90), who has a good 40 lbs. on Gaziano, lined up as the strong-side defensive end and getting pushed off the spot. Junior safety Godwin Igwebuike (No. 16) fills the gap and has a chance to make the stop at the line, but he whiffs in the hole. Senior linebacker Jaylen Prater (No. 51) and Walker then combine to hit Bogan past the line of scrimmage, but they aren’t able to keep Bogan from powering into the end zone.
The common thread was the Cats’ inability to win at the line of scrimmage in these short-yardage situations, a troubling sign for a team attempting to replace defensive ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson from a season ago. Penetration from the defensive line is the key to stopping run plays before they start, and too often throughout the day NU got no push from its linemen at the point of attack. With physical power-running teams like Wisconsin and Iowa looming on the schedule, the Cats will need some players to emerge on the line as impact players if they want to hold up.
Without penetration up front, NU’s second level defenders needed to be perfect time and again to stop Western Michigan, and mistakes in the hole like the ones shown above from Walker and Igwebuike allowed the Broncos to convert on key short-yardage plays throughout the game. In particular, Walker often looked a beat slow in run defense, a far cry from the guy whose athleticism and instincts let him put up 20.5 tackles for loss last season.
The offense has the advantage on any one short-yardage play, of course, and even the vaunted Cats defense of last season struggled to stop opponents in those situations, allowing conversions on 78.0 percent of third- and fourth-down running plays with less than two yards to go — good for 116th out of 128 FBS teams. But with the potential for regression in other areas defensively, and in a close game where one timely short-yardage stop could have been the difference, the way mid-major Western Michigan pushed NU around has to make fans nervous for the season to come.