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Through the Tape: Wildcats struggle for short-yardage stops against Western Michigan

Through the Tape: Wildcats struggle for short-yardage stops against Western Michigan
(Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson)

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.

2016 Football Preview: Led by Anthony Walker, linebackers expected to be elite group

2016 Football Preview: Led by Anthony Walker, linebackers expected to be elite group
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

If Northwestern is to compete for a first place finish in the Big Ten West, it will need its linebacker unit to perform at an exceptional level.

The good news: the Wildcats’ linebackers are among the best in the conference, if not the nation.

Anchored by superstar Anthony Walker, NU’s linebackers were instrumental in leading a defense that allowed just 18.6 points per outing last fall. Walker, now a junior, finished the year with 122 tackles (20.5 for loss) and garnered All-America honors, while Drew Smith contributed double digit tackles for loss as well. Junior Jaylen Prater started nine before a season ending injury sidelined him for the Cats’ final four games. Sophomore Nate Hall filled in for Prater during that period and performed admirably as a redshirt freshman, making key plays in a critical win at Wisconsin and finishing the year with 56 tackles.

Smith graduated in the spring, and NU will miss his experience, but the nucleus of Walker, Prater and Hall should put the Cats in good stead going into this fall. The sensational Walker will prowl the middle of the field, while flanked by an experienced senior in Prater and a potential rising star in Hall.

The position features both star power in Walker — whom the program is promoting as “The Franchise” — and depth. Sophomore Cameron Queiro appeared in every game as a freshman, while another member of the unit, senior Joseph Jones, recorded 18 tackles and a pair for loss last fall. Jones has made 24 appearances in three seasons in Evanston, and earned the start at SAM linebacker for the Cats’ opening game against Western Michigan.

That said, it will be crucial for Prater, Hall and especially Walker to stay healthy. NU’s frontline in the middle could be a destructive and dominant force.

Walker has already proven himself as one of the Big Ten’s best defensive players, and a Bronko Nagurski-winning type of season from the junior, a la coach Pat Fitzgerald who twice won the award given to the nation’s best defensive player, could allow the program to rise to new heights following its 10-win 2015 season.

Fresh off a campaign in which the athletic Florida native wowed with a 19-tackle performance at Duke, a 14-tackle show against Purdue and a stellar performance against Illinois featuring 3.5 tackles for loss, a further improved Walker is a scary prospect for the rest of the Big Ten.

But Walker will not be expected to do it alone. Expectations are far from modest for Hall and Prater. And the emergence of other young members of the unit such as redshirt freshman Nathan Fox could boost an already strong unit.

Razor sharp performances from Walker and the whole unit will be a weekly must for a team with numerous offensive weaknesses, a reshuffled defensive secondary and a defensive line that may take some time to recover from the losses of Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson.

Fortunately for NU, the unit appears to have the personnel to smooth over some of the squad’s other weak points.

Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 1

Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 1
(Daily file photo by Sophie Mann)

Sophomore Clayton Thorson is still the quarterback, junior running back Justin Jackson will still be taking handoffs from him and junior linebacker Anthony Walker will still be terrorizing opposing offenses. To the casual observer, not much has changed about Northwestern football from last year.

But the Wildcats’ release Monday of their depth chart for their Week 1 matchup against Western Michigan nonetheless held some surprises, clarifying starters at several key positions and crystallizing the 22 players who will lead NU in its attempt to repeat a 10-win season.

Wide receiver play was a major point for the Cats’ offense in 2015, and the position group received a complete overhaul over the offseason. Then-seniors Miles Shuler, Cameron Dickerson and Christian Jones all occupied the starting slots a year ago; taking the reins this year will be senior Austin Carr, junior Solomon Vault and sophomore Flynn Nagel.

Carr, a former walk-on, put on a breakout performance last season and enters the year as NU’s leading returning receiver. Nagel likewise cracked the lineup a year ago and was one of a handful of true freshman to see playing time. He got off to a promising start before injury limited him to just five games.

Rounding out the group is Vault, a converted running back. The junior had an offseason to practice at his new position and has already flashed some potential as a pass-catcher. His addition will help flip a position of weakness into an area of strength for the Cats.

The effort to improve the passing attack will also be aided by redshirt freshman Cameron Green, who moved from receiver to superback over the offseason and is now slotted as the backup behind junior Garrett Dickerson. The 6-foot-3 target should be a good balance to NU’s otherwise short receiving corps.

The defensive line also has a fresh look. With former defensive ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson off to the NFL, former reserves senior Ifeadi Odenigbo and junior Xavier Washington will be stepping in to fill the void.

Elsewhere on the defense, former four-star recruit Parrker Westphal made it on to the depth chart for the first time in his career, slotting into a reserve safety role. Westphal battled through injuries his first two years at NU, so seeing him ready to take the field is a welcome sight. His presence adds needed depth to the secondary in the wake of a season-ending injury to junior cornerback Keith Watkins II.

And somewhat surprisingly, senior Jaylen Prater beat out sophomore Nate Hall for the starting job at linebacker. Hall impressed toward the end of last year, but it looks like Prater’s greater experience won out.