Football: Offense, defense on different pages
Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor
October 24, 2012 •
Northwestern's problem has shifted from getting its defense off the field to keeping its offense on it.
The Wildcats' defense has forced teams off the field 18 times, not including kneels to end the half, without scoring in the past two weeks. Meanwhile, the offense has had 14 three-and-outs in those same games. The defense has allowed teams to convert on third down less than 30 percent of the time these last two contests, but the offense has only converted on 20 percent of its third downs over the same span.
"Third down is all about focus," senior Brian Arnfelt said. "It's more of an attitude than anything. If not, we're going to go out the next series and stop them. This team more than any team that I've played on, we're going to stop them."
The defensive tackle has been a major contributor to NU's success on third downs. Nebraska needed to gain three or fewer yards six times on third down and only converted two of those opportunities. Most of those came courtesy of the run defense not giving the Cornhuskers' room to run and stuffing them at the line of scrimmage.
"We bring that energy not only to us as defensive players but to the offense," Arnfelt said. "The offense sees that and kind of like how when they make a big play we build on it, that relationship is a two-way street."
The issue is the offense has not built off that momentum and gone off on long drives. NU had four drives of more than five plays against Nebraska, resulting in two touchdowns, the missed field goal at the end of the game and a punt. The other 15 drives resulted in 11 punts, the end of both halves, a 14-yard touchdown drive and a 80-yard explosive rushing touchdown from junior running back Venric Mark.
It all comes back to execution and taking advantage of the match-ups provided. Sophomore quarterback Trevor Siemian was in the game during many of these third-down situations, sometimes for his first play. He said he does not feel any extra pressure when he enters the game on third down and the defense knows he's going to pass.
"It's a third down situation so even if you're on the field (for the other plays) you know there's a sense of urgency," Siemian said. "If I was in there on first and second down and I would be in on third down and have to deal with the same thing."
The Cats did a poor job at picking up yards on first and second down against the Cornhuskers on Saturday. The first time NU had less than five yards to gain on third down was in the middle of the second quarter. Before that point, NU had nine third downs and faced an average of 9.6 yards to go for the next first down. The Cats only converted on one of those nine attempts, which placed a greater burden on the NU offense to pick up yards on first and second down to avoid facing such long third-down conversions.
In recent weeks, NU has not set itself up for manageable third downs, Siemian said.
"It's not realistic to play the game that way," he said.