Football: Another loss, another weakness for Northwestern to address on defense

Colin Becht

After losing 20-17 to Purdue two weeks ago, Northwestern knew it needed to improve its run defense.

The Wildcats surrendered 232 yards on the ground to the Boilermakers, with 132 of those yards coming from freshman quarterback Rob Henry.

Against Michigan State, the Cats fixed that weakness, holding a potent Spartans run attack, then ranked 26th in the Football Bowl Subdivision, to only 105 yards rushing.

“We did some good things,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “In the bye week we took some areas we needed to improve on, and that was one of them.”

However, NU lost again, 35-27, due to a new glaring weakness. This time, it was the pass defense.

Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins picked apart NU’s secondary for 331 yards and three touchdowns, and receivers Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham both eclipsed the century mark for receiving yards.

“We had some breakdowns in some guys not trusting their technique. We got out way too fast in some circumstances and gave way too much time and distance to a good group of receivers,” Fitzgerald said. “We have to have better undercoverage. There were some times where we need to get better re-routes, so we take some steam off their receivers, especially in the fourth quarter.”

Of the Spartans’ 352 yards through the air, 144 of them came in the fourth quarter alone.

“We saw a lot of things where we can get better,” senior defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said. “A lot of things coverage-wise that we have to shore up.”

Despite Cousins’ ease in finding open receivers, Fitzgerald elected to not shake up the depth chart for this week against Indiana and left senior cornerback Justan Vaughn as the starter opposite junior Jordan Mabin. Junior cornerback Mike Bolden got significant playing time on Saturday in Vaughn’s place but remains the second stringer behind Vaughn.

“Everything’s fluid – at the end of the day a guy has to produce and be productive,” Fitzgerald said. “I wouldn’t say either guy (Vaughn or Bolden) played shutdown football on Saturday, so they’ll just have to continue to improve.”

Still, all the blame for NU’s flaws in its pass defense doesn’t fall on the secondary, as Bryant stressed that defending the pass is an 11-man operation. NU’s defense sacked Cousins only twice, compared to eight sacks for Michigan State.

“If the quarterback has a lot of time back there, he’s going to be able to complete a pass a little bit easier than if he has one of us in his face,” Bryant said.

While the defensive front seven could have helped stop Michigan State’s torrid passing attack, it did make major improvements since its performance against Purdue.

“We attacked the line of scrimmage really well,” Bryant said.

The Spartans were held to 105 yards rushing, though in reality that number ought to be closer to 85. Running back Edwin Baker tacked on 25 yards rushing with 1:07 remaining in the game on a play in which the Cats were primarily going for a strip rather than a tackle.

Still, Fitzgerald said he does not see the run defense as fixed now, as some of the improvements in the two weeks since the Purdue game had more to do with how the Cats matched up specifically against the Spartans.

“They’re very different schemes (to play against), night and day actually,” he said. “We fit much better, attacked better up front, but we still have a long way to go to get where we want to be.”

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