Football Sidebar: Secondary’s struggles doom Cats

Colin Becht

Even before Saturday’s contest with Illinois began, the Northwestern secondary was already being victimized.

Sensing the Wildcats would stack the box and leave themselves vulnerable in the secondary, Illinois coach Ron Zook passed along some advice to offensive coordinator Paul Petrino.

“Don’t be cautious today, ” Zook said.

Petrino spent most of the final 30 minutes of the game following his boss’s advice, challenging NU with a bevy of deep balls. True to Zook’s thinking, Illinois picked apart NU’s defensive backs en route to a 38-35 come-from-behind victory.

“That was probably the best thing that happened to me all day, ” Petrino said of Zook’s pregame advice. “That gave me a lot of confidence, so we threw the ball deep.”

Wide receiver A.J. Jenkins had his way with the Cats’ secondary, burning whoever tried to cover him as he picked up two big-play touchdowns to spark the Fighting Illini’s comeback from an 18-point deficit. Late in the third quarter, Jenkins blew past senior cornerback Jeravin Matthews on a fly route for a 33-yard score. Less than four minutes later, to show he played no favorites, Jenkins repeated the trick on redshirt freshman safety Ibraheim Campbell for a 50-yard strike.

“He’s an athletic kid,” senior safety Brian Peters said of Jenkins. “You have got to give him props, but we beat ourselves in the secondary.”

By the time Jenkins and his teammates were done, Illinois had racked up 391 yards through the air, with 218 of them coming in the second half. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase set a career high for passing yards while Jenkins broke the Illinois receiving record with 268 yards.

“They were not going to try not to let us run the ball,” Petrino said. “Their safeties were low and they just kept them low the whole game. Going into the game we thought we had to throw deep.”

While NU’s emphasis on the run accomplished its primary goal–the Cats held Illinois to 2.2 yards per carry on Saturday–by stacking the box to stop the run, the Cats left first-year defensive backs Matthews and Campbell in single coverage. And Jenkins, who is proving his status as one of the best receivers in the Big Ten, made NU pay.

“We’ve got some young players playing in the fourth game making some young mistakes on the road, and we have to coach them better,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re on scholarship too, and they’ve got to make plays.”

While Illinois’ passing barrage came in the second half, the Illini hinted at the Cats’ vulnerability early.

By halftime, Jenkins already had 109 yards receiving, including a pair of catches for 25 and 40 yards. Tight end Evan Wilson also caught a ball for 36 yards when he cut behind Peters on Illinois’ second drive of the game. Luckily for NU, two sacks and an interception stopped each of those drives short of the end zone.

The secondary lapses that remained red flags in the first half turned into red alerts in the second half, allowing the Illini to steal what looked like a sure win for the Cats.

Illinois consistently found room to work behind NU’s secondary, averaging more than 18.5 yards-per-completion. The Illini completed eight passes for 24 yards or more.

“(I am) shocked,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Nothing that we didn’t work on and nothing that we didn’t prepare for, which is probably the most disappointing aspect of the whole day.”

As the Illini started racking up points through the air in the second half, NU was unable to make any productive adjustments to give its secondary more help.

“They were playing a lot of men in the box, so we had to try and beat them deep,” Jenkins said. “And that’s what we did.”

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