Football Sidebar: Another loss, another problem for NU secondary

Colin Becht

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Three plays on Saturday night illustrated both Northwestern’s plummet and potential in the secondary.

In those plays, the Wildcats exhibited their failures in one-on-one coverage, their major communication breakdowns and how baffled an offense can become when those errors are corrected.

Unfortunately for NU, the faults appeared much more frequently than the fixes, as the Cats fell to Iowa, 41-31.

“We had a lot of checks in the game and it just basically came down to communication,” junior cornerback Demetrius Dugar said. “Some guys were seeing something and other guys were seeing others. We didn’t communicate exactly what was going on across the board, so it cost us.”

According to Dugar, the defense receives the play call from the coaching staff, but with instructions to change the secondary’s coverage if the Cats see a different look than expected.

“Sometimes we’re in a man and we check to a zone or sometimes we’re in a zone and we check to a man,” Dugar said. “It’s all depending on the formation that they come out in, and we’ve just got to make the calls.”

NU’s biggest issue against Iowa was that the calls weren’t properly communicated throughout the secondary, leading to severe lapses in coverage. No play better exemplified this vulnerability than Iowa wide receiver Keenan Davis’ 47-yard touchdown reception.

Lined up in the slot, Davis ran a seem route. While Dugar stayed out to Davis’ right, safety Ibraheim Campbell stayed short. That left Davis wide open over the middle of the field as Dugar attempted to catch him but never got closer than five yards.

“That was one of those plays where we kind of got caught up in communication,” Dugar said. “We had a check, and we kind of just over-thought the whole situation. It was a play that I should have been in position to make.”

That type of breakdown cost the Cats repeatedly, and on several occasions led to easy touchdowns for the Hawkeyes. In the fourth quarter, wide receiver Marvin McNutt was left practically uncovered when he cut behind the secondary for a 35-yard touchdown.

“It’s really not that complicated,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said of NU’s defensive scheme. “We’re either playing some version of (cover) four, or some version of two. We’re not doing a good enough job coaching, because obviously our guys aren’t on the same page and that’s our responsibility.”

While NU’s defense ranks last in the Big Ten in pass defense, Dugar said this type of breakdown was new for the Cats. Prior to Saturday’s defeat, NU’s most frequent breakdown came from individual players failing to stay with their receivers in man coverage.

The play immediately before Davis’ touchdown illustrated that this flaw has yet to be corrected. Dugar bit when Davis faked an out route, allowing Davis the separation to make a 31-yard reception.

“It wasn’t a communication issue,” Dugar said. “He just was in a position to make a play, and I could have been in that position to make that play, and he just came down with the ball. He made the play.”

Though NU has plenty to be discouraged about with two recurrent flaws, the secondary also proved that when it properly communicates and each player executes their assignment, it has the potential to create big plays.

After giving up the touchdown to Davis, the Cats responded on Iowa’s next drive with an interception. Unlike the prior drive, NU’s secondary was on the same page with its zone defense, allowing Dugar to earn his redemption by diving in front of a pass from quarterback James Vandenberg at the Cats’ 33-yard line.

“We were in a coverage that he didn’t see me,” Dugar said. “I snuck up and caught one on him.”

Dugar’s pick was one of few highlights involving NU’s defense in which the Cats weren’t trailing a streaking receiver. Vandenberg completed 14-of-22 passes for 224 yards, an average of 16 yards per completion. Given how open Iowa’s receivers were at times, NU will need to address both of its pass coverage flaws to avoid a fifth straight loss next Saturday against Penn State.

“It starts with us as coaches,” Fitzgerald said. “What are we asking them to do? Why are they confused? Why are they on different pages?”

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