Gameday: Northwestern finding no love from above

John Paschall, Assistant Gameday Editor

Tips lead to picks.

That’s what defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has preached since day one. But in the past year, two tips have lead to two soul-crushing losses for Northwestern.

Two weeks ago in Lincoln, Neb., a Hail Mary pass fell from the sky and landed on Earth in the hands of Nebraska wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp with the force and devastating impact that only Thor could equal. It was a thunderous moment heard around the country as replays were shown ad nauseum after the game and throughout the ensuing week.

Sophomore cornerback Nick VanHoose watched the final play on the sidelines as he was nursing an injury that knocked him out of the game earlier.

“As soon as it happened, I was just in shock,” he said of the play. “I couldn’t believe it. I had to look at the replay and have them finally confirm it to set in my mind.”

Junior safety Jimmy Hall was on the field for the final play but didn’t join the cluster of players that all jumped for the ball.

“There were so many people that I didn’t jump for the ball,” Hall said. “It was kind of just one of those freak things.”

Nearly a year to that day, the Wildcats suffered a similar heartbreak over a tipped pass in a game against Michigan.

Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner chucked up a jump ball in the middle of the field for wide receiver Roy Roundtree, who was in single coverage with junior cornerback Daniel Jones. The Cats defender reached to try and tip the ball away, but instead it went straight up into the air and into the arms of a falling Roundtree. The Wolverines went on to kick a field goal with less than 10 seconds left to send the game into overtime, when Michigan pulled out the 38-31 win.

“That play last year is really motivating us for our game this year,” redshirt freshman defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo said. “That play really taught us that anything can happen and how to respond to adversity.”

“I try not to think about it,” VanHoose said. “But it is a motivator as well as having that happen in the Nebraska game. We don’t want that to ever happen again. That feeling is terrible.”

Even with the recent heartbreaking tips, the defenders won’t veer from their approach of getting their hands on the ball as much as they can. NU is tied for the nation lead in interceptions with 18. VanHoose said defensive backs coach Jerry Brown has emphasized finishing the game strong the past two weeks.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said he’s expecting a very different and more experienced Gardner at Ryan Field on Saturday. Gardner made only his second career start in last year’s match up, and Fitzgerald believes the Wolverines’ offense revolves more around him.

“He does a really good job from an athletic standpoint making plays,” he said. “He does a really nice job from a standpoint of getting them in the right plays. Then his ability to throw the ball down the field is incredibly impressive. He’s made a ton of big plays this year.”

Hankwitz and his players will have to find a way to clamp down on the elusive Gardner and not allow him to scramble for first downs. Communication between all units on the defense will be critical when Gardner escapes the pocket.

“We need great communication among the linebackers and the defensive line in terms of who has contain,” VanHoose said. “As far as the back end, we need to communicate our coverages across the board so we can come up and also contain.”

VanHoose will likely be matched up with speedy Wolverines wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, who exploded a few weeks ago against Indiana for 369 yards on 14 catches with two touchdowns. The Cats’ best man-to-man coverage corner said he’s excited to go up against a shifty receiver like Gallon.

“He’s a good, quick receiver,” VanHoose said with a smile. “I’m looking forward to going up against him. It should be a good challenge.”

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