Football: Step-up in secondary could be key for Wildcats on Saturday


Daily file photo by David Lee

Greg Newsome grasps for a tackle. The freshman cornerback and the Wildcats have struggled in the defensive backfield so far this season.

Ella Brockway, Reporter


With just under seven minutes to go in the third quarter of the Sept. 15 matchup against Akron, Northwestern held a 15-point lead, but Akron was threatening. A few short runs, a 15-yard NU penalty and a key conversion on 4th-and-2 had pushed the Zips to the Wildcats’ 25-yard line.

Quarterback Kato Nelson dropped back on first down, and receiver Kwadarrius Smith took off in a straight line down the field. He ran past NU linebacker Blake Gallagher and cornerback Montre Hartage before turning his head, storming past Cats safety Jared McGee and grabbing Nelson’s pass in the corner of the end zone.

It was the play that put the Zips back into the game, which they’d later win 39-34. But it also spotlighted a larger problem: Northwestern’s (1-2, 1-0 Big Ten) struggling secondary.

“There were a couple things that we made some young mistakes on that can’t happen if you want to continue to play,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday. “(I) think some guys learned some lessons that way. And then we lost a handful of 1-on-1s for explosive plays.”

Just as Akron’s defense was capitalizing in the second half, returning two interceptions and a fumble for touchdowns, NU’s was struggling. The Cats allowed Nelson eight completions during that time, five of which were for 10 or more yards, compared to just two 10-plus yard throws in the first half.

Despite a strong performance in the season-opening win over Purdue, NU’s secondary also had a rough day in the 21-7 loss to Duke on Sept. 8: Quarterbacks Daniel Jones (16-for-22) and Quentin Harris (2-for-2) finished with a combined 75 percent completion rate, the highest against NU in at least five seasons.

“Anytime you’re playing in the secondary, you can play great for 85, 90 percent of the time and it’s going to come down to those three or five plays in the game, and those are the ones that everybody sees,” defensive backs coach Matt MacPherson said. “When you sign up to coach DBs and when you sign up to play DBs, you understand that comes with the territory.”

Hartage, a senior, is the only returning starter in the unit, with 11 tackles and a team-high four pass breakups thus far. The rest of the secondary — McGee and sophomore J.R. Pace at safety, and true freshman Greg Newsome at the other cornerback spot — had no consistent starting experience heading into the season and are still settling in.

A new challenge — one that comes bearing both the top total defense and the second-most efficient pass offense in the Big Ten — awaits on Saturday, as the Cats line up against No. 14 Michigan (3-1, 1-0) for the first time since 2015. Wolverines quarterback Shea Patterson has a 70.1 percent overall completion rate, and has finished with a completion rate of 67 percent or higher in each of Michigan’s first four games.

Since the start of the 2013 season, an opposing team has finished with a pass completion rate of more than 70 percent in seven games; NU has won only one of those seven. The Cats are anticipating that Patterson and his receivers — namely, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Zach Gentry, who have five of the Wolverines’ nine receiving touchdowns — will come ready for a battle.

“It’s a physical game, especially in the Big Ten,” Pace said. “You’ve got to come down here ready to hit somebody, because these dudes are looking to run through you.”

Limiting the deep ball against Michigan could also prove pivotal: Five of Duke’s 16 completions and six of Akron’s 17 were for more than 15 yards. Opponents have scored four touchdowns on 20-plus yard catches already this season, and the Cats have so far allowed four tosses of more than 40 yards, after permitting just eight total last season.

Thus, it’ll take a concerted effort for four quarters for NU, which ranks second-to-last to only Rutgers in the conference in pass defense efficiency, to have a chance at its first win over the Wolverines since 2008.

“Our sense of urgency is just a lot higher this week,” Newsome said. “We know we’ve got to come ready to play, because the first half (against Akron) was really good, but if we can put together a whole football game, we should be fine.”

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