Football: Pace, Whillock as steady as ever in Northwestern’s defensive backfield


Daily file photo by Alison Albelda

JR Pace surveys the field. The junior safety is a big part of the Wildcats’ strong pass defense.

Benjamin Rosenberg, Web Editor


With his team leading 7-3 late in the first half on Sept. 28, Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan decided to take a shot down the field.

Coan was looking for Quintez Cephus, the star receiver who entered with more than 200 receiving yards through three games. Cephus beat Northwestern’s best healthy cornerback, sophomore Greg Newsome II, and appeared to be open for a big play.

But JR Pace had other ideas. The Wildcats’ junior safety read the play perfectly, backpedaling before Coan even took the snap, and stepped in front of Cephus to intercept the pass.

“We were in Cover 3,” Pace said. “I was the post player, and he threw it up, so I appreciate it. It was a gift.”

The Badgers seemed to learn their lesson from the pick — it was one of very few deep passes they attempted, and their longest completion of the day went for 19 yards. Most of NU’s other opponents have acted similarly in their reluctance to attack the Cats deep. NU has allowed just 176 passing yards per game, the 11th-fewest in the country.

Pace and his partner at safety, junior Travis Whillock, are a big reason why.

A Georgia native, Pace played in every game but one as a true freshman in 2017. As the lone member of the Cats’ secondary to stay healthy all year, he had a breakout year last season, intercepting three passes, breaking up seven others and winning defensive MVP of the Holiday Bowl.

“I definitely came in with the mindset that I wanted to play early,” Pace said. “I wasn’t trying to redshirt, so I went about my daily life trying to do what I could to make that happen.”

Whillock, a Texas native, saw his career begin inauspiciously — after redshirting in 2016, he sustained an injury in training camp in 2017 and missed the entire season. But injuries elsewhere in the secondary forced him into action last year, when he recovered two fumbles, including one in the fourth quarter of NU’s Big Ten West-clinching victory at Iowa. His 15 tackles at Minnesota were the most in a single game by any Wildcat all year.

And he has been even better so far in his junior season, leading the team with 44 tackles. Earlier in that same second quarter against Wisconsin, Whillock came unblocked on a safety blitz and sacked Coan for a six-yard loss.

“He’s the traffic controller for us back there,” defensive backs coach Matt MacPherson said. “He makes a lot of the calls, gets everybody on the same page. To have him back, (with) experience under his belt, makes things smoother back there.”

Senior cornerback Trae Williams has missed the last three games, leaving the cornerback spot opposite Newsome in flux all year. As a result, Pace and Whillock have been forced to carry a lot of weight in the defensive backfield.

Pace said Whillock has come a long way in his development as a player and that the two play well together.

“That’s my boy, that’s my brother. I love playing with him,” Pace said. “He knows the game inside and out, and I love playing off of it. He’s a ball magnet. He’s developed into a great player, and he’s not nearly the player he’s going to be.”

NU’s next opponent, No. 4 Ohio State, will give the Cats’ safeties their biggest challenge yet. Three Buckeye receivers have caught passes for at least 50 yards this season, and three others have receptions of more than 35 yards.

Then there’s quarterback Justin Fields, whose quarterback rating of 187.5 is sixth-best in the nation. In six games, Fields has thrown 18 touchdown passes and only one interception.

“They’ve got four or five guys that can all run, they can sub them in, and they all have the ability to stretch the field,” MacPherson said. “And they’ve got a quarterback that has the arm for it. We’re expecting some deep shots from them.”

But with Pace and Whillock holding NU’s secondary together, the Cats have a chance to at least contain Ohio State’s passing attack, even if they can’t stop it completely.

Newsome offered particularly high praise for NU’s safety duo.

“I think they’re the two best safeties in the country,” Newsome said. “Knowing they’re behind me in all coverages, it gives me the opportunity to be more aggressive.”

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