Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman
One uncharacteristic performance against Michigan State aside, No. 14 Northwestern has made one thing crystal clear through this season so far: It owns one of the country’s best defenses.
ESPN’s SP+ rankings give the Wildcats the second-best defense in the nation, behind only No. 8 Georgia. It’s allowed only 4.4 yards per play, the second-least among all Power Five teams. It’s recorded 16 takeaways, the most through seven games since 2013, and it ranks in the Top 25 nationally in six categories.
Yet one play has stumped this robust NU defense this 2020 season. It was most obvious in the Nov. 7 win over Nebraska and that Nov. 28 loss to the Spartans, and will most definitely pose a threat in this week’s Big Ten Championship Game: the quarterback run.
The Cats’ rushing defense this year is statistically their second-best of the entire Pat Fitzgerald era, allowing opponents an average of only 121.9 yards per game and less than one touchdown per game on the ground. The catch: The percentage share of those rushing yards that were gained by opposing quarterbacks is the highest it has been in the last six seasons.
Of the rushing yards gained by opposing teams this 2020 season — a figure that doesn’t include sacks or runs for lost yardage, only runs for zero or positive yardage — quarterbacks were responsible for 37 percent of that yardage. That’s more than double the team’s 2019 total.
Opposing quarterbacks are finding success against NU’s defense in those run opportunities, whether they come off a scramble, a read option or a designed draw play. Of all the quarterback runs the Cats have allowed through seven games — excluding plays that ended in sacks incomplete runs — nearly half (42 percent) resulted in a first down.
Some of those conversions came in late-down, short-yardage situations, but more than half percent (14 out of 22) were in “long” situations, where the opposing team had at least six yards to go.
“It was Nebraska, it was this game. We got line movements on (but) it’s disappointing,” said coach Pat Fitzgerald after the Michigan State loss. “It’s really disappointing for us not to play that play effectively. We’ll look at it first and foremost as coaches, because we’re the ones responsible for making sure the guys can execute.”
Managing the quarterback’s ability to run has been a point of emphasis for NU’s defense throughout this season — in five of seven games, the opposing signal-caller has escaped for at least one 10-plus yard run. Oftentimes, these runs have come at crucial stretches of the game.
Against Iowa in October, Spencer Petras made a 10-yard run on second down with about a minute to play that kept the Hawkeyes’ comeback hopes alive. Against Wisconsin in November, Graham Mertz broke away for a 24-yard dash to collect a first-down at the end of the first quarter.
On that play, NU’s defensive line pushed too high upfield and too far out wide, leaving a wide-open lane for Mertz to take through the middle.
The struggles against the quarterback run were most obvious, though, in the win over the Cornhuskers and the loss to Michigan State. On Nov. 7, Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey gained a combined 171 yards on the ground, the majority of their team’s total, and picked up nine first downs.
Martinez had four 10-plus-yard pickups on the ground in that game’s first three quarters. On his longest run of the day, for 28 yards and a first down in the third quarter, he ran a near-perfect QB counter, watching as NU’s line blocked out and wide again, and as senior linebacker Paddy Fisher dropped back instead of rushing forward.
The Cats did enough to keep the Cornhuskers from threatening in that game, but the trip to Spartan Stadium a few weeks later was a different story. Rocky Lombardi isn’t known as a run-heavy quarterback — he averages 1.2 yards per carry, and accounts for only 6 percent of Michigan State’s overall rushing yardage — but he tore NU apart on the ground.
Lombardi was efficient in his 10 runs: Five of those 10 earned a first down for the Spartans. Four of those five were for 10 or more yards, and came on third down. His first run was a clean draw play: The Cats’ line came high and wide upfield, opening up the center lanes, and Lombardi collected a huge block from his running back.
Even after making halftime adjustments, NU still struggled to shut his ground game down. On a third-and-10 with 5:39 to play, the Cats’ line forced Lombardi to scramble, but he picked up another downfield block from his running back and got the first.
A run on the next drive sealed the deal: On a third-and-8 with under three minutes to play, NU bought the fake handoff and on the read option, Lombardi rolled to the side. The Cats had eight of its players crowded within a six-yard box region of the line of scrimmage, and the right was open for him to pick up the fresh set of downs.
The Cats tend to play deep zone defenses that give space underneath, putting a responsibility on the front four to maintain their lanes and prevent any quarterback escapes. This year’s defensive line was relatively inexperienced coming into 2020 — two of the four current first-string linemen made their first career starts this season — but especially after Michigan State, it turned its focus to stopping those runs.
“In those situations, we just need to look at offensive linemen’s feet. Just know the difference between pass sets and if they are just trying to let you up the field,” said senior defensive end Earnest Brown. “We continue to go through it in practice, about those draw sets and how offensive linemen set their feet. We just have to execute it better.”
There were signs of improvement last weekend against Illinois: Aside from two 10-plus-yard runs given up by the second-string defense in the fourth quarter, NU didn’t let the Fighting Illini’s two quarterbacks break for any big and significant rushes.
“We were confident going into this week, just with a few minor changes with the D-line, and things of that nature of stopping the QB draw,” Fisher said after the Illinois win. “We knew that was one of our weak spots, so we attacked that, and we’re confident moving forward.”
That’ll be much harder to do on Saturday in Indianapolis. Ohio State’s star quarterback Justin Fields has a well-established reputation as one of the more mobile signal-callers in the nation. He already has five touchdowns and 239 yards on the ground this season.
Few quarterbacks possess Fields’ combination of arm strength and mobility: He and Kent State’s Dustin Crum are the only quarterbacks in the top 10 of ESPN’s QBR rankings to account for more than 15 percent of their team’s total rushing yardage while also completing more than 70 percent of their passes. He leads the country in that latter category at a whopping 78.1 percent.
Fields has picked up a first down on 46 percent of all his completed run plays. He’ll enter the Big Ten Championship Game coming off his two best rushing performances in his time at Ohio State: against Indiana and Michigan State, he ran for a total of 182 yards, 10 first downs and three touchdowns.
He’s a major facet of the Buckeyes top Big Ten’s rushing offense. In the second quarter against the Hoosiers, he escaped a five-man rush and broke away from four would-be tacklers for a 30-yard run to put Ohio State in scoring position. He doesn’t have to waste time scrambling to the outside, where he’d be more likely to try and force a throw to one of his receivers, but breezes through a central lane of the field.
A few plays later, he rolled past another unblocked lineman and ran outside the pocket into the end zone.
Against the Spartans, he made the third-longest run of his career, faking a handoff, dodging two defenders and dashing 44 yards into the red zone. His 104 rushing yards were more than Michigan State managed as an entire team.
NU will need its front seven to play as close to perfect a game as possible against the likes of Fields and his offensive line. Forward-facing zone coverage to keep the quarterback in the pocket could help. The Cats could send one of their linebackers as a “spy” to track him, but they might have to turn to their secondary — who already will have their hands full with Ohio State’s receivers — for someone who could match Fields’ speed in the backfield.
Fields only ran the ball six times in his team’s beatdown of NU in 2019, but seems to be more comfortable in his ground game this year. The Cats’ run defense was statistically better against quarterbacks in 2019 — only 15 percent of the rushing yards they allowed opponents to gain came from that position — but they’re improved this time around in just about every other facet of their game.
If its last few weeks of press conferences offer any insight, NU is aware of two things: Fields is a darn good quarterback, and its own defense needs to stop his ability to run to even have a chance at taking home some hardware on Saturday.
“You live and you learn. So some of those plays that we got hurt on earlier, I think we did a great job against Illinois even in stopping the QB draw, so we have been learning,” junior cornerback Greg Newsome said this week. “We trust our D-line and our linebackers to get the job done. We’ve just got to rely on them to keep the side door closed.”
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