Football: Inside Northwestern’s defensive struggles against big plays


Joshua Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

Senior linebacker Peter McIntyre tackles Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III. The Cats’ defense has allowed the most yards per game in the Big Ten and has lost all three of its games against Power Five competition.

John Riker, Sports Editor


Northwestern’s 0-3 record against Power Five opponents this season is surprising considering last year’s Big Ten West title. But the fashion of those three losses has been nothing short of appalling for a program that has built its reputation on stingy defensive play. In each of them, the Wildcats’ defense has allowed a gain of 50 yards or more on its first play.

This article will break down those three tone-setting defensive lapses, along with another big play from last week’s blowout loss to Nebraska. Spanning both the running and passing game, these plays have set the Cats’ offense back with early deficits and raised serious questions about a unit that had been one of the Big Ten’s best in recent seasons.

Week 1 vs. Michigan State: 75-yard touchdown run by RB Kenneth Walker III 

The first play from scrimmage of NU’s 2021 season was a disaster. 

On the snap, the Michigan State line engages the Cats’ front seven. Meanwhile, cornerback Rod Heard II — the only cornerback set up wide on the offense’s left side — runs toward the center of the field and takes himself out of the play. Running back Kenneth Walker III breaks it to the left sideline and escapes an open-field tackle attempt by senior safety Bryce Jackson. With no defenders in his path, the Wake Forest transfer takes it to the end zone for the season’s first score.

Walker III finished the day with 264 rushing yards and four touchdowns in his Spartans debut.  Poor tackling and defensive miscommunications became the prevailing themes of NU’s 38-21 loss.

“They executed pretty clean,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. “They’ve made some changes personnel-wise and upgraded some of their speed in some areas, and it showed today when they were able to get out in the open and make some big plays.”

Week 3 at Duke: 50-yard pass from QB Gunnar Holmberg to WR Darrell Harding Jr.

After the Cats’ offense went three-and-out in its first drive against the Blue Devils, Duke took over at its 40-yard line. Receiver Darrell Harding Jr. sets up as the only receiver on the left side of the formation for the drive’s first play, and when the safety cheats down, Harding goes deep. He beats his man, Heard II, on a post route, then makes NU pay by hauling in an accurate throw from Holmberg for a 50-yard gain.

The Cats spent plenty of time preparing for Blue Devils running back Mataeo Durant, but the defensive breakdown deep in the secondary suggested that NU might have more on its hands than just the Duke run game. Holmberg finished with a career-high 314 yards as Duke built a 30-7 halftime lead.

“When you look at some of the mistakes that we’ve made and some of the areas defensively, it’s the exact same plays that we’ve practiced, which is really frustrating,” Fitzgerald said after the 30-23 loss. “Why are we thinking too much? Why are we not being crisp and on point?”

Week 5 at Nebraska: 70-yard pass from QB Adrian Martinez to WR Samori Toure

Surely the first defensive play of the Cats’ third game against a Power Five opponent would be different, right? 

Quarterback Adrian Martinez, in his fourth matchup against NU, fakes a handoff and evades pressure in the pocket, then sees receiver Samori Toure running free along the left side of the field. With sophomore safety and resident ballhawk Brandon Joseph up close in coverage instead of deep in the backfield, Martinez takes his shot. 

The deep throw doesn’t have the power to hit Toure in stride, affording sophomore safety Coco Azema the opportunity to make a big play. But while Azema’s speed allows him to get into the play, he’s a bit too early and has momentum against him. Toure adjusts and steps in front of the near-interception while Azema tumbles to the turf. Sophomore cornerback Cameron Mitchell, who originally had Toure in man coverage, makes the tackle at the 5-yard line, but the damage is done.

Azema almost salvaged the blown coverage with a strong recovery, but the breakdown was glaring and put the Cats in yet another early hole.

“That first play, I’m going to be honest, I thought we had the interception,” junior cornerback A.J. Hampton Jr. said. “We’ve got to change some technique things — not saying anybody did anything wrong — we’ve just got to want to win more. That’s something we can easily get corrected and we’ve just got to win those plays.” 

Week 5 at Nebraska: 83-yard touchdown run by WR Zavier Betts

Shortly after, Martinez’s passing performance became an afterthought. It was hard to ignore a Nebraska ground attack that rushed for seven touchdowns and 427 yards. 

By halftime, the Cornhuskers held a comfortable four-touchdown lead, and the game was on the verge of a blowout. It was solidified by an 83-yard rushing touchdown on Nebraska’s first offensive play of the second half.

The Cornhuskers dialed up a triple option to wide receiver Zavier Betts, who had yet to register a single rush in his collegiate career. Martinez fakes a handoff to the offense’s right side, then pitches the ball casually to Betts out of the backfield. Betts beats two defenders to the edge and takes advantage of a block along the left sideline to sprint untouched to the end zone.

“We didn’t stop the triple option today,” Fitzgerald said after the 56-7 loss. “They ran a split-flow option play that they had shown and we had practiced, but they ran it a bit differently.”

What’s next for Northwestern’s defense

NU’s defensive staff and players have the bye week to regroup and game plan for a grueling slate of Big Ten games. Preventing big plays on the ground and through the air will be a priority — the Cats allow the most yards per game in the Big Ten (448.6) and give up the third-most points (27.2).

The Cats are facing two of the Big Ten’s best offenses, Michigan (40.6 points per game) and Iowa (33.2 points per game), in two of its next four contests.

Whether due to the defensive coordinator transition from Mike Hankwitz to Jim O’Neil or the graduations of All-Big Ten players like linebacker Paddy Fisher and cornerback Greg Newsome II, this year’s NU defense has struggled to live up to its Fitzgerald-era standard.

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Twitter: @john__riker

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