Football: Rising Northwestern secondary readies to clash with Iowa’s intercepting defensive backs


Kelsey Carroll/Daily Senior Staffer

Cameron Mitchell prepares to make an open field tackle against Minnesota. The sophomore is a starter on one of the Big Ten’s youngest secondary rooms.

Lawrence Price, Assistant Sports Editor

Entering the 2021 Citrus Bowl against Auburn, Northwestern’s secondary was locked in.

The Pick Club traveled down to Orlando with 11 of the team’s 14 interceptions under its belt. Nearly everybody joined the party. By the end of the 2020 campaign, six different players in the room snagged one or more interceptions. NU collected the second-most picks and allowed the fewest passing yards per game in the Big Ten.

 However, the team that the Cats secured three of these takeaways from — Iowa — also put together a successful season on defense, finishing with one less pick than NU.

Today, the Wildcats (3-5, 1-4 Big Ten) and the No. 22 Hawkeyes (6-2, 3-2) find themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum as the Hawkeyes lead the conference with 16 interceptions, while NU sits in 10th with four.

“(Iowa) secondary is outstanding,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They will close the middles with their pressures and do a really good job of disguising everything and they have had a bunch of high level talented (defensive backs) there throughout my time here.”

Another major difference between the two squads is experience. To begin the season, Iowa’s starting secondary consisted of three seniors: Riley Moss, Matt Hankins and Jack Koerner, and one junior, Kaevon Merriweather. After retaining their starting roles from last year, the three seniors lead the team in interceptions with four, three and two, respectively.

Unlike their opponent, the Wildcats’ Sky Team flexes a more youthful group, of junior defensive back AJ Hampton Jr., sophomore safety Brandon Joseph, sophomore cornerback Cameron Mitchell and sophomore safety Coco Azema. 

The four defenders and a few second-team players have been able to find success as the season progresses. Azema said that a part of his growth since the start of the year was having faith in himself.

“At times, I was playing a little timid,” Azema said. “Now just trusting the coaches and letting go and just having fun out there, and just being around the ball more often, good things will happen.”

Alongside the safety’s two forced fumbles against Michigan, Azema and the group’s performance has consistently improved. During NU’s first five games, the defense gave up four plays for 50 or more yards in their opponent’s first or second drives. Since then, NU has allowed none.

Besides expressing the need to tackle better, coach Matt MacPherson said the group has done a good job limiting explosive plays. Additionally, he emphasized the importance of the little things such as understanding a quarterback’s vision and knowing what creates turnovers.

“We just have to continue to have great guys that can read the quarterback,” coach MacPherson said. “We’ve allowed a few here and there, some that we’d like to have back, but I think for the most part we’ve kept the ball in front. From a passing standpoint, we’ve been able to make people work the ball down the field and challenge on a lot of routes.”

NU has lost the turnover battle only three times this season in correlation to its five losses, but now welcoming in Iowa — who averages two interceptions per game — it will be important for the Cats to win the margin. Creating miscues will not only help the team, but showcase that the secondary is transitioning back toward its top-tier form.

With four games left in the season, Hampton Jr. expressed that the secondary and team aren’t just competing for more victories. They are playing for the seniors as well. With only an additional six wins to make bowl eligibility, he said he doesn’t want to send them out as “losers.”

“We are only going to control what we can control,” Hampton Jr. said. “Don’t listen to the naysayers and the critics because at this point nobody really believes in us now, which is completely fine. It really doesn’t matter because at the end of the day they’re not the ones out here practicing in the cold by the lake.”


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