Fee Fi Foe Film: Northwestern Defense

Submitted by Ace on November 14th, 2013 at 7:28 PM

Previously: Northwestern Offense

WLB Chi Chi Ariguzo is asked to make a lot of plays in space, and make plays he does.

I'll be perfectly honest—I couldn't bring myself to get through this whole game for the second time, for a few reasons:

  1. BTN's refusal to show the defensive backfield during plays or provide anything but a pore-o-vision replay made this endeavor unnecessarily difficult/fruitless.
  2. Nebraska's offense and Michigan's offense function very differently in that one has a running game and the other just pretends to.
  3. Related to (2), just about every weakness I noticed in Northwestern's defense is something that Michigan has shown zero ability to exploit.
  4. Did I do a bunch of research and write a lot of words over the last 24 hours for a post that will never see the light of day? Yes.

Fun times ahead. Here goes nothin'.

Base Set? 4-3 over. When Nebraska spread the field, Northwestern usually lifted their strongside linebacker for backup safety Jimmy Hall, who'd play over the slot, often shaded a bit to the inside to help against the run.

Man or zone coverage? Mostly zone. Northwestern runs a lot of Cover 3 and some Cover 2; in this game, they utilzied a ton of soft zone coverage in order to help mask the fact that—after starting corner Nick VanHoose exited the game with an injury—they were playing two freshmen on the corners. Man coverage was mostly reserved for the red zone, which was also their strategy against Ohio State.

Yes, Nebraska took advantage of this.

[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]

Pressure: GERG or Greg? The Wildcats didn't blitz much on passing downs, and in fact sometimes dropped a DE into an underneath zone. Most of their blitzes came on short yardage situations to get their linebackers flying through gaps.

Dangerman: WLB Chi Chi Ariguzo leads the team with 50 solo stops among his 79 total tackles; he's a sure tackler, which he needs to be since he's often alone in space against a running back. He also has four interceptions on the year, one of which came in this game:

While that one didn't have a very high degree of difficulty, the BTN announcers mentioned Northwestern's coaches saying Ariguzo may have the best hands on the team. That's almost certainly overblown but four picks in nine games by an inside linebacker is pretty impressive.


Starting up front, I wasn't impressed with Northwestern's defensive line, especially their tackles. This wasn't an unusual sight on the afternoon—either a gaping hole or huge push up the middle, defensive ends flared out, and the inside linebackers forced to prevent a run from busting huge:

This one ended up being a bounce-out first down when Ariguzo, the unblocked player on the 45-yard line, tried to go under the blocker bearing down on him instead of flowing outside to keep contain—a mistake, sure, but going over the top meant a decent likelihood of Abdullah bursting right up the middle with that Nebraska lineman bearing down on MIKE Damien Proby.

The defensive ends fared better; they did a decent job containing Abdullah—though he was able to bounce a couple outside for solid gains—and senior DE Tyler Scott had a nice TFL in addition to an interception of his own—remember, Nebraska's quarterbacks were downright awful in this game. Backup DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, who often comes in on passing downs, recorded a sack on a four-man rush with pure edge speed. The tackles tallied three sacks of their own; these were generated mostly by the ends collapsing the pocket.

The line failed to stop Nebraska QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. from scrambling, however; he picked up a good deal of his 69 yards on 17 carries on passing plays in which Northwestern just couldn't shed blocks.

I came away very impressed with the play of Ariguzo and Proby; shedding blocks and holding ground was a major issue for the defensive tackles, so Abdullah often found himself getting to the second level untouched, only to run smack into one of the inside linebackers. Strong safety Ibraheim Campbell also acquitted himself well in this regard, flowing downhill aggressively and making a couple nice tackles pretty close to the LOS; he was also prone to taking poor angles, however, and had a couple whiffs in there too.

The pass defense prevented big plays through the air thanks to the tendency to stay in soft zone coverage; when Nebraska tried to go for the home run, it just wasn't there (except, of course, on the hail mary—KNOCK IT DOWN, NORTHWESTERN). VanHoose, who's a full go for Saturday, did an impressive job of playing a deep third and still coming up on quick throws to the perimeter and limiting them to minimal gains. The other corners... weren't so good at that—quick passes to the outside should be there whether Borges wants them or not. I couldn't get a good look at the safeties in pass coverage; thanks BTN!


Northwestern managed to get an early sack on just a three-man rush due to some pre-play deception and tricky play design confusing Armstrong and the Nebraska front. Here's the alignment just before the snap—you'll see in the video that the strongside linebacker (standing up on the near side of the line) has just aggressively moved up to show blitz:

The Huskers run play-action but no defender is biting; the soft coverage on the outside allows the Wildcat defensive backs to look into the backfield and wait out the fake:

After Nebraska carries out the fake, Northwestern's weakside DE starts dropping into the flat, undercutting the route of the primary receiver while the corners slowly drop into their zones. Two Nebraska linemen are blocking air while the running back—Armstrong's safety outlet—will be covered by the strongside LB:

Here's where it all falls apart for Nebraska, as they lose a one-on-one block on the far-side DT while Armstrong is staring down the receiver whose route is bracketed by the DE and far CB. While the tight end looks open, it's not as wide open as it appears here—there's a safety just off screen over the top, and Armstrong hasn't reached that part of his progression yet anyway:

Yup, it's a sack, and you can see that the SLB made an outlet to Abdullah impossible while three Nebraska linemen look on in vain:


This play worked so well that the BTN announcer thought a three-man rush was a blitz. I'd expect to see a lot of similar looks for Northwestern given Michigan's issues getting the line to execute simple protections and hold blocks inside; they can generate a pass rush without having to blitz and potentially force some bad interceptions in the process.



November 15th, 2013 at 12:50 AM ^

That first pick route boggles my mind. DBs are taught not to cover at the same level like that. They're supposed to stagger some to avoid running into each other. I feel Nebraska saw them line up like this before the TD and took advantage of their alignment.

Take note, Borges.


November 15th, 2013 at 6:01 AM ^

"Take note, Borges".....I'm sure ole Al will change things us and surprise us all! I'm willing to bet he will surprise him by running Fitz up the middle for a loss, followed up by a bubble screen and maybe even a read option.  Al will have a meeting with Funk and come up with a solid game plan......trust me (sarcasm)


November 15th, 2013 at 11:22 AM ^

We really need to have a section of the site with all of the unposted, uh, posts, just so we have things to read while we move the knife further down our forearms.