Fee Fi Foe Film: Northwestern Defense

Submitted by Ace on October 8th, 2015 at 5:48 PM

Previously: Northwestern Offense

Matthew Harris forms half of arguably the best corner duo in the B1G. [Fuller]

Let's get this out of the way: Minnesota's offense is bad, they should feel bad, and trying to scout an opposing defense based on their performance against the Gophers is difficult because of that. I stopped charting when Minnesota benched Mitch Leidner for a true freshman. I hope you understand.

Personnel: Seth's diagram [click to embiggen]:

This is a defense with standouts on every level; it was tempting to give both of their safeties stars as well, but I didn't see enough of them in coverage, and that wasn't their fault.

Base Set? 4-3 under, though Northwestern will shift to an over depending on the offense's alignment. When Minnesota went three-wide (which was rare), nickel Keith Watkins replaced SAM Drew Smith. Former four-star recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo comes in as a pass-rush specialist for the most part.

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

Man or zone coverage? Northwestern ran a lot of Cover 3 on passing downs in this game, allowing Leidner to throw dumpoffs into the flat and making sure nothing was open over the top. They were also comfortable letting their corners play man, though they usually played off instead of pressing.

Pressure: GERG or Greg? The Wildcats mostly played straight-up until obvious passing downs, when they'd often bring a couple extra rushers. They'll bring a defensive back off the edge or go with a double A-gap blitz from their nickel set.

Dangerman: MIKE Anthony Walker flew under the radar heading into the season, but it's hard not to notice him now that he's amassed 44 tackles and 8.5 TFLs through five games for one of the most surprisingly strong defenses in the country. While he's a tiny bit undersized at 6'1, 235, he's got great athleticism for an inside linebacker, and his ability to read and react only makes it easier for him to shut down plays in a hurry:

Walker is at his best going sideline to sideline but he can also shed blocks and make plays between the tackles; he's also a solid cover linebacker.

Both of Northwestern's cornerbacks, Nick VanHoose and Matthew Harris, also deserve mention here. Both have good size and are tough to beat in coverage; Minnesota didn't test VanHoose at all and when they went at Harris, it burned them:

That throw is a bad idea but Harris makes a great break on the ball; that's not unusual for him—he plays the ball very well in the air. VanHoose is less of a playmaker but is in the receiver's hip pocket so much that he doesn't get thrown at much.


While Minnesota's offensive ineptitude certainly played a factor, this defense is legit, if a little light on playmakers in the front seven outside of Walker and defensive end Dean Lowry.

Starting up front, Lowry has taken the Ryan Van Bergen track; always solid, he's now reached the point where he's stronger than most linemen he faces, and when he's not making the tackle himself he's usually in the right spot to drive the play towards free hitters. The rest of the D-line didn't really stand out, good or bad; they held the point of attack well against Minnesota but most of the actual plays were made by linebackers or Northwestern's aggressive safeties.

Walker is easily the team's best linebacker. WILL Jaylen Prater had a very quiet game; he had a hard time getting off blocks and looked to be victimized on a couple throws to the flat when he was in zone coverage. (BTN replay angles made deciphering coverages somewhat difficult.) SAM Drew Smith might be the weak spot in this defense. He missed multiple tackles and got out of position a couple times, especially when asked to play in space—he went on the wrong side of a block when shaded over the slot on a bubble screen that would've resulted in a big play if not for a great tackle from safety Godwin Igwebuike.

Igwebuike and Traevon Henry both had great games in run support, helped by the fact they could play 8-10 yards off the ball since Minnesota was no threat to throw the ball downfield. Both are solid wrap-up tacklers and they take good angles to the ball. As for their ability in coverage, I can only go by the numbers, which show they've been great at preventing big plays.

Michigan's offense will have their hands full. They should be able to get movement in the running game, and I think they can attack the edge Smith is playing on. Minnesota also had success throwing to the flat and could've had a couple big gains on receiver screens if they'd blocked better on the perimeter. That hopefully will be enough for Michigan to exploit—and based on the matchup on the other side of the ball, it should be—as the pass defense might be tough for this team to crack unless Rudock plays much better than he has so far this season.


Hugh White

October 9th, 2015 at 12:59 AM ^

Fitzgerald was interviewed on BTN and was asked to comment on whether there was a benefit to already having prepped his team for Stanford, which still shows Harbaugh influences. Fitz responds that it is an advantage for Michigan because there is film on how Northwestern will defend certain formations and situations.


October 8th, 2015 at 6:10 PM ^

I wonder at the people who say Stanford=Michigan because Harbaugh. Harbaugh is the better part of 5yrs removed from there. Is it fair to still compare the two?

MI Expat NY

October 9th, 2015 at 10:02 AM ^

They said Harbaugh influences.  I think that acknowledges that they are not the same and there may be divergence between Harbaugh and the Stanford offense over the past five seasons.  That being said, David Shaw was Harbaugh's OC for four seasons at Stanford.  They also lived in the same area for another four seasons, and one would assume still exchanged ideas at least now and then.  Throw in that Stanford continued to use similar concepts after Harbaugh left, and I think it's reasonable to suspect that Stanford and Harbaugh's offenses are as similar as possible after a five year separation.  

Are the offenses identical?  No.  Are they at least reasonably similar?  Probably.  


October 8th, 2015 at 8:14 PM ^

I kinda think this is the case. The guys on Solid Verbal last week made the point that Harbaugh coaching in college is kinda unfair to almost everyone he may go up against. This seems as true against Pat Fitz as it does against Randy E.


October 9th, 2015 at 9:43 AM ^

I want to say it was this one because they were reviewing the BYU game, but I can't 100% say for sure: http://www.solidverbal.com/2015/09/27/college-football-week-4-review-9272015/

Apparently, a lot of Michigan fans took offense to them saying that Harbaugh coaching in college is unfair, which...why? It's a compliment. We have a top 5 NFL caliber coach. It's great.


October 8th, 2015 at 6:18 PM ^

is Rudock vs Thorson. Who makes enough plays to give his team the win? You'd like to think a 5th year senior has that edge over a RS freshman, but Rudock hasn't been solid enough yet to give us any confidence that that will be the case.


October 8th, 2015 at 6:46 PM ^

I grok your logic but both defenses have good CBs and bad passing games, so I see both coaches trying to take their own QBs out of the game as much as possible.  Neither side can afford the mistakes; I mean, a pick-six probably wins the game.  So both defenses will put their CBs in man coverage, shut down the run and dare the QBs to throw, and neither HC will take that blatantly obvious bait.  It won't be #M00N in terms of ineptitude, but this might be the manballiest of manball games played all year.

Special teams will take on a prominent role as we may go four quarters without either side scoring a TD.  Edge to us; we have O'Neill, Peppers and Baxter.  (Just don't run on 4th and 16. . .)

Thinking through rationally anyway.  This is a matchup of two of the top defenses in the country so of course it'll be something like 42-38 because football is weird, and UM-NU games are ESPECIALLY weird.


October 8th, 2015 at 6:55 PM ^

Specifically the punt returner who put them on the 5 for an easy TD.  Is he anybody we need to be concerned about?  I mean, I guess our guys handled Will Likely, so probably not a concern.  But we probably are going to be punting a lot in this game.


October 8th, 2015 at 6:41 PM ^

Personally think this game falls on the OL and the RB's especially Smith. Northwestern's defense seems really quick and anything to the outside seems like a TFL waiting to happen.

If their CBs are as good as this says and Rudock being a bit shaky at QB, I think power manballing might be the way to neutralize their speed to the edges by going straight at them hat on a hat, especially if their DL isn't standout.

But if OL gets blown up at the line of scrimmage I will be remembering shades of Utah all over again. 




October 8th, 2015 at 7:01 PM ^

I wonder what happened in that game against stanford for NW... remains to be seen if that was an outlier game for Stanford or if NW is really that good. In my opinion, hard to draw much from any of there other games.


October 9th, 2015 at 8:18 AM ^

It definitely seems like an outlier to me.  I watched much of that game.  There was just one TD in the game, Northwestern's QB had a long run to the TD.  He took a step back, like it was a pass play then ran untouched 42 yards.  You can watch the play here:


It was an ugly game with not much offense for either side.  That one TD and three FGs for NU and two FGs for Stanford.  Stanford's offense seemed out of sync (as sometimes happens in first games), plus Shaw's playcalling had me befuddled.  He seemed determined to establish the inside run play, calling it over nd over, even late in the game when they needed points, and it was not working. It reminded me of that Michigan game at Penn State.  Stanford did finally open it up a bit in their last drive, but that ended in an interception, and even if they had scored there, it would have taken an onside kick and a FG to have a chance.  They diddled around so long, there wasn't enough time to win the game.


October 9th, 2015 at 9:27 AM ^

Am I crazy or does Stanford look incredibly slow on defense on that NU QB  keeper for the touchdown?  #15 LB particularly, #21 at corner also, but he had to get off a block and start running from a dead stop.

Thorson ran that 42yds in about 5 to 5.5 seconds (by my count on the game clock) w/ a running start.


October 8th, 2015 at 7:41 PM ^

Will post this here for those who don't get to the Mgoboard daily


NW Strengths

    Natl rank Value       UM rank Value
Offense         Defense      
3rd down conversion   10 49%   3rd down conversion   1 20%
Rushing offense   14 248.8   Rushing defense   5 71.4
Sacks Allowed per game   13 0.8   Sacks   45 2.2
Defense         Offense      
3rd down conversion   2 20%   3rd down conversion   46 42%
Defensive TDs   7 2          
Fumbles recovered   10 5   Fumbles lost   55 3
Passing Yds Allowed   7 130   Passing Yds   96 191.2
Rushing defense   26 117.4   Rushing offense   35 201.4
Total defense   5 247.4   Total offense   77 392.6
Red zone defense   6 60%   Red zone offense   12 94%
Scoring defense   1 7   Scoring Offense   74 27.8
Misc / Special Teams                
Fewest Penalties/Game   8 4.2          
Penalty Yds/Game   5 34          
Kickoff returns   3 31.6   Kickoff returns def   19 17.9
Punt return defense   2 -1.6   Punt returns   62 8.7
TOP   11 33:42   TOP   6 34:20
Turnover Margin / game   28 0.8   Turnover Margin / game   84 -0.4


NW Weaknesses

    Natl rank Value       UM rank Value
Offense         Defense      
Completion %   92 56.1%          
Passing offense   118 142.2   Passing yds allowed   3 112.6
Passing yds per comp   94 11.1          
Scoring offense   89 25.4   Scoring defense   2 7.6
TFL allowed / game   100 6.8   TFL / game   17 8
Total offense   79 391   Total defense   2 184



October 10th, 2015 at 1:20 AM ^

the NW scoring offense stat is a little misleading because it includes points scored by the defense and special teams.  NW has scored twice on defense and once on special teams (KO return).  They also have a 5 yard TD drive as a result of a punt return or turnover or whatever.  Michigan needs to take care of the ball.


October 9th, 2015 at 1:38 PM ^

*All Ranks out of 128 teams*

NU's Rushing:

They are 14th in Rushing Yards per Game (as you state),


However, they are a VERY run heavy team, rushing on 71% of their plays this season.

Football Outsiders attempts to adjust this for down & distance (Adj. Run Pct.), and comes up with NU as the 9th most run heavy team in the country this year.

They are also a VERY hurry up team, running 79.8 plays per game.

Football Outsiders attempts to adjust plays per game for Run/Pass mix, and comes up with Northwestern as the 7th most Up Tempo team in the country.  I'm not sure they adjust for the defense's ability to get the ball back quickly, so this may be a tad exaggerated.


NU's Yards per Rush of 4.4 is just average (65th).

Football Outsiders' S&P+ Rushing, has them ranked as 85th best rushing attack.  I assume this is worse than their Yards per Rush rank because 1) Their Scoring Offense is poor (100th in Points per Game) and 2) They are running the ball a lot on "Passing Downs", making it easier to pick up yardage (defense is playing pass to protect the first down) and lowering what FO considers the overall "success rate" of those plays.










October 9th, 2015 at 9:47 AM ^

this question the other day on twitter and never got a real good response... is northwesterns defence good or have the teams they played shot themselves in the foot to end a drive???

reason being is that northwesterns D has given up yards to teams but they don't score and there has to be a reason why...


October 9th, 2015 at 10:08 AM ^

will open up the playbook some tomorrow.  The OSU and UNLV games were pretty bland offensively cause UM didn't need to do much other than ran their base offense.  BYU comes to town and the playcalling in the first half was a lot more open then it was against BYU and UNLV.  

As someone pointed out in another thread, it seemed like Harbaugh and his staff thought the gameplans against UNLV and OSU would work against Maryland.  Once it got to the second half it was still kind of tight score wise, they dialed up some plays and put some points on the board.

I see this game similiar to BYU in that I'm guessing Harbaugh and his staff know they will need to open up the playbook some to score.  


October 9th, 2015 at 2:52 AM ^

I think NW defense looks scary similar to ours. Great D line push, super athletic in space, and excellent open field tackling. I think that Stanford failed to take advantage of there uber agressiveness though. We will not.


October 9th, 2015 at 5:41 AM ^

That line about Minnesota safeties looking great because they got to play 10 yard off the Los scares me since they will do that to us also. Whether this offense will look better than it did against Utah will be determined by our ability to make them pay for over playing the run.


October 9th, 2015 at 5:58 AM ^

has proven that he is going to run the ball regardless of how the defense aligns.  You don't hear all the "Kill, Kill" calls like you would with most teams because he wants to pound the ball and trust the blocking.  Even while not consistently being the best blocking team there is, our offensive line has worn defenses down in every game this season except the Utah game where we obviously were playing from behind all game and had to throw, plus turnovers.  The formula has worked thus far, and I expect it will against NW as long as we can sustain more drives than they can and will the TOP battle.  Their TFL stat is encouraging in that regard, because I will now expect them to be in a lot of 3rd and longs, which plays right into our hand.  Hard fought game and we better wear them out or it will be closer than expected.  Not worried about our D getting worn down, or maybe they could spring the upset.

Blue in PA

October 9th, 2015 at 9:51 AM ^

Maybe we'll see Rudock open up throwing short, quick passes to back off the LB's and open up the running game.   As opposed to plowing into the line, with 8 to 10 guys in the box, over and over and over.


October 9th, 2015 at 10:23 AM ^

Did NW not play Ball St this year? I watched the game due to them allowing 19pts and they looked vulnerable and IMO could've lost it. Ball St missed 2 FGs and fumbled within the 10 yard line. Am I just crazy? It's possible.