It’s a brutal stat, and it speaks to a defense that does not get heat on the quarterback, has mystifying communication issues and too often appears athletically overmatched.
Northwestern is allowing 9.9 yards per pass attempt. That’s 120th out of 120 FBS teams.
NU’s Saturday opponent, Penn State, is fourth nationally with a 5.1-yard average.
The Nittany Lions’ receiving corps will be without injured receiver Derek Moye (CQ), one of the Big Ten’s best players. But Penn State still has the 6-foot-3, 214-pound Justin Brown and a 5-7 burner named Devon (CQ) Smith who has sub-4.3 40 speed.
“Playmakers across the board,” NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Quarterbacks Rob Bolden and Matt McGloin have combined to produce the Big Ten’s second-worst passer rating, but McGloin is the former walk-on who torched the Wildcats last season.
Northwestern led 21-0 in State College. Then Penn State flipped a switch and scored touchdowns on five consecutive drives.
So McGloin will enter Saturday’s game with confidence. And nothing he will see from NU’s secondary on film will give him pause.
On Saturday, Iowa’s James Vandenberg fired two long touchdown passes – a 47-yarder to Keenan Davis and a 35-yard strike to Marvin McNutt. Both receivers were five-plus yards clear of anyone in purple and white.
“It’s the result of either poor communication or no communication,” said Chris Martin, who started at cornerback for Northwestern from 1993-95 and called the Iowa game for the Big Ten Network. “Every breakdown has led to a breakthrough. There has been an epidemic of balls going over (the defensive backs’) heads.”
Cornerback Demetrius Dugar said after the game that NU’s system of “checks” – defensive audibles – has resulted in confusion about the correct coverage on certain plays.
Said safety Brian Peters: “It starts with me. I’m the senior back there. I need to be louder and hold our room accountable.”
Compounding the problem is that the Wildcats (2-4, 0-3 Big Ten) don’t have enough speed to compensate for coverage mistakes – and that they have failed to register a sack for two consecutive games. NU’s 29 tackles-for-loss ranks 102nd nationally.
Fitzgerald promised changes, perhaps in the form of a pass-rush specialist or more playing time for previously injured safeties David Arnold and Jared Carpenter.
“The definition of insanity,” Fitzgerald said, “is repeating the same performance and expecting a different outcome. So we’ll look at personnel and make sure we have the best 11 out there.
“Schematically, are we asking them to do too much? Are they thinking out there when they should just be playing fast? Are they making mental mistakes in the arena? If that’s the case, we have to make some changes.”