Backed against the wall

Northwestern's cornerbacks struggled mightily last weekend. That may have been just what they needed

Dwight White didn't hear the fans. He didn't even hear the thundering bang set off to commemorate a Golden Bears' touchdown.

White only remembers the other three members of the Wildcats secondary swarming toward him after the play was over.

"The first thing that happened was my teammates surrounded me and told me: ‘Next play. Forget that,'" the freshman cornerback recalls. "That's really what helped me get through."

Everyone in California Memorial Stadium saw it coming. Daniel Jones had crumpled to the turf two series prior, leaving White to man the right corner spot in the first significant playing time of his career. For a position that often requires more mental than physical strength, this was far from an ideal beginning.

Cal wideout Chris Harper ran a deep post route, found himself in single coverage and turned on the jets for a 52-yard score. A drive later, Bryce Triggs beat White on a post for 36 and set Cal up for its third touchdown of the night.

"If you catch a new guy out there, he's going to get baptized. And he did," defensive backs coach Jerry Brown said. "I told him it's a great experience for him. Obviously he didn't believe me at the time, but all corners have to go through it."

For Northwestern, it seems like they go through it all too often. Ask those who follow NU about the secondary and expect some mention of Nebraska or Michigan. Perhaps even a visceral shudder will say it all: Wildcat teams in the Pat Fitzgerald era have been particularly susceptible through the air, often at the most inopportune times.

The team has allowed more than 204 passing yards per game every season since Fitz took over in 2006, and gave up an average of two touchdown tosses per game in both 2007 and 2010. Last year, NU saw that average swell to a sizable 250 yards and took two of its three loses off deep balls in the fourth quarter.

Not all of it is on the defensive backs, Brown says. Pass defense comprises all 11 players, and pressuring the pocket is just as important as sticking with coverage assignments. But when a corner is lost on an island, it's hard to remember to share the blame.

This season figured to bring major changes with a secondary that fielded three returning starters. And against a true freshman quarterback and a team that sputtered to a 3-9 record a year ago, Northwestern figured to cruise through the opening week. But when Jones went down, the confidence of the other Wildcat corners went with him. Jared Goff tallied 445 yards and two touchdown strikes, while NU limped out from an unexpectedly close win.

"The speed of the game was that much faster," White said.

And the speed of his progression will have to be even quicker. Northwestern is set to face some of the best quarterbacks in the country this fall, including Heisman favorite Braxton Miller and viable dual-threats Taylor Martinez and Devin Gardner.

"For corners, it's a test of their mental strength," Brown said. "Now he finds out a lot about himself."

White can also learn from the man guarding the opposite sideline, who was in almost the same position just a year ago. Favored on the road, Northwestern watched a week one lead slowly evaporate behind four second-half touchdowns from Syracuse's Ryan Nassib. Then a true freshman making his first start, Nick VanHoose saw ample passes directed toward his man.

"I pulled him over during the Cal game, and I told him, ‘Hey, if you're the other coach, what would you do?' They're going to come at you, they did that to me last year," VanHoose said.

When asked about his performance against the Golden Bears, the team's No. 1 corner pauses, hesitates and sighs: "Mentally, I feel like I wasn't prepared enough for the Cal game."

It showed: while the attention shifted to White on the right side, VanHoose was struggling as well, and gave up the second of Harper's two touchdown catches. With White expected to endure growing pains, VanHoose has to be rock-solid on the other end.

But as shaky as Northwestern's cornerbacks were in the opener, a new week brings a new opportunity. They settle in for four straight home games, motivated by a clean stat sheet and a chip on their shoulders.

"I think I grew a lot just from [the touchdown], being able to see it on film. It's really important that I was able to bounce back from that," White said. "I'm going to go out there and make a statement. I'm a young guy, anybody that knows football knows that you're gonna pick on the young guy. They're going to throw the ball at me, and I'm ready to make plays."

"I think he's courageous enough to get back out there," Brown added. "Once you go out there and you know you can do it, you start to get a sense you can do it. "Then you look forward to going back out there again."

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