Applying the pressure

After a strong performance against Cal, Northwestern's defensive line has just one sack in its last two games. There's potential to improve, starting this weekend.

On Saturdays, Dean Lowry and the rest of the Wildcat defensive line puts pressure on the quarterback. Every other day of the week, it's putting pressure on itself.

"We started off strong that first game with four sacks," Lowry said. "But we definitely need to finish the play."

He refers to last week's game against Western Michigan, in which the Cats laid eight hits on quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen but failed to register a sack.

Though every unit in football is uniquely interconnected, the D-line stands at a different level. Unlike skill positions such as wide receiver or running back, one star can't ensure success across the board.

All four players on the front need to be opening lanes and collapsing the pocket, and just one weak link is tough to compensate for in the face of pinches, double-teams and line shifts.

Also unique to the defensive line is the frequent disregard for key stats. Sacks can only tell so much of the story, and measures like pass deflections and QB knockdowns are almost equally effective in gaging a line's impact. But it's often only the sack total that gets reported or noticed, and by that standard, Northwestern's line is struggling of late.

"It was just the normal aches and pains of a D-line," Deonte Gibson said. "We messed up a great amount on our footwork."

For now, those pains aren't particularly worrisome. Van Tubbergen completed a paltry 39 percent of his passes, and even though the Broncos deployed seven and eight-men max protection schemes for some of the game, Northwestern was still able to create decent pressure.

But the worries will be warranted when the Wildcats start Big Ten play. Simply hurrying mobile quarterbacks like Braxton Miller, Taylor Martinez and Devin Gardner isn't quite enough: all three tout stronger arms, better wide receivers that will get open faster, and faster legs than Tyler Van Tubbergen.

"Sometimes we put a lot of pressure on ourselves," Gibson says. "If they throw the ball 50 times, we want to get 50 sacks."

It's also cause for concern to notice the disparity between the line's top achievers and its remaining cogs. Tyler Scott and Dean Lowry have been spectacular, while Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo have been good off the edge as well. But the Cats haven't been nearly as dominant in the interior, where Chance Carter, Sean McEvilly and Will Hampton combine for just 16 tackles and three quarterback hits. Without push from the middle of the line, Northwestern's strong ends can be controlled as the season goes on.

The Wildcats have been effective in combatting that on third downs, when they often use four defensive ends to create a wave of pressure in obvious passing situations. It's reliant on Scott and Lowry to muscle up at the tackle spots, where their combination of speed and strength creates mismatches on less athletic guards.

"Having four defensive ends on the field helps. It really adds more speed to the front," Will Hampton says. "Our ends are sound on the inside. Dean Lowry's doing a heck of a job right now. It's a lot of fun to watch."

Hampton knows that the tackles and the rest of the line have to be better on first and second downs too. It falls on the line to shed blocks and help the linebackers in run defense. It's also on the line to aid an inconsistent secondary: Western Michigan's first touchdown, a 75-yard strike from Van Tubbergen to Corey Davis, was on first down. The only Wildcat applying any sort of pressure on the play was a blitzing Collin Ellis.

"A couple of those deep balls, if we had gotten pressure, they wouldn't have been up there," Hampton adds. "As a D-line, we can make the job easier for everyone."

The talent is certainly there, but there's still much to be desired from the defensive line. It's the most crucial progression to watch between now and October 5, more imperative than Dwight White's or the offensive line's. If the D-line can live up to its potential, Northwestern's defense will be tough to crack.

It starts with Lowry and Tyler Scott, the latter of which gets glowing praise from Hampton and Gibson for his work ethic and relentless leadership. But all four players need to be consistent, whether its the standard front, a four-end line or something entirely new (Northwestern even practiced with four tackles on the line this week). A burst up the middle from Hampton or a sack from Chance Carter is perhaps the biggest confidence-booster possible as the Wildcats tune up for Ohio State.

"It's only a start," says Gibson. "We can give you more."

Northwestern will need it.

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