Northwestern’s pass defense has been dominant during its past three wins. The Wildcats allowed just seven points against Western Illinois, forced the prolific Christian Hackenberg to miss on more than half of his 45 passing attempts, and held two Wisconsin quarterbacks to a combined 138 yards. Nick VanHoose and Matthew Harris have strung together the best games of their careers; Godwin Igwebuike stole the show Saturday in relief of Ibraheim Campbell.
Traveon Henry hasn’t been up to par. The junior safety allowed a handful of receptions over the middle against WIU, got torched by Melvin Gordon on a 51-yard run where he appeared to have the angle to seal him off, and was badly beat by Kenzel Doe on a touchdown catch that put Wisconsin within six. At the peak of the game’s panic, Twitter was full of questions about whether Henry is too slow to play safety.
“I felt I played alright,” he told PW Tuesday. “There are some things I need to work on. I need to fix filling in my alleys and improve my communication.”
Henry sits sixth on the team in tackles, but is the only starting defensive back without a pass deflection (the only other notable DB without one, Kyle Quiero, has seen significantly fewer snaps).
It might be too soon to suggest that Henry has regressed, but when Pat Fitzgerald was asked last weekend about Igwebuike earning a starting job, his first instinct was to remind reporters that Campbell’s job would not be jeopardized by injury.
Some of Northwestern’s upcoming opponents throw deep often. Nebraska ranks sixth in the country in yards per completion, while Minnesota and Illinois crack the top 50. If the Wildcats field a unit with one noticably week link, offenses will prepare accordingly.
But Henry, who played admirably in his first two years with the team, has no interest in addressing the skepticism right now.
“You listen to the people that you know you can trust and count on. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but the coaches have invested in me as safety, so until they say otherwise, I’m going to be the best safety I can be,” Henry said.
He will have to be as Campbell continues to be held from action with a hamstring injury. With perhaps the team’s best defensive player out again, the maligned Henry leads a safety group comprising two talented but overzealous playmakers. While Northwestern matches up well with the Golden Gophers, Saturday’s game will function as a needed space for Henry’s improvement.
“My only goal this week is to get a win,” he said. “I see the two best corners in the country on this defense, to be honest with you. That will make my job a little bit easier.”