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Improvement of NU secondary of primary importance

EVANSTON IL - SEPTEMBER 29: Nick VanHoose #23 Northwestern Wildcats upends Nick Stoner #14 IndianHoosiers Ryan Field September 29 2012

EVANSTON, IL - SEPTEMBER 29: Nick VanHoose #23 of the Northwestern Wildcats upends Nick Stoner #14 of the Indiana Hoosiers at Ryan Field on September 29, 2012 in Evanston, Illinois. Northwestern defeated Indiana 44-29. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Nick VanHoose; Nick Stoner

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The facts: Jacksonville, Fla., 11 a.m. Tues., ESPN2.

Updated: January 29, 2013 6:37AM

There were too many high moments in Northwestern cornerback Nick VanHoose’s season to single out only one.

VanHoose had nine tackles against Syracuse in his first start. His first interception came against Indiana, and he recovered two muffed punts against Nebraska.

The low point? That’s easy. VanHoose never will forget watching Michigan receiver Roy Roundtree tip Devin Gardner’s pass into the air before making an acrobatic catch in the final seconds. It allowed the Wolverines to kick a game-tying field goal before winning in overtime.

VanHoose was sidelined with a torn rotator cuff. It was his replacement, Daniel Jones, who had the defensive assignment when Roundtree made the circus catch.

‘‘That was painful,’’ VanHoose said. ‘‘That was painful for everyone, a straight shot to the heart. It hurt pretty bad.’’

The secondary was the Wildcats’ major weakness last season, and it appeared it would be again after the unit was called for five pass-interference penalties and yielded several big plays in a 42-41 victory against Syracuse in the season opener.

Instead, an improved
secondary reversed the negative momentum and is a big reason NU will meet Mississippi State on New Year’s Day in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.

‘‘I’m really proud of that group,’’ Wildcats defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz said. ‘‘A year ago, it was a problem. They gave up a lot of explosive plays. It was frustrating. But we worked on correcting the problems we had. We communicated much better, we simplified it just enough that we didn’t have the same mistakes and guys executed better and competed better.’’

After the Syracuse game, NU’s secondary was probed weekly by opponents hoping to make a big play or draw a penalty. It held up for the most part, even when VanHoose missed three games because of an injury. A
defense that ranked 92nd in pass efficiency last season improved to 42nd this season.

‘‘It feels like some sort of disrespect that they’re going to come after you because they think that’s where the weak point of the defense is,’’ sophomore safety Ibraheim Campbell said. ‘‘You feel disrespected, and you have to stand up and say, ‘You’re not coming through us, so you’ll have to go somewhere else.’ ’’

VanHoose was listed third on the depth chart at the start of the season. But not only did he start as a redshirt freshman, he was one of the most consistent performers in the secondary.

‘‘My first game was nerve-racking,’’ VanHoose said. ‘‘My mentality the first game was don’t let anything get past me deep. But once you get out there for a couple of reps, you start getting used to it. It’s just like practice but a bigger stage.’’

VanHoose and the rest of the Wildcats’ secondary expect another test against Mississippi State. Bulldogs quarterback Tyler Russell completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,791 yards this season. He had 22 touchdown passes and six interceptions.

Receivers Chad Bumphis, Chris Smith and Arceto Clark have combined to catch 133 passes for 1,895 yards and 14 touchdowns.

‘‘We get tested every game,’’ VanHoose said. ‘‘That’s just what it is. That’s the life we live. I enjoy it.’’

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