2017 Depth Chart

This is kind of cheating, given that I just put a 2017 depth chart together inside a recruiting post less than a month ago. But I’ve started the offseason with next year’s depth chart after the final game for the last eight seasons (!), so I must continue the tradition. Let’s look at the (very young) three-deep. [Read more…]

SOC – Northwestern

I can’t watch the game tomorrow.  Well, I could, but it would be ridiculously unfair to my wife.  Here we are, in New York City, and I’ve spent the better part of two days covering a basketball team which was outscored 161-118. Tomorrow, we’re hitting the town. (And I’ll sneak a few peeks at the game on my phone.) [Read more…]

Those Were The Days – Northwestern

This is the first time I’ve remembered to publish the Northwestern TWTD in three years. It’s always scheduled to go up on Black Friday and I’m always doing something else. But today, I remembered! Here’s Detlef to take us back to 1989: [Read more…]

Florida State Postgame Presser

I usually avoid pressers (given my allergy to canned answers), but given that I traveled all the way out here, I figured I should attend. And even ask questions. Which voice is mine? Just listen for the guy stammering trying to say the phrase “with Leron Black back”. Here’s the audio: [Read more…]

Craig Has The Scout – Northwestern 2016

Ghosts of the Football Game Past

I’m going to copy and paste something I wrote here prior to the Murray State game.  It is the 5 point plan for Lovie and team to win football games.

  • Play great defense.  Lovie Smith will ask his team to play a gap control defense.  The pressure is on the opponent to find ways to exploit a disciplined defense.  Illinois has a first unit that matches up with any opponent; it is the depth that will become an issue. Accordingly, the Illini will play great defense and try to get off the field quickly.  This will not be a bend-but-don’t-break defense.
  • Get at least two first downs on every offensive drive.  The Illini defense is thin and prone to wearing out.  The offense is skilled but full of questions marks.  The offense’s goal is simple: give the defense a chance to catch its breath by getting at least two first downs on every drive.  Simply playing a field position game will take some pressure off the offensive line by allowing them to focus on immediate and easily attained goals.  It willalsol allow the skill position players to play within themselves, not trying to hit a home run or getting behind the chains.  Ideally, it takes some pressure off and slows the drops from receivers.  Cubit was maddening in his Cubiting; in contrast, McGee is going to be much more methodical and will run the ball consistently.
  • Win the turnover battle.  I listened to a podcast recently (I am going to credit Bill Connelly with the stat, but I don’t remember who said it) where they said that the team that wins the turnover and explosive play battle wins 98% of all games.  Explosive plays were running plays of 12+ yards, and pass plays of 16+ yards.  The idea is that, just by using those two stats alone, you would learn more about a game than you would from the box score.  Lovie is a firm proponent of this philosophy.  The Illini offense will take shots and try to generate explosive plays, and the defense will try to force turnovers.  The ball in the team room should be enough to drive this point home.
  • Score TDs in the Red Zone.  Using the same Bill Connelly reference here, the points value of yard lines inside the 20 is greater than the value of a field goal in college football.  What that means is that he expected points to be scored on a play is greater than 3.  Therefore, the Illini will try to score touchdowns, and will be aggressive inside the 20.
  • Finally, to Robert’s great delight, Win the Special Teams Battle.  The Illini will have a focus on special teams not seen since Ron Turner was at Illinois.  And one positive thing all Illini fans will say about Ron Turner is that the specialists during his time were great.

The Iowa game really brought is home to me how far this team has to go to win with Lovie Smith.  Iowa beat them in all five of the points above.  It kills me, because I really want to see these guys succeed, but success is a long way off still.

Coming Up Next

Who: Northwestern Wildcats

When: 11:00am – November 26th, 2016

Where: Ryan Field, Evanston, IL

How: BTN

The Cast:

Wide Receiver: Austin Carr (#80).  Carr has gone full STEVEHULL this season.  He had 400 yards receiving prior to this season, and has 1,178 so far this season.  Carr is a solid route runner with good hands, and he finds ways to get open.  He is primarily lined up in the slot and does his damage over the middle of the field.  Since Northwestern played Minnesota last week, Carr is day to day on a dirty targeting penalty, but I expect him to play against the Illini.

Quarterback:  Clayton Thorson (#18).  When he is not playing the villain in Trading Places, he runs the offense for the Wildcats.  Thorson was primarily a running threat a year ago, but has improved over the course of the season to be a solid passer.  Austin Carr playing out of his mind helps too.  Thorson will stay in the pocket, but is very capable of running.  He will run some inside zone against the Illini this weekend.

Running Back: Justin Jackson (#21).  Jackson has about 150,000 miles on his legs now, but is reliable with regular maintenance.  He averages 22 attempts per game, but should get around 30 carries this weekend.  Jackson does his damage off tackle, and gets upfield on a cut quickly.  He has above average vision, but really doesn’t make guys miss in the hole.  Jackson is a better version of Daniels from Iowa, who put up 150 yards on Illinois.

Safety: Godwin Igwebuike (#16).  Igwebuike is the leading tackler for the Wildcats, and is all over the field.  He is a solid run stuffer, and has a great nose for the ball.  

A Quick Primer

Northwestern is a pretty bad home team this year.  They are 2-4 to date, with a couple of 10 point wins over Duke and Indiana.  The Wildcats average about 100 yards fewer per game at home, and average 18 fewer points per game at home.  For whatever reason, they play worse at Ryan Field, and this is not strength of schedule driven.

The Wildcats come into the game with a 5-6 record, and a need to win the game to ensure bowl eligibility.  The Wildcats have dropped 3 of the last 4, and struggled mightily last week against Minnesota.  

Illinois enters the game playing spoiler.  The Illini offense has struggled mightily to maintain drives, something Northwestern is prone to being exploited on.  The Illini defense has struggled to get off the field in recent weeks, and that is the key for Northwestern; sustaining drives.

What Are They DOING – Offense Edition?

Northwestern operates exclusively out of a Gun formation.  The Wildcats mix up the personnel between 4 wide, 3 wide and an H Back (the Northwestern SuperBack), and 3 wide and a Tight End.  Garrett Dickerson is the SuperBack (#9), and he and Jackson never leave the field for the Wildcats.  Here is the most common alignment.

slide3

The Northwestern offense does very little motion.  They will occasionally move the SuperBack from side to side in formation, and will also motion Jackson back to the backfield on empty back sets.  The offense runs a staple read option play with Jackson off tackle as the basic offensive set.  

slide4For all the advantages this would give to a play action pass plays, the Wildcats run play action on 10% of the time out of this formation.

Justin Jackson, as mentioned above, is a great one cut runner.  In order to take advantage of this, the Wildcats run a sweep play and pull both guards on the play.  

slide5The last 2 years, the Illini have had issues with this play.  Minnesota made it a personal mission to force Jackson upfield early, and had the safety force the play back inside asap and let the LBs clean it up.  Stanley Green and Taylor Barton/Pat Nelson will have a challenge to accomplish it this weekend, but the Northwestern WRs are not particularly stout blockers.

Although I mentioned how little the Wildcats run play action, when they do it is an attack to the middle of the field.  

slide6

In this layout, Austin Carr is the T receiver and is trying to settle under the Illini safeties and right behind the LBs.  Since the Illini run a single deep safety often, the Z receiver will hold the safety deep on the post route.

The Wildcat offense likes to run with some tempo.  They average over 75 plays per game.  In a 75 play game, they will normally pass 40 times, and run 35.  Since the Illini have really struggled stopping the run over the season, the Wildcats are going to run more often this week.  Most likely in the 50 rushes range.  When they do go to the air, one of the favorite setups is this.

slide7The Wildcats use this when the MIKE LB starts cheating, and once again it is Austin Carr they use to get into the zone behind him.  This is not a play action pass, and uses straight 60 protection.  Thorson will lock into the T receiver on this, he never even looked at the outs against Minnesota.

The Wildcats have a few tells on offense though.  The Superback is always on the point of attack, and when they motion, they telegraph what is coming.  The Superback motion shows play side.  A WR motion across the formation to trips leads to a flood pattern deep.

slide8Minnesota saw this, and autoblitzed the formation.  The tackles of Northwestern are not that adept at pass protection, and get beat on speed rushes.  Which should be an advantage for the Illini.  Expect Nickerson and company to autoblitz this as well, or the Illini to walk the Strong Safety opposite my blitz show and bring Nelson instead.

Since it is Patty Fitz, you know the Wildcats are going to do something dirty that would be a penalty for any other team.  Northwestern loves to run a “Rub Route” on the perimeter.

12-northwestern
This is a straight pick any way you put it, and it opens up the Superback to the sideline.  If the Illini run this, it would be offensive pass interference.  For Northwestern it is considered good gameplanning.

Mick McCall (the Northwestern OC) had Teddy G. of all people calling for his head early in the season.  As Thorson has come along, so has the offense. Northwestern is just as predictable as Iowa, and are finally starting to get some results for the efforts.  The extreme cold will mean more Justin Jackson than normal, and potentially a few read option keeps for Thorson this week,

What Are They DOING – Defense Edition?

Northwestern is a base 4-3 defense, running a mix of Cover 1 Man and Cover 2 behind it.

slide15Against a 3 wide formation, the Wildcats will move to something akin to a Nickel set by bouncing out the WILL LB.

slide16

When Illinois goes to the formation with a FB and a TE, the Wildcats will move to a 5-2 Oklahoma defense, moving the SAM LB over the TE over the end.

slide17
The advantage is that the Wildcats can maintain their man coverages, while keeping the defense compact in the middle with the linebackers.  They do this with an odd front, which forces teams to man block schemes on the backside.  This is obviously not a strength of the Illini.

There was only one main blitz I noticed by the Wildcats was bringing the WILL LB from his bumped position and coming hard off the backside edge on a blitz.  

slide18

The blitzing backer got home on both occasions against Minnesota.

A few other things of note for the Wildcat defense.  They are susceptible to long passes on the sidelines, so expect comeback and go routes down the sideline to make an appearance this week.  They also struggle containing a roll out for a QB, so I believe that McGee will get Lunt on the move this week to free up the TEs on the sidelines.  Finally, the Wildcats are starting a freshman at one corner – #29 Trae Williams, and he gets burnt downfield with regularity.

Northwestern is not a particularly flashy team.  Defensively, they fall firmly in the bend but don’t break mentality.  The defensive front is susceptible to rushing attacks, but does a nice job creating pressure.  The B1G leader in sacks is Ifeadi Odenigbo.

What does it mean?

Northwestern is going to run the legs off of Justin Jackson in this game, and have Thorson attack the middle of the zones with crossing routes.  The Wildcat defense will sit in its base formation (a Nickel look with 4-3 personnel) and force the Illini to beat them.

Northwestern is +4 on turnovers for the year, and will play conservative football against Illinois.  The key is not to beat themselves.

For Illinois to Win:

Illinois has to force turnovers, and play honestly against the rushing attack of the Wildcats.  I suspect Illinois will walk a safety up early and often, putting the corners in man coverage all day.  This will require the Nickelback to defend Carr (or the other T receivers) tightly and prevent any routes over the middle.  Thorson lacks arm strength to the sidelines, and is susceptible to making bad throws that direction.  Illinois needs him to go downfield and to the sidelines.  If they do, they can force a couple of picks.

For Northwestern to Win:

Prevent turnovers and run the heck out of Justin Jackson.  If Northwestern has more rushes than passes, they will be victorious.

Illinois +16.5

I think Northwestern wins, but with the weather and a middling offense, they don’t cover.

YTD Against the Spread:

4-5-0h

Back & Forth – Iowa

Steve and I have been doing these posts for nearly three years now. And in that time our Big Ten record is… 7-17? I think I can name all seven wins. Minnesota, Penn State, and Northwestern in 2014, Nebraska and Purdue last year, Rutgers and Michigan State this year. We haven’t beaten the same opponent twice since… I’ll stop thinking about this and just get to the B&F. [Read more…]

SOC – Iowa

My hotel is crawling with Iowa fans. Crawling. I always forget about a game like this.  Iowa goes 12-0 in the regular season last year, so this year their fans snatch up road tickets like crazy. Their season hasn’t turned out like they’d hoped, but they’re still invading Champaign with the tickets they bought in August.  [Read more…]

Those Were The Days – Iowa

Today, Detlef takes us back to October of 1973.  I was ten months old.  But I want to think that somewhere in my tiny developing brain, I was excited about beating Iowa 50-0.  Here’s D: [Read more…]

Malcolm, Finke, And Pray For Rain

Let’s start with this: Northern Kentucky came here to brawl. And we didn’t respond well at all. You can tell when a team comes to play football on the hardwood because their coach doesn’t ride the officials. “My guy fouled? Of course my guy fouled – I told him to foul”. That will happen, and you have to respond. We didn’t. [Read more…]

SOC – Wisconsin (Plus Hoops Thoughts!)

I feel like I’ve done this the past few years.  The first basketball game is on a Friday night, and I have to write the SOC for the next day, so I combine that post with my thoughts on the first basketball game and then get around to a prediction for the game. The basketball game? A little disappointed. The football game? I feel strangely… good? [Read more…]