Craig Has The Scout - Northwestern 2017
Ghosts of the Football Game Past
The Illini defense was not equipped to stop the Ohio State offense, and by and large did not. It was a bad weather game in Columbus, which held down the Buckeyes a bit, and they still put up a ton of points. Illinois held Ohio State below their season average on yards per carry. Unfortunately, Ohio State also ran the ball more times Saturday than any other game this season. The Illini DTs really struggled against the interior of the Buckeye line, which is rare. The Illini middle had held up surprisingly well prior to this game.
The Illini offense was on the struggle bus Saturday, which was to be expected. Illinois averaged 1.1 yards per attempt passing against the Buckeyes defense. This was on of the two worst passing games of the year along with the Wisconsin game. The common link is a defense that can consistently get pressure up front with 4 rushers. The Illini OL had no answer for the Buckeye pass rush, and the lack of a run game did nothing to slow the rush down.
Here is my highlight of the game though. The Illini scoring drive featured 4 runs. Dre Brown ran hard for 2, Chayce Crouch ran once, and Cam Miller scored a touchdown. In all 4 runs, it was a read option look that Illinois executed well. Against Northwestern, a finely tuned read option game can move the ball.
*Coming Up *
Who: Northwestern Wildcats
When: 3:00 pm - November 25th, 2017
Where: Home Sweet Home
*Head Coach: Fitzee. *He deserves no more mention.
*Offensive Style: *Mick McCall is in his 10th season as the Northwestern OC and QB coach. He took over in 2008, replacing one Garrick McGee. McCall was previously the OC/QB coach at Bowling Green mentoring Josh Harris, and brought his run first spread scheme to Northwestern.
At this point, everyone should know the Northwestern offense. The Wildcats run an inside zone blocking scheme (similar to Wisconsin), with the primary weapon being the zone read. When things are going correct, Northwestern is a run-first offense. When they struggle to run, they struggle since the passing game is reliant on the defense playing downhill.
*Defensive Style: *Mike Hankwitz is the Wildcats DC, and has been since Bret Bielema dumped him from Wisconsin in 2007. Hankwitz is a football veteran to say the least, and been in coaching since the early 70's. Hankwitz has adopted a 4-2-5 Nickel scheme at Northwestern, which relies on a secondary being stout in assignments to work. They were less than impressive ot start the season, but seem to have found their groove in B1G play.
*Specialists: *Charlie Kuhbander is one of the best in the conference as a kicker. When the Wildcats stall in the red zone, expect him to put points on the board.
Three Things to Watch
*3rd down conversions. *Northwestern is a middle of the pack team converting 3rd downs, while the Illini are below average at preventing 3rd down conversions. If the Illini can get off the field on Saturday, they can keep this game close. The Wildcats are efficient, but not explosive, and preventing 3rd down conversions will be required to stay in striking distance.
*The Illini passing game against the Wildcat secondary. *Northwestern has 13 interceptions on the season, and a remarkable 63 passes defended. Illinois has thrown 17 picks so far this season. If Illinois is going to be competitive, they cannot give the ball away on interceptions, and Illini receivers will have to win 1-1 battles.
*Safety tackles. *With the Wildcats looking to run the ball, they will test the Illini edge. Tre Watson had a decent game against Ohio State (7 solo tackles), but the Illini have made hay this year using the safeties in the box to stop rushing teams. Northwestern likes to run tempo (averaging about 80 plays per game), but they lack explosiveness (102nd in yards per play). Therefore, the safeties will be able to cheat up more in this game and might stymie the Wildcats ground attack.
Scouting Review - Offense
Mick McCall runs his entire offense off the premise that inside zone blocking unlocks all his plays. Justin Jackson is the senior running back who helps facilitate the offense. Jackson has rushed for 1,000 yards every year of his career, and has never had less than 245 carries in a season. Opponents have keyed on Jackson all season as he is the only home run threat for Northwestern, which has removed the explosive element of the Wildcats offense.
The Wildcats have attempted a much higher rate of passes this season to compensate and open up the run game. Clayton Thorson, the QB, has attempted about 37 passes per game this season. He has thrown 14 TDs, but also 11 INTs. He is averaging under 6 yards per attempt in conference, which is a rate below both Cam Thomas and Jeff George Jr. in conference. Thorson is a caretaker QB who cannot win games if he is required to do so. Thorson doesn't make a lot of bad reads, but has been prone to bad throws, especially against man coverage. McCall will go empty backfield with regularity to open up the opposing secondary and give Thorson a cleaner read.
The Northwestern OL is reasonably solid, but the weakness is the tackles against speed rushing. James Crawford might extend his team lead 4 sacks this weekend. To keep the Illini off balance, the Wildcats will mix and match 4 formations, using similar personnel in each.
The first formation is the Shotgun Ace formation with trips on one side and a single receiver opposite.
Northwestern will run their full offensive package out of this set, including the outside sweep play where they pull both guards, the read option, the bubble screen, and the slant/hitch passing game. They will also run play action off the run plays and try to beat the safeties deep.
The next formation utilizes the "Superback", an H back in the offense. The Superback in this case is lined up as a TE on the bottom of the screenshot above. Once again, the Wildcats will have their full complement of offensive plays out of this set. They will make a slight adjustment to this formation and go with the arrow set with the wide outs.
When the Wildcats go tempo, they like to go with empty sets and let Thorson pick apart the defense.
The Wildcats tend to run bubble screens and quick hitch/slant combinations out of this formation, and Thorson will pull it down and run it if he does not get the right look.
The last formation is a 2 TE type set, with the Superback lined up behind the TE.
This is a run formation for the Wildcats, but they will run the bubble screen and play action passes out of this formation.
The primary play I think of when I think of Northwestern is the sweep. On this play, they run to the perimeter, while pulling both guards to the edge. The back, normally Jackson, will run parallel to the LOS until a seam open up, and then it is a one-cut move up field.
Jackson is especially effective at this play. The Wildcats use it as a counter to their zone blocking scheme as it allows downblocking by the non-pulling linemen. Penetration on the play side really blows this play up, as the lead blockers are unable to get to the edge and it allows the LBs and strong safety to flow clean to the play.
In the five games I charted, I only saw this once, but Northwestern has a play action pass off of this sweep play. So, while the Wildcats ran the sweep 10 times per game, they ran this play once so far. I would assume though they might run it multiple times against Illinois if the Illini are in press man.
The Illini Nickels are prone to having their eyes in the backfield, and this play would isolate the Wildcat slot receiver with the sideline to run. McCall should dial this up a few times on Saturday.
The zone blocking scheme is built off of the read option though. Thorson is best at the read option, although Northwestern will run speed option on occasion as well. The Wildcats will only read the DE in the scheme.
Thorson does a really nice job reading this, similar to Barrett last week. This play frightens me a bit with the inexperience of the Illini DEs. Nickerson should simplify the scheme and just have the DE crash on the RB, and have the LB sit on the QB.
McCall will run a play action pass out of this read option as well. Thorson is very heady about the play, and my above option of have the LB is in danger with this play right here.
This is a RPO (Run Pass Option) play. If the LB comes up hard to catch Thorson on a read, then he vacates his zone for the slant. The Wildcats will challenge Illinois' pass coverage with this play, and these two plays should consist of half of the plays Northwestern runs on Saturday.
Northwestern has another wrinkle they will run out of the read option look. It is a bootleg pass with the superback rolling to the flat.
This play has the advantage of allowing Thorson to use his legs and get away from pressure. In this instance, Thorson hit the WR running the out a level higher. It will also put pressure on the Illini LBs to defend the sidelines.
The Illini pass defense will be challenged by another play they struggle to defend. Luckily, it is not the Power O, as Northwestern only runs that at the goalline. Instead, it is the mesh route.
The Wildcats run this on passing downs. Thorson can see the receivers open up, but is prone to set them up for big hits by defenders.
On pure passing downs, the Wildcats will look to move to an empty backfield shotgun set. While Northwestern will go deep along the sidelines, the interior receivers will run hitches and slants.
The slants will be more prevalent for the Illini since they will mainly run man coverage. Thorson does a nice job on these plays of checking through his options, which means the Illini Nickelback might lead the team in tackles.
Northwestern lacks game breakers on the offense. According to S&P+, they are 125th in explosiveness, and 63rd in efficiency. This offense seems to do just enough to win games, it has performed above average in only 6 games this season.
Scouting Review - Defense
Northwestern has been a 4-2-5 Nickel defense for the entirety of the Pat Fitzgerald era. The Wildcats utilize a run stuffer on the nose, and two run plugging LBs. The strength of the defense over the years has been the secondary. This year is no different. The top players for the Wildcats this season are both senior secondary players, Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro. Both are strong tacklers, but more importantly have 9 and 8 Passes Broken Up respectively. The tight back end coverage allows the LBs to play the run aggressively (led by leading tackler Paddy Fisher) and the DL to work its way to the QB.
The base formation looks like this.
The LBs are solid between the tackles, but lack great speed sideline to sideline. Illinois can exploit this mainly with jet sweeps and midline read option with the QB keeping to the edge.
Northwestern will stunt the line, mainly to the strengths of formations. They did that here against Penn State
The Illini utilize a zone blocking scheme, and slants like this could be problematic to the rushing attack.
The Wildcat defense is not spectacular, but makes very few mistakes. They require opposing offenses to be efficient and work their way down the field. Something the Illini have failed to do all season. The Illini will need to capitalize on any mistakes and break big plays for a chance to win the game.
For Illinois to Win:
Illinois will have to jump out to an early lead. When the Wildcats take the lead early, they have the opportunity to grind out yards and slowly wear teams down. When opponents jump to early leads, they are forced to try and open up the offense, which leads to issues. The offensive line of the Wildcats is exposed to edge pressure when the threat of the run diminishes. Illinois forcing a few turnovers and scoring early will be the key.
For Northwestern to Win:
Protect the football. The Wildcats have two games this season where they have 3 turnovers, and they lost both by 24 points. The defense will need to continue its stellar play and prevent Illinois from breaking off big plays. The offense needs to protect the football.
Illinois has nothing to play for this week. Northwestern is playing for bowl position. I will take Northwestern to cover the spread in this game.
YTD Against the Spread: