Craig has the Scout - Northwestern 2018
*Coming Up *
Who: Northwestern Wildcats
When: 2:30 pm - November 24, 2018
Where: Dyche Stadium
*Head Coach: Patty McFitzy. *Fitz inherited this team after the tragic death of Randy Walker. He has kept Northwestern relevant, and with a solid AD and the backing of an entire J school become a darling in the media. Fitz has recently brought up the level of recruiting cementing the Cats as a contender in the B1G West. Also, my favorite Fitzy moment this season.
Offensive Style: Single Back Power Spread. Mick McCall has somehow held onto his job as the OC. McCall has the 112th best offense according to S&P+. That is Garrick McGee territory right there. The offense lost a few key components earlier in the season, and has really struggled to find a rhythm. McCall prefers to pound a RB at a defense and wear them out, but the team lacks that weapon now that Justin Jackson graduated. The Wildcats are struggling to move the ball this year.
*Defensive Style: 4-2-5. *Mike Hankwitz has been running this defense since Fitzy was a position coach. Hankwitz has a bona fide lights out unit this year, and the defensive line is leading the way. Hankwitz always has good defenses, and with the infusion of some higher level talent the Wildcats are a step away from an elite defensive unit. When Lovie Smith says the scheme the Illini defensive scheme is proven, he might be referring to what he saw on film watching Northwestern.
*Specialists: *With the additional staff opening available in the offseason, Fitzy hired Jeff Genyk. Genyk was at Vanderbilt previously. The hiring hasn't seemed to help, the Cats have the worst special teams unit in the conference. Fitzy has made up for it though with good decisions and luck which has given them great field position all season.
Three Things to Watch
Illini WR vs. the Northwestern Secondary. A strong Front 6 really checked the Illini run game last weekend. This weekend the Illini will need receivers creating space to help Bush and the run game. Teams are pass heavy on average against Northwestern, but the DBs are solid. The Cats have 46 PBUs on the season, and that means the Illini will probably see an interception or two Saturday.
The Field Position game. Fitzy and Lovie are both conservative coaches, and will try to flip fields when they can. Fitzy is much more aggressive on 4th downs than Lovie though, and that might be the difference in the game.
Special Teams. If this game comes down to a field goal, or a late game punt, Ligs' unit has a hands down advantage in all facets. Illinois needs to keep this game close to make this happen. Please keep this game close...
Scouting Review - Offense
For Mick McCall, this is his 11th year calling the offense in Evanston. The offense along the lake continues to stagnate. They are averaging a Garrick McGee like 23.6 pts./game this season. That is the worst season since 2014 with a bona fide NFL quarterback passing.
I'm not the biggest fan, but Clayton Thorson is a four-year starter and a legitimate NFL prospect. McCall has taken Thorson and turned him into a middling B1G quarterback. Thorson has a TD/INT ratio of 12:12. Thorson is averaging 5.6 yards per attempt.
Thorson has some good receivers to throw to this season. Flynn Nagel and Bennett Skowronek are good outside receivers, and the offense is designed for an H back to get plenty of looks. Cameron Green fits that role this season and is above average receiving as well. Mick McCall has done a phenomenal job of wasting talent. Luck, overtime and close wins have kept the heat off McCall, but it is no accident that Northwestern lost all of their non-conference games.
To give McCall a reprieve though, the sudden retirement of Jeremy Larkin was a hit to the run game. Larkin covered up quite a few sins of the OL, and Bowser has been unable to replicate the running style of Larkin.
McCall looks to be further hindered this week. Flynn Nagel is doubtful for the game with a foot injury. The Northwestern offense is going to need to cover up the lack of the leading receiver. I'm not sure McCall is up to the task, but I would assume Cameron Green gets more touches against the Illini LBs.
McCall's offense in year's past was predicated on the Buck Sweep as the primary run play. Here is the normal version of the play.
As you can see here, the Wildcats have really struggled to set the edge, which pretty well blows up the Buck Sweep. They have had some success with it though.
The run action though has been used extensively this season to set up the pass though. The first version is a Buck Sweep run action pulling the DL with it.
The back side receivers are running slants giving this an RPO look. They will also run this with a quick hitter to the flat, much less of an RPO look.
This play has a quick hitter action. It appears Thorson has the ability to keep this himself as well.
The second run play that the Wildcats have utilized for years is the Inside Zone run. The offense has struggled to make this go this season as well. The Illini have actually done reasonably well against it this season. Here is the primary look using a TE flip and Z Motion.
Whether this play is that successful or not, the Wildcats will continue to pound this. The core passing attack is predicated on it. Here is another look with the Z motion again.
The Wildcats are using this look with Jet Motion to force the defensive secondary to flow and maintain edge discipline. When they want to pick on the back side DE, they will flip the H back around.
The action allows for Thorson to on the LBs in this look to read the LB and run an RPO.
The action here has Thorson reading the top side LB, and once he comes up the Wildcats are hitting the in route.
Using the same blocking look, the Wildcats also run the Wham play.
Illinois has struggled with this in particular this season, so I think the Wildcats will run this more frequently than usual.
In addition to the inside zone play, the Wildcats will also attack the edges with the outside zone read option. Illinois has had some trouble defending the edge, so this might be a play that gets a lot of usage Saturday.
Michigan absolutely owned the Wildcats OL all game, so it is hard to see the outside zone blocking in general on this play.
With all the jet sweep action that the Wildcats show, they do occasionally give it to the WR. The lack of Flynn Nagel may limit this though.
With the lack of a run game happening most of the season, the passing game has taken a much larger part of the game plan. The first look the Wildcats use is an all slants look. This is the old Air Raid starter play.
As the offense has struggled this year, this pass play has become a larger portion of the playcalling.
If the Wildcats need to get more depth on the routes, they run a few sets of route combinations to shake free the receivers. The first one is a Go-Hitch combo.
The idea here is to take the safeties deep and hit the Hitch underneath. If the safeties give up the seam though, Thorson will let it fly. Along the same idea is the Hitch-Out combination that the Cats run. The out is short and will pull forward the flat defender, and the Cats will drop a deep Hitch in behind the vacating defender.
Should the defender get depth, the out route is wide open underneath.
Northwestern will run crossing routes with regularity as well. Although Thorson does not throw the crossing route very often though. Here is the first look at this.
In this play, Thorson checks it down to the HB flat as soon as he sees he has man coverage. His receivers were not beating the DBs from Michigan all game. The next thing they will do is release the slot receiver up the sideline with the crossing routes underneath.
And the Bubble Screen.
In both instances the Cats are using this as an extension of the run game since it struggles between the tackles. If the Illini are pressing the screen action, the Wildcats will counter.
This is a quick hitter versus the normal Go routes teams run due to the struggles of the OL this season.
With the Illini secondary struggling to contain big plays, I believe that McCall will do his best to challenge the Illini. The Wildcats will use route combinations to suck the young secondary up and take big shots downfield. The first combination is a classic that rolls the coverages.
This is a couple of GO routes, with an Out on the far side of the field and an In route across the middle. As the safeties drop to cover the GO routes, the underneath routes shake loose. If Illinois is pressing, they will move to the Stop and Go routes.
The Wildcats will run this at time with a Wheel route coming off the edge. I would expect to see them run the Wheel route at least once Saturday.
The struggles of the offense will be a weird contrast, since the Illini have struggled on D this season. Northwestern has only averaged 4 yards per carry once this year, against Iowa. Illinois is giving up almost 6 yards per carry for the season. One of these is going to change this weekend, the question is which one?
Scouting Review - Defense
The Iowa defense absolutely smothered Illinois last weekend. Northwestern's defense is a mix of the assignment sound football of Iowa, mixed with the aggressive nature of Purdue's defense. That has some real issues for the Illini. Northwestern is primarily a 4-2 front, although this season they have mixed in more 3 DL fronts this season.
The backend of the defense mixes between a Cover 3 scheme and press man with a single high safety. The front four are really good though, the LBs are overrated generally. I would take Phillips over either.
Hankwitz is a pretty good scheme caller though. He has a great feel for when to gamble. The first gamble will be to shut down the Illini read option.
The Wildcats walk up the safety on this and blitz the edge. Nebraska (the film I watched most closely since that offense most closely resembles Illinois, though Martinez is a much better passer) will broadcast the read side. Illinois does similarly. The Wildcats will try to disrupt the read quickly with the blitz.
Another way to shut down the run is the line slanting with a safety stunt. On this play, the DE comes wide as the contain player, and the DB comes inside.
The safety overplayed his hole, but had he played his assignment he blows this play up. Even when they are not bringing pressure, the front 6 will bring pressure hard, as seen here.
The LBs overplayed there holes here as well. If the Illini do not have a healthy Corbin, this plays well for the Wildcats. A shiftier back like Corbin or Epstein will make them pay. Dre Brown might be able to make some hay here as well.
As mentioned before, the Wildcats have two primary defensive secondary sets. First, Man Free.
There is also the Cover 3 single high safety.
As the Wildcats get themselves into passing downs, they will pressure the Illini edges hard. The first move is the ET stunt.
There is a nice delay on this to make sure the OL continues to communicate. The fun thing for Illinois is going to be forcing Northwestern to play base as much as possible to generate yardage. When it is a pure pass down, they will stunt both ends and tackles.
Illinois has started to do better with these. Side note - Luke Butkus has had a pretty nice year as his OL has really improved over the course of the season.
The Northwestern defense has started to show a lot more 3 man fronts in pass situations this season. The defensive line once again has really improved over the last few years, and it has allowed the Cats to move this way. Here is the base 3 man rush.
As you can see, the DE drops off the end. Here is that same look, but with a zone blitz attached.
:As you can see, #97 is dropping again, but this time NW rushes 4 with the blitz. He seems to be the one to drop, either in the stand up set from the first 3 man rush, or from having his hand in the ground.
The final thing they will do out of this look is a QB spy.
I'm pretty sure Northwestern will do this more often this weekend to keep Bush from tucking and running.
The Illini will struggle at times against this defense. The Wildcats are pretty good at minimizing big plays. Illinois is pretty good at maximizing explosive plays. The team that is able to overcome the other's strength wins this game.
What does it mean?
AJ Bush was not great against a team that generated a pass rush last week. His final stat line was 82 yards on 12 for 28 passing. He also sprinkled in two interceptions. The Illini rushing attack was limited as well, and the entire offense only generated 216 yards. Illinois will need to pass against a very stout defense to keep the offense moving and not repeat that performance.
Clayton Thorson continues to sprinkle the ball around and pull off improbable victories for the Wildcats. The Wildcats rushing attack is pretty mild, as Thorson is not much of a running threat and Isaiah Bowser is not Justin Jackson. Linebacker Nate Hall will miss the first half for a targeting ejection last week, which is a chance for Illinois to make hay early. The Wildcats will stay basic on offense and make Illinois beat their stout defense.
For Illinois to Win:
AJ Bush needs to return to form. He had a horrific game last week. Since the Illini are down to Bonner and maybe Brown rushing, Bush is going to need to be the game breaker. In the pass game, Northwestern is going to spy him and make him beat them with his arm. That has not been his strength. He needs to play within himself and take what is given.
The Illini defense needs to get pressure on Thorson and move him out of the pocket. Thorson is a good quarterback, but he will throw picks with regularity. Illinois has the chance to win the turnover battle and get Northwestern out of their rhythm. Illinois cannot stop the run, Northwestern is pretty mediocre at running the ball.
For Northwestern to Win:
The Wildcats need to prevent the turnovers, and rub the horseshoe they have stored somewhere on Fitzy. Barring a complete offensive meltdown, or a bizarre appearance of the Turnover Fairy, they have this one covered.
Illinois has not been favored in this game since 2010. Ugh.
Northwestern tends to play down to the level of their opponent this year, and have not been especially good at home. I don't think Illinois challenges Northwestern much, but the Cats have really struggled to run the ball, and teams that have killed Illinois have done a lot of damage with the run game. I'll take Illinois to cover. That said...Illinois is 5-13 against the spread in their last 18 games.
YTD Against the Spread: