Craig Has The Scout - Northwestern 2019
Who: Northwestern Wildcats
*When: 11:00 am - November 30th, 2019 *
Where: Home Sweet Home
*Head Coach: Fitzy. *Illinois played the longest-tenured coach last week. This week is 2nd on the list. Pat Fitzgerald - a man who is solid in his convictions - and a man starting to watch the game pass him by. In return, he has started turning into a Lloyd Carr style head coach. Get off his lawn.
*Offensive Style: The original Spread concept, with weird add-ons that don't jive. *Mick McCall has been calling plays at Northwestern since 2008. McCall has added the wrinkles actual offensive innovators have added to his spread look, but it appears he doesn't understand how to call these plays in rhythm. Additionally, the offensive firepower is gone this year leaving McCall without a running back he can abuse with 400 carries per year.
*Defensive Style: A 4-3 Cover 2 (or maybe Cover 4) primarily, with Cover 3 against TE heavy sets. *They have been experimenting with a 3-3-5 as an every-down package vs. a pass defense only. Mike Hankwitz is still running the D at 71 and has also been running things since 2008. The defense is anchored by the LBs, and the safeties are weaker this year than past seasons. As a result, the Northwestern D isn't as elite as it has been in past seasons but is still an upper half B1G D.
*Specialists: *This might be the most mediocre specialists Illinois has faced. They are well-coached though and don't beat themselves. Conversely, they won't do anything that is game-breaking.
Three Things to Watch
_The Illini Interior OL vs. the Northwestern LBs. Paddy Fisher is loved by the media but plays a position where the defense funnels plays to him. The Wildcats play wide DTs in their base defense, which means Fisher is relied upon to clean up the middle of the line. If the Illini can run down and block Fisher, the RBs are man on man vs. the safeties. _
_Illini LBs handing off crossing routes. Northwestern loves to run the crossing routes across the field. The Wildcats offense has been ugly all year, now is not the time for Illinois to get them in gear. _
Illini Pass Protection. Joe Gaziano is an interesting DE. The Wildcats have been using Gaziano in a stand-up rush role. He has enough speed to give the Illini DEs issue, and Gaziano is good at moving the pocket.
Scouting Review - Offense
Mick McCall was named the OC when Pat Fitzgerald was named head coach. McCall took what Randy Walker was successfully running and kept it humming. Walker was at the forefront of the spread explosion.
Today, nobody is surprised by the spread. The kids that Northwestern was utilizing to beat opponents went from being under-recruited to being mainstream now. Even Mark Dantonio has incorporated the spread into his offense. The Northwestern offense a decade ago was like the Flex Option, an oddball offense incredibly hard to prepare against. Now, most of the B1G West runs a similar offense. The offense is no longer hard to prepare to defend, it is part of a base package. As the spread offense has morphed over the years (RPOs, Pistol, arc read), McCall has tweaked his scheme to match. The issue is that the morphing has made McCall's play-calling now very uneven.
In years past, Justin Jackson used to run an outside sweep with two pulling guards in front of him. Jackson racked up mountains of yards, and McCall kept riding the hot hand. These days, Northwestern is lacking a premiere back to carry the workload, they also lack an OL that is capable of pulling and getting to the perimeter. McCall's passing offense was very effective when they had a true run threat. Now, they are lacking a run threat and are currently playing with one of the worst offenses in all of college football.
Last week, it seems like Northwestern might have finally found a QB worth his salt, but he is the run threat. Andrew Marty was a solid option last week against Minnesota, running the ball 13 times for 79 yards. Drake Anderson, Evan Hull, and Jesse Brown have been unable to turn the running game around from the RB position.
With all the turmoil on offense this year, I think McCall will take a step back this week and get back to basics. McCall's offense is most deadly using the SuperBack on flat passes, Hitch routes on the perimeter, and with Marty the Read Option. Illinois struggles to defend the Read Option, H back passes in the flats and crossing routes. If McCall is worth his salt (and he's been doing this a LONG time), he should simplify the game plan, shorten the game, and force Illinois to defend these three play concepts all day.
Although not a staple of the Northwestern offense of yesteryear, the Read Option has more prominence this year with the current stable of backs. Here is the first look at it.
When all is running correctly, the Wildcats are going to give this all day. The running backs are especially shifty but do well between the tackles.
The Wildcats have run through an entire depth chart of QBs this year, and each one has shown the willingness to keep when needed.
Sparty's DEs were cheating HARD on the give, and the QBs pulled it just enough to slow down the crash. Illinois is known to do this, and I think McCall will try to run this often on 1st downs to keep the offense ahead of the chains.
As mentioned before, McCall will adapt his offense (perhaps begrudgingly) with some formation changes. Here is the same zone read, but motioning the Superback across the formation first to move the LBs.
It's odd because the motion pulled Bachie further to the middle and made him a sitting duck in the blocking scheme after the motion. The other change would be a formation set up, in this instance the Pistol formation.
Hunter Johnson makes a nice read here on the LB. The WR on the bottom decided blocking is overrated and completely let the play get blown up. That is a nice 10-12 yard gain without the boneheaded play there.
Once Northwestern starts to get the Illini D coming downhill on the run, they are going to run routes to take advantage of the LBs being out of position.
The crossing routes require the Illini LBs to hand off the receivers. The Northwestern OL absolutely telegraphs run vs. pass though, so the Illini LBs just need to read and get appropriate depth.
In the past, Northwestern loved pulling their OL in the offense. In particular, they moved the guards all over the place giving a lot of eye candy for the defense. The guards this year (Urban and Gerak) are far from mobile enough to pull the normal scheme off. To account for that, the Wildcats have moved the pulling duties to the center.
I pulled like 4 versions of this
And every time failed to find a clean look to show what they are doing. At the end of the day, the C is the lead blocker and is supposed to read the end man and set the block. If the end plays inside, it is a seal block. If they go out for contain, they kick the end man out. On the 2nd version, he is kicking out, but the back cuts this upfield before the block is ever set. On the first version, the back sees the edge all mucked up and cuts it upfield not following the block.
The Wildcats earlier in the year were also pulling the tackles in Dart blocking schemes this season. With the season-ending injury to Gunnar Vogel, the RT is not much of a pulling threat.
As you can see, the play is a read-option look for the Wildcats. With the pulling action, there has to be a complete sell out before the QB will keep. I did not see the QB keep on this play in the games I watched. If the Wildcats run it, expect Slater to be the pulling tackle.
Northwestern will run some outside zone as well, but as the year has progressed they have gotten away from it. Line mobility has made it an issue for opening holes. The RPO action the Wildcats prefer is out of the outside zone look though.
The Wildcats also have shown this play out of a 3x1 set with the wideouts, which means the QB is looking to keep on the run play.
On most plays they have run with the Outside Zone, the RB is getting stuffed out right off tackle. They lack the speed on the OL to set the edge.
Another look they have gotten away from, but may bring back against Illinois is the Power Read Option. Teams have had some success against Illinois with this over the course of the year.
The Illini DTs have been pretty solid against the run, and this will allow the line to get preferential angles on the blocks. Harding is the wildcard here, they need to be able to stop him from gumming up the hole.
One thing that the Wildcats have been doing more this season is the rollout. I am not sure if they are doing it because their QBs have happy feet, or the OL is that bad at pass pro.
The short route on the sideline is the check down for the QB. The deeper sideline route is the preferred option, and if the defense overplays the sideline they have a receiver sitting down on the hash.
The rollout can be deceiving though because the Wildcats love to run the screen. They have been very effective this year with a roll out and running the screen behind it.
The Illini CBs have been great on sniffing these out this year, but Northwestern may run this merely to slow down the Illini pass rush.
Northwestern has started motioning the tailback more this year than previous seasons. If the back motions across the QB and comes set, they run an inside zone look out of it. If the back continues in his motion, they are running either an HB flat or a WR release down the sideline.
Here, the receivers are blocking out of the gate, but the counter is releasing the receiver furthest up the screen on the play.
The final pass action the Wildcats like to run is crossing the receivers to open up the Illini defenders. The action against zone makes the short defender commit, potentially leaving a zone open behind.
If the defender gets depth such as this, it opens up the short route. Against man coverage, it works as a pick play.
It wouldn't be a Northwestern scout talking run without it.
The Illini shouldn't see this, but this was a Jackson staple for so many years I feel remiss not putting it in.
The whole world is calling for Mick McCall's head. As a play-caller, he seems to go in with a game plan and abandons it the first sign of distress. Over the course of the year, he has modified his approach to calling games and has finally found a modicum of success these last two weeks. UMass will help with that.
McCall has been running bad offenses for years now, but the personnel this year is the worst Northwestern has put out for quite a few years. Unless they have a bell-cow back, this system doesn't work. With a bell-cow back, it requires a quarterback who is decisive and makes good throws. Northwestern has neither this year.
Northwestern grinds out yards, the key to stopping them is to get them behind early. 1st down blitzes were very effective by Nebraska and Minnesota. I would hope Lovie takes some of that to heart on Saturday.
Scouting Review - Defense
The defense is pretty solid again. The defense is on par with Michigan State, not as good as Minnesota and Iowa. Illinois is going to need to protect the ball this week, Northwestern can't score but will take advantage of opportunities to score on defense.
Here is the base 4-2 Nickel look they run.
This is how they defend the zone read. A pretty straight forward response, but the Wildcats put a lot of emphasis on the safeties being stout. Michigan State runs a very similar concept, and as he got comfortable Peters picked it apart. If Peters is not in, Illinois is going to need a legit power run threat at QB to freeze the ends in place.
On passing downs, Northwestern will move to a pure 3-3-5 Nickel coverage. On intermediate downs, they have begun mixing dropping the DE into coverage this season.
The Wildcats have two versions of this. Here is a 3 man rush with dropping DE. The other is a zone blitz. Illinois QBs need to read the defense and not project where the ball is supposed to go pre-snap.
One thing the defense does extremely well is dropping into zones and covering areas. QBs that are unable to pass into tight windows are going to struggle against this defense.
Peters has the arm to get the ball into these windows. I'm not sure Robinson does. Illinois will need to open this up with RPOs vs. pure passing.
Northwestern's front 4 is adequate, but not spectacular. The back seven are extremely good. The Wildcats D is almost impossible to beat over the top, they will make teams pick up short yardage hits and piece together drives to move down the field. Wisconsin really struggled to move the ball doing this. Depending on who Illinois is running at QB, they have different ways to attack the Wildcats.
What does it mean?
The Northwestern offense over the course of the year has been horrendous. Yet, they are starting to figure it out and moving the ball. The redshirt rule may keep a couple of contributors out. Northwestern will score some points but are prone to mistakes that are drive killers.
The Wildcat defense is really good but sees too many plays to stop everything. The overall scheme is very solid, but the depth is really not there to continue to execute. The Wildcats will try to slow down the game to keep the defense fresh. I suspect they will be very aggressive in early downs against Illinois to get them behind the sticks as well.
This game is going to require an offense to step up. The Northwestern defense is the best unit on the field and should be the unit that dictates the game more than any other. Rod Smith is going to have to avoid his worst tendencies and not get too cute. Consistency will be key.
For Illinois to Win:
Illinois needs to move the ball and avoid getting behind the sticks. The Illini offense has some deficiencies that are exploitable by Northwestern. Nebraska did a nice job of attacking the defense on the outside and running the QB enough to take advantage. Peters did a great job of this last week.
The Illini defense needs to get them in positive turnovers. Northwestern on offense can be sloppy. Illinois needs to create a positive turnover differential and keep the offense in front of them.
For Northwestern to Win:
The Wildcats need to move the ball early in drives. The Illini special teams will help them flip the field (on average, Illinois is 6 yards per punt better). If this turns into a punting contest, the Wildcats will eventually fall behind. The key, therefore, is to move the ball and string together some first downs.
Defensively, they need simply to eliminate the big play. Illinois is best when they are explosive, and if the Northwestern can keep everything in front they can stymie the Illini O.
This is a weather game. If Memorial Stadium gets windy, it is a huge Illini advantage since they are much more consistent in the run game. A wet and windy day should be an Illini cover. Yet, Northwestern has the ability to muck up games with the best of them. In an effort to continue to fade the Illini, give me Northwestern to cover the spread. In reality, a money line Northwestern bet is a pretty solid one this weekend.
YTD Against the Spread: