Craig Has The Scout - Northwestern 2020
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Who: Northwestern Wildcats
When: Illini time - 11:00am December 12th, 2020
Where: Ryan Field
Head Coach: Patty Fitzgerald. The 2nd most tenured football coach in the B1G. He continues to push his name out there for pro jobs through his agent and continues to boom and bust seasons at Northwestern. Fitzy is a fun mix of Ferentz and Fleck, all the super-conservative tendencies of Ferentz, and the meathead persona of Fleck (side note, it is odd that four of the seven coaches in the B1G West have last names starting with F). The Wildcats are always one player away from a great season or a terrible season. He does a nice job of building depth at positions but runs schemes that require excellence in certain positions to succeed.
Offensive Style: Spread with power running principles and West Coast passing principles. A coordinator hire is a very high-risk move. The wrong hire can ruin you (see Beckman, Tim). A good hire can save you. The best hires though are those with long-term potential that meshes with short-term talent. Mike Bajakian was hired by Pat Fitzgerald in the offseason to take over the offense for Northwestern. Bajakian is most famous as the OC for Butch Jones from Central Michigan to Tennessee and runs an offensive system similar to Mick McCall. Bajakian got lucky with Peyton Ramsey in the transfer portal but has done a nice job utilizing what the hand he was dealt this season.
Defensive Style: 4-2-5 primarily Cover 2 with some Cover 3. Mike Hankwitz is still running the D at 72 and has also been running things since 2008. Hankwitz is potentially the least dogmatic DC on his secondary coverage of any DC in the B1G. He mixes coverages up and leans to the Cover 3 or single high against run teams. Expect more of this against Illinois this weekend. Hankwitz blitzes more often than Iowa, but less often than most B1G teams. Statistically, 3 of the top 10 teams in defense are in the B1G West, and Northwestern is one of those teams.
Specialists: With Illinois conceding any attempts at punt returns, the Wildcats will turn Derek Adams loose on the punt game. He averages 41 ypp, and against teams attempting returns is worth 3 yards per punt advantage against the competition.
Three Things to Watch
Game pace. Fun fact, in the same number of games, Northwestern has run more plays than Illinois. Double fun fact, Northwestern opponents have run more plays than Illinois's opponents. Northwestern will adjust tempo, but when they find an advantage will speed up the game to take advantage. When they are struggling or ahead big, they slow the pace considerably. Illinois needs to keep this game at a higher tempo.
Turnover Luck. Northwestern has forced 16 turnovers this season but are below the standard expected turnovers on the season. Illinois has forced 13 turnovers and has statistically been turnover lucky. If Illinois has a game reverting to the mean the game is over.
Explosive plays. Illinois is 2nd in the B1G in explosive plays generated. Northwestern is 4th in explosive plays allowed. Normal excitement would be that 2nd is better than 4th, but with the strength of defenses in the B1G this year it is a big mismatch in favor of Northwestern. The Wildcats defense is a better version of Iowa's in forcing teams to generate long drives. The bigger concern for me is the number of explosive plays Illinois allows, they are dead last in the conference and give up too many explosive plays in the passing game.
Scouting Review - Offense
Mike Bajakian has always had some high scoring offenses. His time with Butch Jones generated some high-scoring teams as well as a very efficient offensive gameplan. Therefore, it was tough to move by Northwestern to move on from Mick McCall, but Bajakian was a good stylistic fit for the Wildcats. Bajakian helped Boston College rack up 31 ppg last season, and BC and Northwestern have similar talent profiles. Bajakian used an up-tempo pace, spread the field,
In Boston College last season, Bajakian relied on AJ Dillon's legs to grind out yardage. Running a back into the ground is on-brand for Northwestern (poor Justin Jackson). Bajakian did not inherit a bellcow back at Northwestern and has split the workload between Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser. The offense showed a major return to its previous form based on the 3rd most returning offensive production in Power 5.
Bajakian also hit the jackpot with the transfer portal in the offseason. After the bust the Cats picked up in the portal last season, they nailed it this time. 2019 struggled with a rotating cast of quarterbacks, but 2020 has seen Peyton Ramsey lock down the position. Ramsey has a big arm, accuracy, and held the Indiana school record for completion percentage as the starter in 2018. Although Ramsey lacks top-flight talent at receiver he has effectively spread the ball around and maximizes his chances.
The Northwestern offense is the 107th best in the country according to SP+. The offense is predicated on ball control and playing within itself. They rely on the 3rd best defense (SP+ again) to strangle opponents and win games closer than they should. The main facet of the offense is the power running game. Unlike most teams, Northwestern employs a power blocking scheme along with the outside zone-read option. Here is the look.
In this instance, Ramsey gives but Anderson allows Sparty to string him out and catch him on the perimeter. If they want to pressure the edges, they will utilize Z motion across the formation to add an added layer of freezing the LBs. Here is that look.
The motion froze the will and allowed the blocking to get to the second level giving a run lane. Bowser did a nice job of hitting the hole on the play. The lack of experience in the Illini LB corps should result in a higher level of motion to slow the downhill attack.
The Wildcats will also utilize the counter in the power running game. Northwestern uses the backside guard and the H-back in the counter pull game.
Anderson does a nice job of being patient and allowing his blockers to create a lane. Once it appears, he attacks it pretty quickly. The Illini LB corps will have to attack this, and the corners will need to contain. The Northwestern blocking scheme attacks the play-side safety, which should negate the Illini safeties flowing quickly in run support.
The other way to slow the secondary in run support is the play-action version of the counter. The bubble sets up on the backside, and if the backside safety is cheating in run support this has the potential to break a big play.
In this case, the Spartans were in Cover 3 and blitzed the Nickel. The Illini standard on this would swap the Nickel and Safety in their work, but the result would be similar.
When they are not using the power run blocking, the Wildcats utilize a great deal of inside zone-read option. Ramsey is a dangerous enough runner and will pull it often to keep teams honest. Here is the give by Ramsey.
Bowser takes the yards given to him and keeps it safe. The Wildcats will run quite a bit of pro set with the back (two running backs at the level of the QB). In order to create confusion, the Wildcats will motion a WR into the backfield. Here, McGowan (#8) motions into the backfield and is the read.
McGowan is normally a slot receiver but has a strong run in this instance. Northwestern will mix in this look to provide more looks for Illinois, but this formation allows Illinois to stack the box more efficiently.
The Wildcats also appear to be employing the duo play as well. The Duo play is basically the inside zone blocking scheme where the DE is not unblocked. I saw this play most against Iowa, but also against Michigan State. Both of those teams run essentially the same front as Illinois, so this should have some application this week.
The Wildcats are challenging the interior defenders with this run and had real success with it against the 4-3 teams. The back is trailing the two sets of double teams and patiently waiting for the hole to emerge. Here is the look again.
Again, the Wildcats are running to the 1-technique tackle and the back allows the hole to open and hits it. The Northwestern OL is as talented as Iowa's, but they are putting the offense in a position to succeed with the run game.
Northwestern runs a nice play-action off of this as well to catch cheating safeties. Here is the play against Maryland.
The Wildcat play design has 4 vertical routes (with options on them). The Maryland secondary stayed home, and the Cats dropped it to the RB. The vertical routes though cleared out the underneath zones allowing for a nice gain for Northwestern.
The final run look is the toss sweep. Against 4-3 defenses, the Wildcats are pulling the two uncovered OL, the C, and the T.
Another power run concept, the Wildcats use this to attack the perimeter. I don't believe they are trying to break a big play here, it is more about showing more looks to soften the middle of the opposing defenses.
As mentioned above, Ramsey is fairly mobile, and Northwestern attempts to take advantage of using him in boot situations. They run the typical flood concept off the boot here.
Maryland's secondary has this locked up, but the legs of Ramsey keeps this play alive. Ramsey has good legs, and any miss in pursuit from the LB corps will allow him to run it. Here is the same look with the routes open.
Ramsey again moves aggressively to the perimeter. The Spartans took away the underneath option at the line, but the corner was unable to hold tight coverage on the second level pass and Ramsey delivers a nice ball.
Northwestern runs a few different passing concepts, but the set I noticed the most was split concepts. The concepts are typically out of a 2x2 formation and have the inside and outside receivers cross to open up zones or run picks to open up passing lanes. Here is the divide concept.
The slot receiver catches man coverage and beats the DB with the corner route. The route opened up the receiver, but the receiver ran to the wrong pylon in the end zone. If he hits the back corner this is a TD. Another switch concept they like to run is the double post route. This is especially effective against Cover 2 safeties like Illinois prefers.
The post routes are both open here. Ramsey prefers to throw over the middle though and he hits the inner route over the head of the MLB. The LB is frozen by the RB coming out of the backfield which leaves the seam in the zone Ramsey exploited.
The Butch Jones passing attack utilizes a lot of timing and precision routes from the West Coast offense. The Tampa 2 was built to stop this attack, but the Wildcats have been able to translate some of those concepts to the attack and beat the Cover 2 defenses they have seen. Here is the in/out option routes.
They have a version of this that is all curls (that they used to great effect against Illinois in 2009). The routes are all similar and take advantage of the leverage of the defender, and are quick-hitting routes to take advantage of seams in defenses.
The Northwestern offense is one of the worst in the B1G. They lack high-end talent, but Peyton Ramsey is a difference-maker and does just enough on offense to generate points. Bajakian is not going to press on offense and will systematically play his game to win the game. Michigan State was able to get an early lead and forced Northwestern to press. If Northwestern can stay within a score, the Cats will run enough tempo to keep the defense generic and create opportunities to break plays.
Scouting Review - Defense
The defense has continued to improve in the last few years. The booms and busts of Northwestern fall squarely on the offense. Statistically, the Northwestern defense is easily a top ten unit in 2020. The real improvement has shown up in the pass defense allowing Northwestern to stay in strong run fits and providing pressure with tight back end coverage.
The secondary has a top-flight cover corner in Greg Newsome and a pair of high-end safeties. Brandon Joseph is a top-end coverage safety which allows Northwestern to remain in single high coverages without losing too much in pass coverage.
The most overrated part of the Northwestern defense is middle linebacker, Paddy Fisher. Chris Bergin and Blake Gallagher are more talented, but the defense funnels plays to Fisher. Fisher is a very reliable tackler though and a very dependable MLB.
The biggest gap for Northwestern is the defensive line. The DL plays well in their gap fits but lack a pass rusher similar to Joe Gaziano, the Northwestern all-time career sacks holder who graduated. The defense overall relies on the great secondary play for pass coverage and solid DL and LB play to stop opposing rushing attacks.
The Wildcats might be the best zone defense team in the B1G. The defense is disciplined and does not make many mistakes. The base look is a Cover 2 shell, although they have run a lot of single-high safety this year. Here is the main Cover 2 look with man coverage underneath.
As mentioned above, the Cats are great in zone defense but lack elite athleticism to stay tight in man coverage. Illinois has the weapons necessary to exploit man coverage, but that fact will probably keep Northwestern in a zone shell most of the game.
The shell they have been using the most is a deep Cover 1 shell with Joseph playing deep center. The Wildcats have been using the other safety Pace (#5) in a robber coverage where he is disrupting middle zones. Here is the shell look against the run.
At the snap, Pace is coming up and Joseph is bailing to deep coverage. Nebraska ran the ball successfully against Northwestern (as seen in this clip) by winning the individual matchups.
The Nebraska run offense was moving the ball well against Northwestern which led to the Wildcats to walk down the safety more often. While Joseph normally plays centerfield, Hankwitz is not one to become too predictable. Here is the safety walking down, but it is Joseph coming downhill this time.
Pace is the better run support safety, but Joseph is the better tackler and effective walking down.
When the Wildcats force opposition into passing downs, they have been running a 3 man rush and dropping a DE into coverage. The 8 man coverage is very effective and burned them against Michigan State when Lombardi ran for big yards ala Juice Williams in 2007 against Ohio State. Here is the look.
Brown (#99) is the defender who drops most often. Brown is one of the ten highest-rated recruits in the history of Northwestern. He has all-conference athleticism but has yet to put it all together. The Wildcats do take advantage of his abilities though to cover the flats.
The read-option is a main component of the rush offenses of most teams in the B1G. Northwestern has shown two different methods of defending the read-option. The DEs will either play exceeding tight to the line of scrimmage (which is the standard method of defending read-option) or they will play a loose DE (forcing the inside run). The loose DE arrangement plays into the strength of Northwestern which is a LB corps that plays strong against the run and a set of DTs who are better at run defense than pass rushing.
Here is the standard tight defense.
Brown has the athleticism to pull down the QB on the keep here.
And here is the loose defensive end set.
The DE arrangement here forces the give to the middle, and the LB and DE essentially are swapping responsibilities. They are not forcing the LBs to scrape but instead allowing them to clog the run gaps.
The Cats will bring blitzes on occasion to attempt to mix up the defense and the looks for opposing offenses. The main blitz looks will involve a LB coming hard downhill. Here is the look with the blitzing LB.
The LB is bringing edge pressure but is blitzing the B gap here. If they are really bringing the heat, they add a safety to the blitz package and have the LB-S blitz cover the A gaps.
The Tackles both flex out to clear the A gaps, and Brown is dropping into coverage in the look.
When they are looking to generate pressure with the front four, they will stunt the DL. The most common move is a double E-T stunt where the tackle on the near side is looped by the end, and the opposite is true on the high end.
The Northwestern defense is not flashy, but they are extremely effective. Hankwitz has a very disciplined unit, and he calls a good game as a DC. The key for Northwestern is to take away explosive plays from their opponents, and they are exemplary at it. Illinois is one of most explosive offenses in the B1G, but they will struggle to break plays against the tight Wildcats defense.
What does it mean?
Northwestern has started to generate a real, sustainable identity for the program outside of Fitzy. They are smart with the football, play a simple sustainable style, remain penalty-free, and win the field position battle.
The last three seasons show the boom and bust of the Northwestern approach though. The 2018 team was not as good as the record showed, and the 2019 team was not as bad. The 2020 team is replicating the 2018 team. The Wildcats remain consistently in the middle of the B1G statistically and keep themselves in the hunt every game.
The Illini defense will be able to minimize the scoring opportunities for the Wildcat offense. The Illini defense though will need to generate turnovers to create an early lead to prevent Northwestern grinding out the game. The Illini offense will struggle to generate enough offense to overcome the methodical Northwestern defense.
For Illinois to Win:
Illinois has to get up similar to last week against the Hawkeyes. The Illini were unable to sustain against Iowa, but the lead put Iowa on its heels. The Wildcats offense is quite a bit worse than Iowa's, but the defense is better. Northwestern got behind early against Iowa and eeked out a win. They fell behind early against Michigan State and lost. The two teams both strangled the Wildcat offense with a 4-3 defense playing a base defense.
Illinois might actually need to up the pace. Both they and Northwestern are good with a plodding game, but that plays into the hands of the Wildcats. Illinois needs to get Northwestern out of their comfort zone and then force them to press.
For Northwestern to Win:
The Wildcats defense needs to show up. The Northwestern pass defense is first-rate and has 12 interceptions on the season. The Wildcats are almost impossible to beat deep and mug receivers in the short and intermediate passing game. Peters has been taking care of the ball in the passing game but will be forced to take more risks in order to move the ball against Northwestern.
The Wildcat offense is not going to do much on Saturday, but they will move the ball. Bajakian will take advantage of the soft Illini D and run tempo to keep them simple. If the Wildcats can get out front they can grind out yards on offense and let the defense put the game away.
I said in the Iowa preview the Wildcats and Hawkeyes defenses are the worst matchups for the Illini all season. Illinois put up 21 on Iowa but picked up 7 late. The Illini offense started strong and then lost its rhythm. I see Illinois with a similar output Saturday minus the late points. Northwestern will take the Iowa game plan and replicate it Saturday. Statistically, this is a 9 or 10 point game, but I don't think the Illini offense can generate enough big plays against the Wildcat D and Northwestern will cover.
YTD Against the Spread: