Craig Has The Scout - Northwestern 2021

Nov 25, 2021

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Coming Up

Who: Northwestern Wildcats

When: 2:30 pm - November 27th, 2021

Where: Home Sweet Home

How: BTN

Opponent Primer:

Head Coach: Patty Fitz. He's been at the helm since 2006 and is awfully quiet these days. It seems having good years only in even years means they don't float your name for job openings in the others. How odd.

Offensive Style: Spread with power running principles and West Coast passing principles. The Northwestern offense continues to struggle. The Wildcats are probably the most dependent program on a quality quarterback. Northwestern has worked its way through three different quarterbacks this season, and none would meet the definition of quality at this point. The Northwestern offense struggles more than the Illini this season.

Defensive Style: 4-3 primarily Cover 2 with some Cover 3. Jim O'Neill took over for Mike Hankwitz in the off-season. This is the worst Northwestern defense in recent memory and the worst defense in the conference. The primary issue...Northwestern lacks difference-makers on the defensive side of the ball. The front-seven in particular are pretty weak.

Specialists. The Wildcats kicking game is a mess this season. If this turns into a game similar to last week, Illinois has a decided advantage in special teams.

Three Things to Watch

  1. Brown vs. McCray carries. Northwestern has struggled this year stopping off-tackle rushing. If Illinois gets up early, they will begin pounding the interior. If Illinois is running up the carries with Brown, this game is tight.

  2. Illinois rushing yards. When Northwestern gives up 150+ yards, they are 1-7 on the season. Illinois should get to the magical number.

  3. Third down conversion rates. Northwestern is dead last in the B1G in opponent 3rd down conversion rate (43.4%) this season. Illinois will grind out the yards in this game, and the Wildcats might just let them.

Scouting Review - Offense

Mick McCall ran Northwestern's offense for most of the Fitzgerald tenure. The offense was inept, and they finally retired him after 2019. Mike Bajakian took over last year, and the offense immediately improved, but did so with the benefit of Peyton Ramsey as the QB. The improvement in offense revolved around Bajakian invigorating the passing attack of the Wildcats. With Ramsey graduating, the passing game has backslid again.

Northwestern has a pair of transfers on the roster they expected to fill the void of Ramsey. Clemson transfer Hunter Johnson started the season, and after Michigan State was largely ineffective. He was benched after the Duke game for Andrew Marty. South Carolina transfer Ryan Hilinski took over in game four. Marty was hurt, Johnson was awful and Hilinski took over. Marty was back for the Minnesota game, where Hilinski suffered an injury. He is the primary play-caller, and Bajakian's equivalent of a 2 am text after striking out with all the other QBs he flirted with that night. Hilinski will play on Saturday, but Marty should have a majority of the snaps.

Northwestern had a deep RB room last year, but they lost their top back when he transferred to Arizona, and another to injury. They hoped Bowling Green transfer Andrew Clair would be the primary back, but the duties have fallen to Evan Hull instead. Hull is a between-the-tackles grinder who has been playing physical this season. He is an adequate back, but booms and busts based on how the OL plays.

The offensive line was supposed to be a plus. They returned three starters. Peter Skoronski continues to shine as the LT, but the rest of the line is poor to middling. As a result, the Wildcat offense is either explosive or dormant. The Wildcats have hit 42 plays this year over 20 yards, and 11 greater than 40 yards. They are not afraid to take shots downfield in the passing attack. Any bust play though puts them behind the sticks, and the rushing attack lacks the consistency to pull them back out.

The basic run play is that of every spread offense. The Wildcats prefer running inside zone to outside zone in general. I feel like that is simply to give the running back a fighting chance at gaining yards. Here is the inside zone run.

The offensive line did something on this play. I'm not sure what it is, but it was something. Here is the outside version of zone.

Skoronski sealed the edge well. The center allowed the DL to flow down the line of scrimmage. That is the primary issue for the Wildcats all year.

Like most modern offenses, Bajakian has introduced the split zone to the repertoire. I think Illinois will see this version of the zone run most this weekend. Here is the split zone version.

In this instance the entire line made the block, allowing the H-back to kick out the read end and the Wildcats to generate a nice gain. The OL moved the line of scrimmage downfield 2-3 yards here. In contrast.

The H-back kicks out the end (#44), but the interior line was stalemated and the run was stuffed. The Northwestern offense gets themselves on the wrong side of the sticks doing this during drives.

Northwestern will use the read-option rushing attack to attack in the passing attack with play-action. Typically, play-action from Northwestern are deep shots. The Wildcats' entire passing attack is either quick hitters, screens, or deep shots. The read-option play-action attack is normally a go route and one or two posts are attached.

This play has the look of an RPO play from Minnesota. The play is pure play-action though and designed to freeze safeties and isolate the outside receiver on the corner. Northwestern ran versions of this against multiple teams, and it appeared to be used when the opponent put the corners in press coverage. The Wildcats are also known for trick plays against the Illini so I expect to see one of those as well. Here is my favorite trick play they ran.

The Z-motion told the QB they were in zone, but the press coverage of the corner told him they were in Cover 4. The Michigan corner should have the wheel route and hand off the post to the safety. Northwestern has some nice counters they will pull out to help slow opposing defenses, but they struggle to execute them.

The Wildcats do a nice job of utilizing the H-back in the run game. The TE position utilizes a lot of depth but is not particularly solid. Gordon (87) tends to be the H-back and is primarily a blocker in the Wildcats attack. If he is in the game, he is there for blocking purposes only. In this play, they utilize him as the lead blocker.

The TE on the end of the line is Charlie Mangieri. He is one of two TEs they will utilize in the passing attack along with Lang (88).

Northwestern will utilize man blocking schemes more often than zone blocking when they lean in on the run game. The Wildcats have really leaned on the pin-pull sweep play so far this year.

This version is based on the footwork of the outside zone play for the back. The back's footwork and movement will be keys for the Illini backers. They freeze them and allow the blocks to be set up correctly, they will also vary the back's footwork.

The footwork here is more in line with running a counter. The move froze the backside linebacker and allowed them to have a numbers advantage playside. That allowed the back to get 17 yards downfield prior to first contact. Northwestern will also mix in some motion with this run play (and adjust the back's footwork again).

The Illini have been beaten with this type of action to the weak-side ends. Northwestern will and should challenge Illinois with this early in the game to open up the run game.

Historically, Fitzgerald offenses always utilized the Buck Sweep. They haven't run it enough this year for this to be a historical Northwestern offense.

In the past few years, the Wildcats have had a back who could get to the edge and make a play. They lack the speed to the perimeter this year.

Northwestern will run standard counter against the front Illinois shows, they ran it against Wisconsin.

The Wildcats ran this out of double tight. The Badgers had 3 DL and walked up their two OLBs on the play. The downblocking allowed the OL to move the line of scrimmage and open a nice run lane. When the opponent gets penetration though, this play is bust.

Northwestern beat Rutgers handily this year. Rutgers is notorious for the DL shooting gaps and stymied the Wildcats to 2.8 yards per carry.

The most effective passing play Northwestern has been running is the HB screen. They have been running it almost exclusively lately on 3rd and long situations.

Northwestern's mediocre pass defense means opposing defenders set this up well for them. They have leaked out the back multiple times and converted those 3rd and longs.

They also have added the WR screen to the offense as well.

Again, the Wildcats run three types of passes. Deep shots, quick hits, and screens. The WR screen action here mimics a combo route Northwestern runs with an underneath route and the TE out. The OL release gives them an alley.

The short passing attack generally uses levels on the edges. I'm unsure if Bajakian doesn't trust his QBs to throw over the middle, or they are terrible at it. The Wildcats tend to hit the Curl-Flat zones most often in their passing attack.

The back runs a flare here, with the receiver running a hitch. The pattern allows them to attack the outer third of the field. They run a nifty little counter look on this utilizing the flare.

The play has the same action with the receiver and back. The receiver is running a pure pick here and springs the back. Illinois saw a lot of this against Nebraska, and it is a staple of a lot of passing attacks. Northwestern should utilize it to try and spring big plays. They did last week against a Purdue defense that has the same general look as Illinois.

The Wildcats will also run the standard pass plays for Cover 2 and Cover 3 beaters. They utilize the curl-flat levels, all hitches, and slants. Here are the hitch routes.

Bajakian has a full playbook available to him, but he lacks the line and receivers to fully utilize it. The pass protection simply doesn't allow it. Illinois will most likely bring edge blitzes to take advantage.

Nebraska had a series of nice plays to take advantage of the protection.

The other play Northwestern runs often is the mesh crossing routes, where they invariably hit the short crosser. Purdue knew this and started to sit on it.

The Boiler D was not being challenged deep, so the LBs sat on these routes. That is not to say the Wildcats won't go deep.

To be fair, the throw was still into double coverage though.

I don't really like Fitzgerald, but I have always respected how his teams play. This edition is the worst since I have been doing the Scouts. The offense is the standard struggle, and this version lacks a single bona fide playmaker. Justin Jackson was always good for 200 carries in a game, and Peyton Ramsey always made plays. The Wildcats this year just don't have that guy to lean on.

Scouting Review - Defense

Jim O'Neill has kind of gone fully Lovie Smith this season. The defense is fairly predictable and running out of a Cover-2 shell most of the time. Mike Hankwitz was the DC for a long time and consistently produced great defenses. The Wildcats lost their top players in the secondary, and when mixed with the scheme change, things have gone fully awry.

The primary issue is simply the run defense. Part of the issue is the very vanilla scheme they run. The other part is the talent available in the front seven. Northwestern's edge defenders struggle to hold the point of attack. The outside zone is a staple of teams gashing Northwestern, as is the counter run game.

The secondary is weak, having lost most of their talent after last season. They don't dial up much pressure preferring to sit in their coverages. They have gone full Lovie Smith with the play-calling. They don't allow many long passing plays as their safeties play very deep to keep everything in front. That is a huge advantage. The downside is the safeties are not doing much to support the run since they are so far off the ball, and teams haven't felt the need to take deep shots since the rushing defense is incredibly poor.

The base Wildcat defense is the same layout as the Iowa defense. A base 4-3, and the Will LB is their hybrid player. They will pull him and insert a nickel on occasion, but not often. They will occasionally bring in a nickel replacing the Will with a fifth DB coming on the field, but a lot of the time they're comfortable in their base. In the 4-3, Chris Bergin (28) plays in space and covers the slot. In the base, the run fits look like this.

Against the Illini heavy sets, they will most likely walk down Bergin to the LOS. The interior of the defensive front struggles against the direct inside zone, so expect the Illini to run this play right out of the gate. Nebraska made hay through pressuring the edges of the Northwestern defensive front.

The DE crashed and was pinned against Nebraska. This occurred again and again in the Nebraska game. Illinois doesn't have the QB to pressure the edges like Martinez, but Peters can do some damage running in this case.

One thing I find bizarre is that Northwestern continues to keep their safeties extremely high in base sets. They also will keep extremely soft corners in the set.

The safeties here are 10 and 12 yards off the ball. The 10-yard safety bailed out at the snap too. The result was a huge gain by the Wolverines by attacking between the tackles. The soft corners allow quick-hitting passes on the perimeter as well.

There are 5 and 6-yard cushions on the perimeter with regularity.

Northwestern rarely blitzes. When they do, it tends to be when they have opponents in 3rd and long situations. I would estimate that Northwestern rushes four 90% of the time. When they do bring pressure, they tend to bring Bergin off the edge.

On occasion when they bring him, they will drop the opposing DE to maintain the 4-man rush.

And finally, I once saw them bring both LBs.

I put the blitz in there just because it was notable when they did it. They are going to sit in base defense most of the day and try to keep everything in front of the safeties.

If Illinois can get the running game moving, this game could get ugly. Nebraska and Michigan both stayed committed to the run and opened up on Northwestern. The key for Illinois will be to protect the ball and attack the soft parts of the Wildcat defense. They should have plenty of experience on how to exploit it, they watched teams do it to Lovie for years.

What does it mean?

Pat Fitzgerald always seems to have his teams ready to go against the Illini. Fitzy will turn this game into a dogfight and find ways to expose Illini weaknesses. The question will be if he can mask enough of his team's weaknesses to pull out the win. Petersen will be ultra-conservative and play ball control against Northwestern. The Wildcats will have to take chances deep to put the points up needed to win.

Northwestern's biggest weaknesses are the focus of the Illini. The Wildcat defense allows 212.9 rushing yards per game. That number is 240.1 in conference games. Opponents have gashed the Wildcats all season. Northwestern has used deep passing to open up the offense, and the Illini are one of four B1G teams with more picks in conference than passing TDs allowed. Perhaps Robert's Kerby Joseph All-American campaign gets another feather notched this weekend.

For Illinois to Win:

First, don't turn the ball over. Northwestern, in their good years, wins games and the turnover margin. They maximize the opportunities presented, and somehow the wins materialize. The Illini need to play within themselves and run the freaking ball all day. The Wildcats seem to loathe to load the box (Minnesota is another meh passing attack), and will sit in their base D all game.

The Illini defense needs to take away the deep shots the Wildcats will be forced to take. The pass rush needs to get home, Marty is mobile enough to extend though. The Illini rush, therefore, needs to be containment sound, and force Marty to make the big throws.

For Northwestern to Win:

Stop the Illini rushing attack, profit. Northwestern has allowed a shocking 5.4 yards per carry on first downs this year. Illinois averages 4.9 yards per carry on first down. If Illinois can get drives moving, Northwestern is sunk. The Wildcats need to create some movement on the lines and surprise the Illini OL. I suspect Northwestern will be aided by a conservative Illinois game plan. Nursing a lead, Illinois averages 3.2 yards per carry.

The Northwestern offense has to generate some explosive plays. An ability to get some cheap scores on the Illini D will take the pressure off the offense and allow Patty Fitz to get into a comfortable game plan.

Illinois -6.5

I hate this line. I hate the way this game lays out. Illinois is a legit six to seven points better than Northwestern. With a normal home-field advantage, this should be a fairly easy Illinois cover. When it comes to Illinois playing Northwestern, nothing is easy. The Illini have a home game on Thanksgiving weekend. Which doesn't generate a ton of advantage. The 2:30 pm kickoff time means extra weather elements will be in play. I think Illinois wins this game, but I'm not comfortable that Illinois covers this. Give me the Wildcats and the points.

YTD Against the Spread:



BelieveInIllinois on November 25, 2021 @ 09:26 AM

Thank you for the doing this! I really enjoy these and I learn.

jfinsocal on November 25, 2021 @ 04:11 PM

Thanks for another season of insight analysis.

thumpasaurus on November 25, 2021 @ 10:24 PM

Everything on paper looks like Illinois should be able to control this game from start to finish. That just gives me more confidence that Northwestern rocks our faces off

Brave Illini on November 26, 2021 @ 10:21 AM

Unlike in 2019, I don't see us, with this coaching staff, having a letdown or playing poorly.

CraigG on November 26, 2021 @ 11:58 AM

On film, it would say that too. This is a legit bad team in Evanston, but we are Illinois and can't be trusted

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