Craig Has The Scout - Northwestern 2022
My last CHTS intro for the year. WAIT, that's not true. There will be another CHTS for the bowl game. Perhaps by then all of the other usernames will be fixed and Craig can post this as himself. Or perhaps by then mine will break as well and you'll all just be staring at the same article for months and months. Who knows!
Who: Northwestern Wildcats
When: 2:30 pm - November 26th, 2022
Where: Ryan Field, Evanston, IL
Head Coach: Patty Fitz. Even Year Northwestern is no longer a thing, and Fitz has seen his stock drop pretty considerably in the last couple of years. Things are starting to trend in the direction that Northwestern had two great coordinators, and Fitz is just a meathead with no network or football skills. Northwestern is still recruiting at a high clip but the results are not showing on the field. The transfer portal is starting to make things more difficult in Evanston as well as it is easy for players to leave, and much harder to get them into the school.
Offensive Style: Tempo spread with zone running scheme and West Coast passing principles. Mike Bajakian is really something. The offensive coordinator appears to be doing a speedrun to get a sweet buyout package. Northwestern scored 31 against Nebraska in Ireland, and haven't scored more than 24 the rest of the season. They have not scored double digits in the last three games. The offense hasn't been able to put up more than 300 yards in the last four games either, and Northwestern is doing all this at the 2nd fastest tempo in the B1G.
Defensive Style: Hybrid 4-3 primarily Cover 2 with some Cover 3. Jim O'Neil is in year two of calling the defense in Evanston and things have not improved. O'Neil comes out of the Rex Ryan tree, and the defensive front mixes one-gap and two-gap DL. The NT and the DE are two-gap players (more read and react which Illinois uses now), and the DT and Strong-side end are fast-attacking one-gap players. The result is one of the worst teams at disrupting opponents, and the Wildcats struggle to stop opponents..
Specialists: Jeff Genyk is the Special Teams coordinator and Ron Zookian in his management of the group. Genyk was the former Eastern Michigan Head Coach and appears to be on staff because Jim O'Neil was on his staff after being a grad assistant for Fitzee. This coaching tree barely branches.
2022 Northwestern at a Glance:
2022 Record: 1-10, 1-7
Rushing Offense: 122.5 ypg
Passing Offense: 214.3 ypg
Total Offense: 336.7 ypg
Scoring Offense: 14.7 ppg
Rushing Defense: 194.5 ypg
Pass Defense: 187.7 ypg
Total Defense: 382.3 ypg
Scoring Defense: 27.2 ppg
Turnover Margin: -13
Three Things to Watch
Converting scoring opportunities. Illinois did a great job last week of forcing Michigan to kick FGs. If Northwestern gets opportunities, Illinois needs to force FGs. The Illini need to continue to improve their ability to convert points.
Time of Possession. Bajakian is committed to playing with speed this season. Minnesota had over 40 minutes TOP against the Wildcats and lost it against Purdue as well. When teams dominate the TOP, they put up massive points against a Northwestern defense that wears out.
Explosive plays. Illinois has 62 plays this year where they have a rush of 10+ yards. Northwestern has half as many. Illinois and Northwestern have the same number of 20+ yard pass plays. If Illinois can break the explosive run plays they pull away quickly from Northwestern.
Scouting Review - Offense
Mike Bajakian was an interesting hire when Fitzgerald brought him in, but he has been trying some new things. Last season, his offense was putrid and not working. This season he has added more tempo to an offense that has been putrid and struggling. Northwestern is solidly 11th in offense in the conference but is as close to Iowa's offensive attack as they are to Illinois. The QB position hasn't helped this season, Northwestern will be utilizing their 3rd string QB on Saturday, and there are compelling reasons Freeman is 3rd string.
The run game continues to be held up by Evan Hull, with Cam Porter taking the remaining carries. The offensive line is too inconsistent to make the run game effective. Peter Skoronski should be a top-10 pick in the upcoming NFL draft, the rest of the line is below average for the B1G. Mix in the inability of the receiving corps to consistently gain separation and the offense is a struggle. Bajakian may be calling the best game ever, this may be an issue of the Jimmies and Joes.
Northwestern runs their quarterback as much as any team in the B1G, so that will present a challenge for Illinois. Their primary play though is an inside zone.
This version is a 2 TE Pistol set, but they will mix up the sets and motions to run the action.
The OL is adequate at holding the point of attack and getting to the second level. Hull as a runner takes what is given, so the Illini will need to be gap-sound to prevent him from breaking into the secondary. Man coverage means vertical seams become chunk plays. Northwestern has struggled to generate those this season, and the last game of the year is not the time to help them shake it off. The Wildcats will mix in a play-action look off this run set as well. In the last few games, the play-action attack led to deep shots down the field.
Freeman doesn't look to have the accuracy to make the Illini pay on this play and maybe throw it up running the DPI play.
The other zone run used by the Wildcats is the split zone with Wham block by the TE. The one thing Bajakian has done in his time at Northwestern is eliminating every announcer talking about the SuperBack, and for that, I am eternally grateful. They do use 2 TEs often though.
The TE motion is a pretty solid indicator that they are running Split Zone. Northwestern prefers to be in 4-wide sets with the TE in the slot, then using this motion. Or they will put the two TEs on one side. When the TEs are together, the motion is the Z receiver. Minnesota is running the same front as the Illini, and this is how the Wildcats chose to attack it. I expect a similar game plan on Saturday. To keep the defense honest though, they do run a play-action look off of this as well.
This features the Z-motion I mentioned above when the TEs are together. The play is designed for the H-back faking the Wham block, but Purdue had it covered nicely. Freeman made a nice read and a poor throw on the play.
Northwestern still runs the standard read-option they utilized from yesteryear, but ties it back to the gap-blocking scheme they used in the past.
The QB is a run threat in the Bajakian offense, so the Illini will need to account for him. Purdue used the speed option to great effect after spreading out Illinois, and Northwestern has similar sets they can use to achieve the same goal.
I was not super impressed by any Wildcat QB in the pocket, so I think Illinois is going to see a steady diet of short passes and screens. The one constant on this offense is the HB screen, which they run very well since the OL is poor in pass protection.
Hull was a step or two away from going to the house on this one. The intriguing part for me with the Northwestern screen game is that they use it with any back in the backfield.
Northwestern might be the best screening team in the B1G, and is absolutely the best in the B1G West. The screen is another liability for the Illini with the aggressive front.
Northwestern will also mix in the tunnel screen as part of their passing attack.
The tunnel screen comes out of the trips formation when they split out 4-receivers. The H-back is the nearest receiver in the slot for the look when they run it. They run the same counter Illinois does on the action.
The H-back releases here, and the X-receiver runs a deep route to open the level for the TE. Normally in the Scout I don't lead off with the screen game, but I think it will be prominently featured on Saturday. One of the primary reasons is because of plays like this.
Purdue was rushing four here and no receiver was able to get separation. The QBs from Northwestern have taken a beating over the course of the season and are quick to flush from the pocket. The Illini will most likely spy if they are running a stunt similar to this play.
The main pass play the Wildcats have been running lately is a crossing route underneath Hitches. Attached to the action is the X-receiver running a deep out similar to this.
They hit the deep shot here against Wisconsin. The Badgers were very aggressive against the Wildcats and Northwestern took more shots downfield against them. Illinois should see a similar attack, but with less precision downfield.
Bajakian is an OC that has a lot of high-level stops on his resume. And not a single stop that was sad to see him go. Bajakian's offense puts up an acceptable number of yards, but the play-calling is disjointed and drives falter too often. The resulting lack of points put the defense in a bind, and the defense needs all the help it can get. Illinois is very aggressive, which will hurt portions of the Wildcat attack, yet the aggressiveness will present some opportunities for Northwestern. Expect more screens than the Illini have seen all season mixed with a heavier amount of QB run game.
Scouting Review - Defense
Jim O'Neil as DC is a wild departure from Mike Hankwitz as DC. Under Hankwitz, the Wildcats were a stifling unit that always seemed to be in the right play. The discipline matched Iowa's and forced opponents to build long, efficient drives to score. The design meant Northwestern played in a bevy of low-scoring affairs, but the record in one-score games was in their favor. O'Neil is not nearly as stingy and routinely gives up 20+ points in contests. The turnover margin is abysmal, and a large part of that is the inability to create turnovers like the previous regime.
Northwestern has talent though. In fact, they have quite a few names on their roster that Illini fans wanted in Champaign. The Wildcat's ability to develop and deploy the talent has been lackluster the last two seasons under O'Neil, and I expect there will be changes in the off-season. O'Neil runs a mixed front scheme, with one-gap tackles on the strong side (similar to Lovie's 4-3), and two-gap tackles on the weak side (similar to Walter's 3-4). The idea is to stifle the point of attack on the strong side and funnel opposing running backs to the LBs. It should also create clean scrape angles for the LBs. It is not, and Northwestern has allowed 24 rushing TDs so far this season. The base run defense looks like this.
The Wildcat front has struggled with gap integrity which is one of the reasons opponents are running all over them this year. The B1G West is a poor place to struggle with gap integrity.
To help disrupt opposing offenses, Northwestern stunts the DL early and often. The stunting occurs on the one-gap side of the defense.
Here the 3-technique DT slants down into the A-gap. The LB didn't turn and fill the play-side B gap so all in all this was quite a failure. The Wildcats have had more success stunting the play-side E-T like here.
The LB is held to the interior by the scheme, but the CB on the stunt side is blitzing to force on the edge. Northwestern likes to blitz their corners.
Again this is mixed with the E-T stunt and a soft zone behind it. Illinois should see this with Brown running as much counter and outside zone. The other alternative is a hard scrape by both linebackers while they keep the corners in coverage.
The Wildcats stunted often against Minnesota as the Gophers ran wild. They were unable to contain the Minnesota run game and gave up over 40 minutes in TOP.
Northwestern will run man coverage behind their blitzes when they bring the LBs.
O'Neil struggles to generate consistent pressure with his front four which leads to more stunting and blitzing than he would prefer.
This Northwestern defense struggles to stop the run, and the rushing yards per game show the carnage. O'Neil does have the excuse that his defense is spending too much time on the field, but the approach to opponents has not changed nor have the results. The Wildcats are not creating enough havoc and are getting bullied on the field.
What does it mean?
This should be a pretty boring game. Illinois will establish the run and string together drives. Northwestern will dink and dunk, and will probably pull away from the tempo they have been playing. I think Northwestern will try to keep the clock moving. The Illini defense should be less aggressive than normal but the ability to generate pressure in the backfield should not be an issue.
For Illinois to Win:
Put some points on the board. Northwestern has really been struggling to score, the depth chart is a mess, and they are just looking for the season to end. Illinois should be looking to play a conservative game and not put the ball at risk. In other words, all the things Illini fans are angry at Lunney for lately should be the game plan. And he should double down. Northwestern struggles to stop the run, so the Illini should run, run, and run some more. If the Illini offense plays conservatively, has a consistent ground game, and doesn't have any unforced errors they should pull away.
Defensively the Illini need to play assignment sound. Northwestern will put out a few tricks trying to spring a big play. The Illini need to take away the quick-hitting throws and force the QB to make reads. The Wildcat offense hasn't done well with that all season.
For Northwestern to Win:
The coordinators need to channel their inner McCall and Hankwitz to bring back some of the Wildcat magic. Fitz has lost the fanbase, and the team seems to have joined the fans. Fitz needs to bring out his master motivation and get the offense consistently running the ball to unlock the offense.
The Northwestern offense struggles to score but should put up a few big plays on the Illini. If Northwestern can convert those into TDs they will give them a chance since Illinois struggles to convert red zone trips into TDs. Illinois will turn into a grind-it-out offense on the ground which should limit overall possessions.
Defensively, the Cats need to find a rush defense. The Northwestern D continues to get shredded on the ground, to stop Illinois means stopping Chase Brown. If Northwestern can ugly up the game and keep Illinois from piecing together long drives, they have a chance.
I'm on a terrible run here picking Illinois against the spread. I am of the opinion this game should look like last year, but the 17-9 Purdue game last week scares me. I'll take the Wildcats to cover.
Craig YTD Against the Spread: