Fee Fi Foe Film: Northwestern

Submitted by Ace on October 5th, 2011 at 12:53 PM

Bear with me this week as I test out some format tweaks to FFFF—please let me know what you think of the new format/features in the post, as I got some good feedback last week about needing more structure for these. This week, I'm breaking down film from the Northwestern/Illinois game from last weekend, which ended in a 38-35 comeback victory for the Illini. The show? It's on...


First, the newest feature, in which I give a very brief overview of the general structure of a team on each side of the ball. For the offense, there are a few basic questions:

Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Spread.

Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Also known as zone or gap blocking—in Northwestern's case, they run almost exclusively zone.

Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]):  Dan Persa, without speculating on injury status, is about a six. Kain Colter, his backup and part-time slot receiver, is a seven.

OVERVIEW: Northwestern utilizes a run-heavy spread offense with a strong emphasis on zone read and inside zone plays. Their passing attack is mostly limited to short, quick passes to Jeremy Ebert or running back screens, in large part due to the fact that their offensive line is terrible in pass protection. While Persa, at least before he left the game after feeling discomfort in his injured ankle/foot, looked relatively mobile, he wasn't able to establish himself as a real threat on the ground.

When they scored points, it was on long, drawn-out possessions or after getting the ball with a short field—it doesn't appear that the Wildcats have much quick-strike ability. The running game, especially without injured tailback Mike Trumphy, is pretty ineffective—even after sacks are removed, NW averaged just 3.2 yards per carry on 47 attempts against Illinois. This team needs to be able to chew up yards on the ground to be a big threat, but with a less-than-100% Persa and no deep passing game, their efforts to power their way down the field were mostly fruitless, with the team averaging just 4.9 yards per play.

PLAY BREAKDOWN: This first clip was one of Northwestern's best runs of the day, a simple inside zone in which their left guard and center combine to get a great block to seal off the middle and open up a gaping hole:

This is Northwestern at their most effective, as their zone read game is still hampered by the injury to Persa—who gained just 14 yards on five carries with sacks removed—and Colter doesn't provide enough of a passing threat to keep defenses from keying on the run. The Wildcats were most successful running the ball on the inside zone, despite the fact that their offensive line wasn't opening up many holes—instead, they did a solid job of holding their ground and not letting defenders through, giving the running back time to find a crease inside or bounce the play outside if the defense didn't keep contain. The key for Michigan will be to get penetration in the middle—Mike Martin, I'm looking at you—while maintaining leverage on the outside.

Hit the jump for the rest, including offensive formations, defense and a brief note on the special teams.

Northwestern also runs a fair amount from the pistol, and although they weren't greatly effective doing that, either, they were able to burn Illinois with play-action based on the fact that they were so run-heavy. This play was a staple of Michigan's offense under RichRod, only with a zone-read fake instead of an inside zone fake, and also showed up in last week's breakdown of Minnesota. Yes, it's the "leak the H-back across the formation into the wide-open flat" play:

I said this last week, before it turned out Minnesota was a glorified high school team, but Michigan's outside linebackers will be tested—they've got to make sure they don't get lulled to sleep by Northwestern's three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-ponies running game and make sure they're aware of the play-action, or the Wolverines could get burned a couple times for big gains. This looks like the only way Northwestern is able to generate big plays.


  • Persa may not be fully healthy, and we'll see if his latest tweak hampers him further, but he still looked quite mobile in the pocket. Nearly every passing play resulted in a heavy rush from Illinois, and Persa did a pretty incredible job just to keep the Illini to four sacks—he keeps plays alive with his feet and has the ability to re-set quickly and find an open receiver when the play breaks down. Craig Roh and Jake Ryan must make sure to keep Persa in the pocket, because while he may not be as fast as he was last year, he can still buy time for his receivers and his passing looks unaffected by the injury.
  • If Persa goes down, Kain Colter appears to be a major downgrade. He's faster than Persa, making him a threat to run, but this should tell you everything you need to know about how much Northwestern trusts Colter to throw: on a third-and-eight in the fourth quarter, down three points, with the ball on the Illini 39, the Wildcats chose to run inside zone, and it was completely stuffed by Illinois. Colter wasn't able to get off a fourth-down pass thanks to heavy pressure on the next play, and the Illini took over.
  • Jeremy Ebert is really the only threat in the passing game worth talking about. He's a very solid wideout, but he does most of his work underneath the coverage and doesn't look to be a big-play threat unless it's on a catch-and-run. He did get two nice touchdowns on nearly-identical corner routes near the goal-line, so Michigan has to be aware of him when the Wildcats get into the red zone.

  • Just to reiterate, the offensive line is putrid in pass protection. The defensive line should be able to generate a lot of pressure without any help from the blitz, though if Mattison dials one up it should hit home.


Again, a few basic questions about the defense before I delve into the details:

Base Set? 4-3, often undershifted, and they tend to stay in their base set even against three receivers—depth is an issue in the Northwestern secondary.

Man or zone coverage? Almost exclusively man from what I could gather, and as you'll see, the Illini made them pay for it.

Pressure: GERG or Greg? In other words, rush three or bring a bunch of blitzes? Northwestern, with former linebacker Pat Fitzgerald at head coach, brings a decent amount of blitzes, especially since their D-line has a tough time generating pressure on its own.

OVERVIEW: The Wildcats actually did a solid job defending the Illini triple-option attack, and they were very aggressive in flowing to the ball and forcing Scheelhaase to make a decision while taking a hit. While the Illini weren't able to do much on the ground (3.1 yards per carry after sacks removed), they exploited this aggression, coupled with man coverage, by torching the Wildcat secondary on many play-action passes. When Illinois simply dropped back to pass, Northwestern had a difficult time getting pressure on Scheelhaase, and that certainly shouldn't change when facing Denard Robinson at quarterback.

PLAY BREAKDOWN: The play-action was open pretty much all day, and Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins was the main beneficiary, catching 12 passes for a school-record 268 yards and three touchdowns. Northwestern's linebackers often got sucked up on run fakes, and poor safety play behind them didn't help matters. Here's a huge gain for Jenkins in which nobody is within 15 yards of him at the point of the catch:

I counted at least three other identical corner routes off of play-action—both from under center and the shotgun—that worked to similar effect. One jab-step from Denard Robinson should really open things up in the passing game. Another major issue for Northwestern was their ability to man-cover, which is not good when the majority of your defense relies on man coverage. There were two major areas of the field that Illinois exploited for solid yardage repeatedly—the deep middle, thanks to shaky safety play, and the short middle/flat with a lot of crossing routes.

As for the running game, while Northwestern mostly had success defending the run, they showed some susceptibility against the zone read. On this play, the defensive end crashes down hard on the running back, but the outside linebacker allows himself to get sealed off (and eventually blocked so well that Scheelhaase actually find room outside of him), while the middle linebacker is far too passive and gets wiped out of the play by the right tackle. Scheelhaase takes this outside but could also have taken a route more directly upfield, and I think with Shoelace this is a much bigger gain:

This play aside, however, Northwestern did a very nice job shutting down a good Illini rushing attack. I'm not sure the Wolverine running backs will have a banner day against this defense, but I think Denard's speed will open things up for both the passing and running games. Hopefully Michigan won't have to rely on him too much, but with the way Northwestern aggressively pursues the running back it could be another 20+ carry day for Shoelace. Fortunately, he should hit at least 150 yards on the ground if he's going to get that many opportunites.


  • It's tough to over-emphasize just how much the middle of the field was open. I'm pretty sure I said this last week as well, but this looks like a good game for Junior Hemingway to make a couple big catches on post routes. Illinois was able to take advantage of Northwestern's inexperienced safeties by flooding one side of the field (often running a streak on the outside and either a deep corner or post route from the slot) and making the deep safety pick his poison.
  • The corners were not strong in man coverage, as Jenkins was able to use his speed to simply burn his man on more than a few plays. I'm not sure Michigan has a receiver on their roster who can replicate Jenkins's speed and ability—this would be a great game to have Darryl Stonum on the roster—but I'd expect Borges to take a couple deep shots and test the Wildcats on the outside.


  • Northwestern's punter is not so good. He had punts of 35, 11, 27, 37, 29, and 65(?!?) yards, consistently giving Illinois fantastic field position. Most of his kicks were of the low, unfieldable line-drive variety, and he seems to be hoping for a great bounce just to have his punts go an adequate distance. If the Wolverines can stop Northwestern deep in their own territory, they should be able to work with a very short field.



October 5th, 2011 at 1:07 PM ^

I think the best part about this writeup is the fact that I'm 110% sure the coaches are seeing the same things and will be exploiting them to the fullest. That's something I haven't been able to say for a long time.


October 5th, 2011 at 1:15 PM ^

is ungrammatical and makes people who use it sound stupid.

As for the running game, which Northwestern mostly had success defending the run, they showed some susceptibility against the zone read.

please take note.


October 5th, 2011 at 1:41 PM ^

That sentence is definitely not the best way of making the point, but I wouldn't say it makes him sound stupid. I more or less just zoomed on by it with just a minor hitch in my giddy-up, disregarding it as an inelegant line from someone who has to prepare a fair amount of copy in a short period of time. I'd probably do it like this:

"As for the running game: Northwestern mostly had success defending the run, but they showed some susceptibility against the zone read." For colon haters, you could just make the "running game" bit a section caption or something. Another alternate that I like less would be to leave it as it is and just delete "the run."


October 5th, 2011 at 1:51 PM ^

it's much, much less offensive as a typo. my apologies.

just for the record, i read it as an example of something awful people do when speaking english lately, where they use "which" as if it means something like "I will now pause this sentence to say another sentence, and then resume where I left off as if nothing had happened." so i read

As for the running game, which Northwestern mostly had success defending the run, they showed some susceptibility against the zone read.


As for the running game, Northwestern showed some susceptibility against the zone read. Oh, and I should say that they mostly had success defending the run.

obviously that is a terrible phenomenon afflicting our language. but yeah, 'while' works much better--sorry for the implied insult.


October 5th, 2011 at 1:57 PM ^

It's all good—appreciate you pointing it out, and I'm pretty sure I've proven I'm not an idiot (I hope). I do have the occasional grammatical DERP, so it always helps to have a commentariat that's more than willing to point out those mistakes. I'm always looking to improve as a writer, and every constructive tip is, well, constructive.


October 5th, 2011 at 2:16 PM ^

Terrible phenomenon? I think that use of 'which' is just an anachronism, and is functionally still fine. Any history major should recognize this use from Napoleonic era letters in our coursepacks. Foner loved it. AUUUGHH Foner.

Relatedly, I have noticed (in my own writing and in that of friends and relatives) that the use of "which" as an intrasentence boundary mark seems to rise dramatically while the subject is reading the Patrick O'Brien (Master & Commander) novels, which this my darling Sophie I consider quite the observation ha hah!

One Armed Bandit

October 5th, 2011 at 1:18 PM ^

If Denard can improve on putting more touch on deep balls, Hemingway and Roundtree's lack of speed won't matter against these corners. There were a few times Jenkins just ran by his man. Junior should be able to high point any ball thrown his way. However, NW will have so much trouble with the ground game, throws will be used just to keep the defense honest. Remember, this team gave up almost 400 yards rushing to Army ( a pure running team).  


October 5th, 2011 at 1:32 PM ^

Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre]...

Quick name the last Michigan QB to beat tOSU.  I'd think we could do this section without mocking former players for their statutesque immobility.  


October 5th, 2011 at 1:43 PM ^

I'm not mocking Navarre at all — I'm pretty sure he'd be one of the first to tell you he wasn't exactly fast. Just using him as a point of reference. I actually think Navarre is quite underrated in terms of what he was able to do in his last couple seasons at Michigan after being thrown into the fire too early post Henson's departure.


October 5th, 2011 at 2:34 PM ^

Maybe it's just me, but I simply read it as how mobile the quarterback is, from really immoble (hence, JN) to really freaking mobile (hence, DR).  No mocking, no ill intent.

Perhaps a pro version?

1 [Rivers?] to 10 [Vick]


October 5th, 2011 at 1:36 PM ^

Good stuff Ace. Well, for an absolute alliteration addict, that is

One thing I am looking at is the fact that a year ago, NW was the best in the nation at generating drives of 10 plays or more. While MICH was one of the worst. So far, those numbers are replicating themselves this year as NW without Persa hasnt been good at sustaining drives, and the MICH D is, well, what can I say, its much improved. So Far.

I think Ebert is a bit better than you give him credit for, we're going to struggle with him IF Persa is playing. I also think they are sneaky with getting the Dunsmore kid involved, but again we havent seen much of that this year when Coulter is playing.

I do like NW's defensive ends. I think they will be good tests for Lewan and Hugye. Lewan vs Browne, we should see a lot of this matchup, is classic. Browne was second team all Big 10 a year ago, is playing great this season and of course, we all love Lewan and expect him to be an all Big 10 tackle at some point during his career. If the Cats line Browne up on the same side they've been lining him up on all year, these two will be knocking heads all day. Cant wait to see how Lewan does

Lastly: The Underdog is 40-17 ATS in Northwestern games since Fitz's first season as coach. This team just has a knack for keeping games close, outperforming expectations as a dog, while underperforming as chalk.......combined with Michigan's 10-22 ATS in their first road game, 3-18 ATS when chalk in that spot......looking ahead to MSU. This has trap written all over it, especially if Persa plays


October 5th, 2011 at 1:44 PM ^

I guess I am gonna keep throwing comments up here

ACE.....since you just watched the game. What did you think of NW's gameplan. They ran on 15 of their first 17 plays, all with their tailbacks. No Persa completions until the second quarter

Tons of hand wringing in Wildcat Land about the gameplan. Peeps actually want to fire all their coaches as a result, which, LOL.......I wonder, though, if Persa does play if they're going to open things up a lot more against us, esp in the early going than they did vs Illinois.


October 5th, 2011 at 1:53 PM ^

First, I'd just say that the Mowins/Mike Bellotti combo on the call was surprisingly good. Bellotti did a great job of breaking down replays, and Mowins is obviously a HUGE upgrade over Pam Ward. She's pretty solid.

As for NW's gameplan, I was surprised by how much they relied on their interior running game. It was pretty clear early on that Persa wasn't going to take off running too often (a few of his credited runs were just desperate scrambles to avoid a sack that managed to get past the LOS), and Illinois just keyed in on the running backs. That said, I'm not sure they had much of a choice unless they wanted to repace Persa—that offensive line gave up heavy pressure on almost literally every pass play, while they could at least move the ball forward with the run. It wasn't great, but I think their OC was pretty handcuffed by the limitations of their personnel.

Persa went almost the entire game, and they stayed quite conservative, so I don't expect NW to really open up the playbook against us unless he's made remarkable strides in his recovery (incredibly doubtful, considering he got knocked out of the game). Michigan can get pretty aggressive knowing they're either gonna face the run or be able to get a lot of pressure when Persa drops back to pass—I think Mattison is looking forward to this one.


October 5th, 2011 at 1:50 PM ^

Anybody reading this is probably not the kind of person that needs background info on what Northwestern runs on offense or who their QB is.  It's be the same thing for MSU, Nebraska, OSU, etc. You can get that stuff else(any)where, at least in regard to offense.

In general, I would tighten up the format, make things a little more succinct and less repetitive.  For example, you could have shortened the intro to begin with the 2nd paragraph of the overview.  You get the idea about Persa being hurt from the rest of the content.  The overview and intro stuff could be lumped in with the other bullets and placed before the video examples which could just highlight the points made.  e.g., for the Northwestern defense defense

  • 4-3 base, often undershifted
  • maintained base set, even against three receivers sets, due to limited depth in the secondary
  • solid job aggressively defending the Illini triple-option attack, limiting Illinois to 3.1 yards per carry (after sacks removed)
  • decent amount of blitzing necessary due to lack of D-line pressure
  • exclusively man coverage
  • torched by play-action passes vs Illinois.
  • didn't get pressure, even when Illinois simply dropped back to pass
  • corners were not strong in man coverage, as Jenkins was able to use his speed to simply burn his man
  • Illinois was able to take advantage of inexperienced safeties by flooding one side of the field (often running a streak on the outside and either a deep corner or post route from the slot) and making the deep safety pick his poison.
  • middle of the field was open all game

Finally, maybe save the predictions and conjecture for the Michigan game for the end ("What it means for Michigan").

Just my 2 cents.  Others may feel differently...  I really like the feature and film included, I just think it needs to be shortened a bit to be more like the picture pages features, where it gives a brief example of a larger point to consider.  Thanks.


October 5th, 2011 at 2:00 PM ^

Since we're doing this, I'll weigh in. I think the bullets as you give them are tough to get through--it reads like a business report instead of an enjoyable piece of informative prose. I do agree that the very basic stuff is a little too close to being spoon-fed, but I guess that's in response to reader demands so whatever.


October 6th, 2011 at 8:54 AM ^

Maybe it's because i'm tired and not looking for anything too thought provoking, but I'm really beginning to appreciate Ace's "spoon-feeding" of the basic stuff.  I haven't watched a single NW game this season, and won't outside of this weekend, so I find it an extremely easy read that gives me some high level stuff to look for on saturday.  Futhermore, Brian's preview on Friday will fill the holes for those still looking for more in depth analysis, particularly relative to personnel.  


October 5th, 2011 at 2:04 PM ^

The Spread/Pro, What base D, The bullets were helpful to remember. I agree with you that they wont be as needed against MSU or OSU, but for some of the opponents we dont see every year, they're helpful.

Also Ace, Is there a "player to be scared of/player to attack" thing you could add to the bullets?


October 5th, 2011 at 2:33 PM ^

I like this idea. The quick rundown could admittedly use some work—I came up with those this morning, and I am not a morning person—but I could definitely add a player to watch for each side of the ball.

That said, and I think this addresses several of the comments, this feature is mostly scheme-centric, and intended to complement Brian's preview at the end of the week, which is more personnel-centric. When I'm going through these games, I'm barely taking note of individual players (especially on defense) unless someone really stands out or I check the boxscore and see that a player had a huge statistical impact and whether that coincided with what I saw on the tape.

One feature I thought of adding was a breakdown of the offensive formations used and the run/pass balance out of each formation. This may be somewhat ambitious, but I might try it next week.


October 5th, 2011 at 2:09 PM ^

I like the format so please, no bullet points. Ace could go more in depth, but it's not necessary. Ace, maybe you could have everything written before the break written in simpler terms, and then after the break you could break down the opposing team using more technical terms. Overall, a good, informative write up.


October 5th, 2011 at 2:05 PM ^

My observations from the same game.  Ace, I hope I'm not taking anything away from your post.

  • Mabin (DB) and DiNardo (DT) are the best Northwestern defenders.
  • Persa was 5-9, 49yds (5.5YPA) during the first half. Meh
  • NW's 14 first half points came off of Illinois TO's.
  • NW's DEs look similar in size and ability to Minnesota (250 and 265 respectively)
  • Denard can eliminate an edge that Scheelhase was not able to. i.e. a run that went for 9yds for Nate could end up 15+ for Denard.
  • NW seemed to provide good front four pressure, but all of the sacks were coverage sacks.  Scheelhase just hangs onto the ball far to long, something Denard doesn't do.
  • Backup NW RB's rarely bounced outside; little to no shiftiness, more straight line burst.


October 5th, 2011 at 3:13 PM ^

Not taking away in the slightest—I had a lot of these written down in my notes, but about 80% of what I write down doesn't make it into the final post, or it'd be a classic case of TL;DR. Very much agree with most of what you concluded here; there were a couple Scheelhaase runs that I thought Denard would turn into huge gains, and I was not impressed with NW's backup RBs. I didn't think NW got great pressure, but agree with how they ended up with four sacks—Scheelhaase took forever in the pocket.

If these posts spark further discussion/debate on the upcoming opponent's last game, I feel like I've done my job. Thanks for this. Also, fantastic sig and avatar, sir.