Northwestern, Michigan's upcoming opponent, had a bye last week, so I went back to the only Northwestern torrent I could find—their week six loss at Penn State—for this week's FFFF. The Wildcats allowed three fourth-quarter touchdowns to blow a 28-17 lead, one gained mostly by fortune and a Venric Mark punt return touchdown—PSU held the final edge in yardage, 443-247.
It's worth noting that Northwestern has been playing two quarterbacks this season; in the PSU game, Trevor Siemian got the majority of the snaps over the more mobile Kain Colter, who spent much of the game in the slot. Last week, however, it was Colter who got the starting nod as Siemian threw just one pass in a win over Iowa; this week's game notes have Colter at the top of the depth chart, and considering Siemian's ineffectiveness I'm going on the presumption that will be the case.
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Spread. Very, very spread. Northwestern ran exactly two plays from under center—both came when they were backed up on their own goal line after a Penn State punt pinned them deep. Otherwise, Northwestern ran 48 charted snaps out of the shotgun and six out of the pistol (all of the latter with Kain Colter at QB).
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Basketball on grass—the Wildcats, especially with Colter at QB, lean heavily on the zone read. Honestly, they should've leaned on it more heavily, as you'll see when we get to Siemian's HenneChart.
Hurry it up or grind it out? Northwestern rarely huddles and plays at a very fast pace, going so far as to often line up Siemian at wide receiver when Colter takes snaps at quarterback so they can switch betweens QBs without making subsitutions. Pacing the defense is a huge part of their offense's success.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Colter is one of the better-running QBs in the conference, probably behind only Denard and Taylor Martinez [EDIT: and Braxton Miller], so I'd give him an 8. Siemian, on the other hand, rarely looks to escape the pocket and gets maybe a 4—he did manage to scramble for a 15-yard gain against PSU but it occurred when the proverbial seas parted.
Colter has averaged 5.5 yards per carry and already has 11 rushing touchdowns this season. He's very adept at running the read option—his ability to wait until the last possible nanosecond before pulling earned him a touchdown here as PSU's DE gave up the corner:
Why Northwestern ran Colter five times while allowing Siemien to throw 36 passes in a close contest is entirely beyond my comprehension.
[For the rest of this week's opponent breakdown, hit THE JUMP.]
Dangerman: Colter is dangerous, but the Wildcat rusher to fear is running back Venric Mark, who has rushed for 1072 yards and nine touchdowns on just 166 carries (6.5 ypc). He's also extremely dangerous on special teams; while his kickoff return stats are poor (16.4 yards per return), he's averaging 25 yards per punt return with a pair of touchdowns, including this one against Penn State:
Fast, that guy.
Naturally, Northwestern gave him just 13 carries against PSU despite him averaging 5.5 yards. In case you can't tell, I may not have agreed with the Wildcat gameplan.
Zook Factor: No egregious punts or anything, but man, that gameplan. I mean...
HenneChart: Colter did not throw a pass—in fact, Northwestern didn't run a single play-action fake by either quarterback in this game—but why have him at quarterback when stone-footed Trevor Siemian can do this?
Sieman is likely to sit on the bench for a reason—while he's the pocket passer of the two Wildcat quarterbacks, he's not much of a passer. He's completing 58.9% of his passes this season (compared to 69.7% for Colter) on just 5.7 yards per attempt, and while he only has one interception this year he could've easily had three in this game alone—all were flat-out dropped by Penn State, including one on a throw in which three defenders had a better shot than the intended receiver.
Again, I expect the Northwestern offense to look a lot different than they did against Penn State with Colter at the helm. Namely, it'll look a lot like this—most of Colter's snaps in this game came from some variation of the pistol, usually with this offset look:
That's Venric Mark—as said above, a very dangerous big-play threat with great speed and quickness—lined up as the deep man. They'll also use bigger back Mike Trumphy (no slouch himself with 4.7 ypc this year) back there with Mark next to Colter. In the play breakdown, you'll see Northwestern run a successful veer triple option from this look, and they also run a lot of zone read from this formation. Trumphy's ability to thump the middle of the line on a dive makes it tough for teams to focus completely on the edge, though that's where this offense intends to attack with the speedy dual-threat of Colter and Mark.
A major reason why Northwestern has decided to give a less effective quarterback most of their snaps is because Colter is their biggest threat at receiver; the rest of the unit has a tough time getting separation and there isn't a big-play threat on the roster. Demetrius Fields lead the team in receptions with 26—he averages just 8.3 yards per catch. Three other wideouts have between 21 and 24 catches—their averages fall between 10.5 and 12.7. Nobody else with more than one catch—mostly running backs at this point—has more than 6.6 yards per catch. Lots of the dinkin' and dunkin' for this squad, including some (usually ineffective, at least in this game) bubble and tunnel screens.
I wasn't very impressed with the offensive line, despite Northwestern's solid rushing numbers and lack of sacks allowed (1.33 per game, 24th nationally). That sack number can be largely credited to the dearth of downfield passing attempts—Northwestern's passes all came from the gun, never featured a play-action fake, and almost entirely came on quick three-step drops. Right guard Neil Deiters still managed to give up a pair of sacks when he was manhandled by PSU DT Jordan Hill. Run blocking was better, but still not great. Northwestern's best plays came when their fast guys got to the edge; interior runs weren't as effective as the Wildcat line didn't get great push or open up many holes.
This offense can still put up solid numbers, however, because of the athletes they have in their backfield. Let's go to an example below.
Here's that offset pistol in action; Northwestern runs a triple option that Penn State actually does a decent job of defending. There's no room in the middle for the dive, and the playside DE is able to stay out on the edge while the outside linebacker has the pitch covered:
I mean, this should not work:
But Colter is able to split the two defenders, keep his feet, and get the first down on a play that wasn't particularly well-blocked. Northwestern just has their offense designed to maximize his playmaking ability while making the blocking matter as little as possible.
Base Set? 4-3 over. Northwestern usually stayed with their three linebackers even against four wide, shading their linebackers over the slot receivers when needed. On third down, they'd lift a linebacker for a nickel corner or, on several occasions, go to three down linemen.
Man or zone coverage? The Wildcats mixed in a fair amount of both, with the common theme being two or three players in deep coverage (either Cover 2, Cover 3, or man with two deep safeties); as you'll see, Penn State was able to pick on this by hitting a lot of underneath throws both over the middle and towards the sideline.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? Northwestern brought a fair amount of heat in early downs but backed off considerably on passing downs, even going to the dreaded three-man rush on multiple third downs.
Dangerman: The Wildcats boast the nation's 23rd-ranked rush defense, and that's mostly because of a very solid linebacking corps. I was most impressed by MLB Damien Proby, who leads the team with 86 tackles (56 solo); he reads plays and sheds blocks well. The linebackers weren't as good in coverage, especially in underneath zones, but that was more on the OLBs than Proby from what I saw.
This is a surprisingly solid run defense despite the lack of space-eating DTs—the starting tackles weigh in at 300 and 290 pounds, respectively, and while they didn't get blown up often they also got pushed off the line a fair amount. The linebackers are very aggressive, however, and while the defensive ends are also undersized they're quick and similarly aggressive. This leads to some impressive stops at the line; it also leads to runs like the draw below—watch the near-side DE crash down and get pushed completely past the play:
Though they were handled on that play, the linebackers usually did a solid job of shedding blocks, and all three starters—Proby, David Nwabuisi, and Chi Chi Ariguzo—are sure tacklers; they saved a handful of big runs with solo stops in space. Strong safety Ibraheim Campbell is also a solid tackler and he comes up aggressively in run support.
Where the linebackers didn't excel was in pass coverage, as Penn State repeatedly had quick-hitters to the edge or underneath that resulted in solid gains. Here, backup WILL Colin Evans takes a terrible angle on a quick screen, allowing PSU to convert a 4th and 4:
The defensive backs had a decent day in coverage, holding Matt McGloin to 5.5 YPA, though this was due in large part to the conservative coverages they ran; rarely did Northwestern bring more than four on passing downs. PSU also missed a chance at a long TD when Northwestern busted a coverage off play-action and allowed a receiver to run free up the seam; McGloin never saw him but still managed a first down on a Wildcat pass interference.
The Wildcat pass rush almost entirely originated from one player, strongside DE Tyler Scott, whose seven sacks leads the team by four. Other than Scott, no Wildcat lineman was able to generate consistent pressure.
Northwestern did have trouble closing the holes in their zone coverage, and when they weren't getting a pass rush it was easy for McGloin to find something underneath. This could be another game where Drew Dileo has a big day finding space underneath (same with Devin Funchess), and Jeremy Gallon could be the beneficiary of some catch-and-runs on the edge. I'd expect Michigan—especially if Denard can't go—to get the majority of their yards through the air.
Here's another example of poor coverage from the linebackers leading to a completion despite a conservative playcall. Penn State runs a simple play-action fake; Northwestern is sending four rushers and has both safeties deep with the cornerbacks dropping back as well. The fake manages to get the outside linebacker to the top of the screen to step to the line:
He recovers, but instead of guarding his underneath zone, he bugs out at the tight end running by him—right at the safety, mind you—and turns to run with him. Nobody is there to guard the running back leaking out of the backfield:
It's an easy completion with plenty of room to run after the catch. Play-action works well against these linebackers, and there should be plenty of simple reads and easy throws to make for either Denard Robinson or Devin Gardner.