Fee Fi Foe Film: Northwestern Offense

Submitted by Ace on October 8th, 2015 at 9:00 AM

"Superback" Dan Vitale is an excellent receiver/blocker. [Fuller]

Northwestern dismantled Minnesota, 27-0, last weekend. While the Wildcats defense proved dominant, the offense did not; Northwestern benefited from a defensive touchdown and a five-yard touchdown drive set up by a long punt return. That said, Clayton Thorson showed some improvement from his non-conference performances and the Wildcats eventually wore down the Gophers on the ground.

Can they replicate that against Michigan? Let's take a closer look.

Personnel. Seth's diagram [click to embiggen]:

Now with D-line rotation.

Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Spread. Northwestern was in the gun for literally every non-goal line snap until garbage time, and they don't huddle, either.

Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? A ton of inside zone with the occasional changeup.

Hurry it up or grind it out? This is a no-huddle offense that isn't quite at ludicrous speed but can push the tempo if need be.

[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]

Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Clayton Thorson isn't a particularly dynamic runner, but he gets upfield, is a decent-enough threat on designed runs, and can make a guy miss if they're not disciplined in defending him. He's averaging a hair over five yards per non-sack carry, mostly on designed draws or options. I'll give him a 6.

Dangerman: Northwestern's leading receiver isn't a wide receiver, but "superback" (H-back/TE) Dan Vitale, who's a very reliable pass-catcher on top of being a strong blocker on the edge. He's more than a safety outlet; he's averaging 8.2 yards per target, and the Wildcats will draw up some plays specifically to exploit the mismatches he creates. This shovel pass got him in space against a linebacker and he took care of the rest:

Running back Justin Jackson also deserves mention at the workhorse of this offense, though I'm still not sold on his ability. Jackson is an upright runner with good speed and solid cutting ability:

He doesn't have much power for a guy who's tasked with running inside, however, and he usually goes down at first contact if he can't make a man miss. He was pretty ineffective in this game until Northwestern's offense had worn down Minnesota's defensive front—with help from Minnesota's inept offense—in the second half, and by that point the line was doing most of the work.

Jackson also has some of the same issues as Michigan's running backs; on this play he went straight upfield into the unblocked safety on the near hash instead of bouncing it to the far side:

That should've been at least a 20-yard gain; instead it went for four. Jackson is still dangerous, especially if he can get into the open field—he's got plenty of speed—but I don't think he's the top-flight Big Ten running back his counting stats suggest he might be.

Zook Factor: Pat Fitzgerald had a moment of bizarre clock/timeout management. Facing 3rd-and-11 with 13 seconds left in the first quarter, Fitzgerald burned a timeout, ostensibly so Northwestern could keep the 21 mile-per-hour wind at their backs for both the third down pass and (probable) ensuing punt.

Then Thorson threw a pass over the middle short of the sticks, the clock ran out on the quarter, and Northwestern hit a 25-yard punt into the wind to start the second. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

HenneChart: This should be prefaced by noting that Northwestern made matters very easy on Thorson by rarely throwing the ball and sticking mostly to short, quick passes when they did. He finished 14-for-19, but for just 128 yards with a long of 19. One well-thrown deep touchdown pass to Solomon Vault was (correctly) overturned on review; otherwise the middling yardage numbers are more representative of his day than the very impressive Downfield Success Rate.

Minnesota 2 12 (3) -- 2 (1) 2 -- -- 2 -- 79%

Thorson possesses a decent arm and, at least in this game, he wasn't prone to making terrible reads. He isn't being asked to do much other than dump the ball short, though, and he didn't test Minnesota's Eric Murray at all. (Their other very good corner, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, didn't make the trip due to injury.)


Much spread.

Formations Run Pass PA
Gun 38 16 4
I-Form -- -- --
Ace -- -- --
Pistol -- -- --
Heavy 1 -- --

Such run-run-pass.

Down Run Pass PA
1st 21 3 1
2nd 15 1 3
3rd 3 12 --

I stopped charting when Northwestern scored a defensive TD to go up 27-0 early in the fourth, so this doesn't even include them running out the clock and it's still the biggest run/pass disparity between downs that I can remember. The playcalling is designed to protect a redshirt freshman quarterback and lean on a very good defense. They'll run twice then empty the backfield on third down so Thorson has a quick read; they go empty on most third downs, occasionally motioning a back into the backfield to help with protection.

As you can imagine, that doesn't make for a very impressive offense. The Wildcats couldn't get much going on the ground until the second half. Their O-line does a solid job of holding their first-level blocks but they don't get much on the second level and the running backs aren't built to get many yards after contact—there's Jackson, who runs too upright to have much power, and a couple of scatbacks behind him.

The line looked okay in pass protection; the quick-passing scheme helped them a lot. The right tackle got beat by Theiren Cockran for a sack and another quick pressure—he looked pretty vulnerable. The rest held their own, though the degree of difficulty was low.

The receivers didn't get much of a chance to show off their ability; nobody has more than three receptions. Christian Jones is a solid possession receiver. Fellow outside receiver Austin Carr was invisible, which fit in line with his season stats. Backup Flynn Nagel got a few targets, caught the easy ones, and dropped a tough but very catchable DO on Thorson's most impressive throw of the day, a corner route he fit in a tight window between the defender and the sideline.

This is an offense Michigan's defense should shut down. For Northwestern to move the ball they need successful runs on first and second down to keep third down manageable; it's been difficult, to say the least, to string together good running plays against M's defense. There isn't a scary #2 receiver to put pressure on Channing Stribling and Jeremy Clark; Michigan can be comfortable putting Jourdan Lewis on Jones and letting the other matchups play out. Jabrill Peppers should nerf the jet sweeps and screens Northwestern utilizes to get easy yards when defenses overplay the run. Unless Vitale is running wild all day, which seems unlikely, it's hard to see the Wildcats scoring many points.


Here's a look at how Northwestern used their empty set to make life easy for Thorson. On third-and-three near midfield, they come out with trips to the far side and two receivers (one off-camera) to the near side.

The inside receiver on the trips side motions and ends up just off the left tackle as Thorson takes the snap. He immediately heads for the flat while the slot to the bottom of the screen begins a crossing route.

If Minnesota were playing man coverage, the motioning slot man has an easy rub with the receiver running the crossing route.

Instead, the crossing receiver holds up the linebacker, and the unseen receiver to the bottom goes deep to clear out the flat, which is open. If the flat weren't there, Northwestern also ran a mesh concept—there's another crossing route coming from the other side—that usually springs a receiver open underneath if you can wait it out.

As it's played, this is an easy first down pickup.




October 8th, 2015 at 9:56 AM ^

NW is a weird team to figure out - the Stanford win looks damn good, plus a road win vs a decent Duke team. Then they struggle at home with a meh Ball St.

I'm cautiously optimistic - but, still...

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October 8th, 2015 at 10:00 AM ^

I think our defense will handle these guys handily (knock on wood), leaving them with little ability to put points on the board. Their defense probably will handle us handily as well, though I think given the fact that our offense is better than theirs and we'll be at home, I'm confident we can eke out one or two big plays, get the win, and make Dantonio shake in his boots a little (more) going into next week.

Space Coyote

October 8th, 2015 at 10:02 AM ^

I haven't watched nearly enough Northwestern this year, but in the past, they have relied heavily on outside zone and pin and pull (the Jackson cut above is pin and pull), so interesting to hear they've switched to more inside zone. They aren't the biggest OL in the world, wouldn't be surprised if they tried to get outside more on Michigan.

As for their passing attack, they are heavy on rub routes, which actually is a good way to attack Michigan's coverage. I've written previously about their use of bunch formations, but the mesh concept above sees two different rubs and very easy underneath reads for the RS FR QB. The first rub is between the outside drag and the bench route; the QB reads left to right. Next rub comes from the mesh concept in the middle; again, QB is just reading left to right. Nice way to get your QB into a rhythm with concepts that can beat both man and zone coverage.

One thing about Michigan is that they are doing a much better job of switching up coverages. They actually did it at key times against Northwestern last year, and that's how they came away with the win, but I've seen them use much more combination coverages (inside/outside, banjo, lock, etc.) to cover those types of things. There is the risk of miscommunication (that tunnel screen that Thomas nearly blew a few weeks ago), but in general, it allows tighter coverage on the back end. That'll be key in this game.


October 8th, 2015 at 10:04 AM ^

Whoa fancy DL graphics.

Pretty simple game plan.

Limit / end turnovers.  Be very careful of their return game. (they have a good one)   These 2 items = don't give them short fields.  Win field position battle.

Contain Justin Jackson (70 yds or less would be great).


Generally you beat fr QB by not allowing long drives because they will goof up eventually. That said I did see NW had something ridiculous like a 19 play drive last week. But that is not going to happen often.

N00M away.



October 8th, 2015 at 10:24 AM ^

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October 8th, 2015 at 10:26 AM ^

Jake should enter this game with a ton of confidence.  As his comfort level grows with the offense he should hit some of the long passes we've seen him miss so far. 

I'm sure we all sleep easier at night knowing we have coaches who are insanely competitive and will likely out scheme the other staff in a Belichick-esque manner.




October 8th, 2015 at 10:42 AM ^

Blake O'Neill could very well end up being the MVP of this game.  It feels like there will be a lot of 3-and-outs and possessions.  If the game remains low scoring and we can limit/eliminate turnovers, his ability to consistently flip the field and keep Northwestern deep in their own territory could very well be the difference. 


October 8th, 2015 at 10:46 AM ^

FFFF when we are defense looks good.  I'm a bit worried about the FFFF for when we're on offense.  However, even if neither team is adept at downfield passing, it seems like at least we have a less predictable system in place than the Northwestern run-run-pass offense.  

I'd also love to see Harbaugh reveal some additional pre-snap wrinkles for this game to get the Northwestern defense a bit off balance if necessary.  If Rudock is still having a very mediocre performance in his passing attempts 10+ yards out, hopefully some of the uncertaintly in the Northwestern defense will buy him some additoinal time and/or room to run a bit.  In an ideal world we won't need to open up the playbook and instead save it for MSU, but in a pinch I'd open up the playbook a bit to take a Northwestern win Saturday and then worry about Sparty on the 17th.


October 8th, 2015 at 10:50 AM ^

The tempo could be an issue but our D has been really organized getting guys on and off the field so far. I'm sure they're practicing to prepare for the tempo this week. Plus, being in the nickle most downs will help Michigan because they won't be shuffling a ton of players on/off the field. I still think it's a good matchup.

Der Alte

October 8th, 2015 at 10:51 AM ^

In talking about M’s D and its upcoming NU game, one question is “when did Jourdan Lewis become so good?” About a year ago (Oct 4) in the RU game that M lost 26-24, the M pass D gave up 402 net yards to journeyman QB Gary Nova. He in fact threw for 3 TDs, one of which went for 80 yds. Lewis and Blake Countess started that game at CB. Jourdan was credited with 4 assisted tackles; Blake didn’t seem to show up in the post-game stats anywhere. Not much in the way of pass D from either of them, it seems. Lack of an effective pass rush might have had something to do with all those passing yards, but still.

Now this year Jourdan covers everything thrown his way --- four pass breakups against UNLV alone. For this Saturday against NU, Ace says “Michigan can be comfortable putting Jourdan Lewis on [Christian] Jones and letting the other matchups play out." No doubt Jourdan’s a great --- if not to say elite --- athlete who doesn’t let his relatively short 5’10” height interfere with covering any receiver, no matter how tall. But is his progress all due to coaching? Did Durkin and the other coaches almost overnight teach him really how to play the position? Whatever it was, Jourdan’s (and, apparently, Stribling’s) new-found ability to man-cover has freed up Hill, Wilson, and of course Peppers to create coverage and tackling opportunities they might not otherwise have had. Jourdan Lewis’ progress as a “cover corner” seems a principal contributor to the Michigan D’s improvement this season. Go Blue.


October 8th, 2015 at 11:17 AM ^

I felt the last 4-5 games last year teams stopped throwing his way which is generally a good sign.  I think his play got lost in the desolation last year but teams were targetting Blake in late 2014.  So I dont think it was an overnight thing - he was very good late last year too but was lost in the shitstorm.

I was touting him this whole summer in the "player rank" postings as #1 when most were infatuated with Peppers.  But it's a good problem to have when its difficult to decide your best DB.  Still think he is better than Peppers at this point in their careers due to pass coverage abiities.  Pep obviously has an eventual higher ceiling due to size and speed.  Lewis remaining healthy is most important thhing to this defense IMO as dudes who take away half the field are what make for great defenses.


October 8th, 2015 at 11:05 AM ^

How often does Thorson keep it?  Does it look like he has any designed run option give/keep reads?  NU QBs (Kain Colter) have been a real threat here in the past.  

80%+ of 1st & 2nd downs were runs, all from the shotgun. A shotgun run game makes me think of Rich Rodriguez not MANBALL.  

"Inside zone" (Or outside if you ask Space Coyote) may be technically true, but I think it evokes a different image to the lay-reader.  Or maybe that's just me.


October 8th, 2015 at 11:05 AM ^

"They gonna die."  Now let's imagine what our offense against their defense will resemble in Fe Fi Fo Film.  [ducks]  Mr. Peppers, please to be breaking a big return on special teams.


October 8th, 2015 at 11:13 AM ^

NW has the #1 punt return defense in the country.  They in fact are the only team in the county who somehow has a negative return yardage thru 5 games.  Meaning they have been so good teams go backwards on average 1 yard on a punt return. 


October 8th, 2015 at 11:14 AM ^

I assume "empty" is basically what they run on 1st & 2nd down w/ Jackson lined up outside.  Am I wrong here?

Does Vitale ever actually line up as a true TE?

I could definitely see us breaking out our Dime package again here if Stribling truly is good to go.  With the difference from BYU being Hill playing closer to the line of scrimmage with a single high Safety look (Jarrod Wilson).

We have definitely seen solid open field tackling from Peppers & Hill.  And with our size + ability to play press coverage in the secondary we don't give up a whole lot in run support.


October 8th, 2015 at 11:26 AM ^

Hill would only need to roll down in empty sets.  Otherwise we can maintain a 2 high look.

With Lewis/Stribling/Clark/Peppers matched up on their 4 WRs/Slot/Superbacks.

I'll give up the 30 lb differential vs Vitale for the trade up in coverage & open field tackling.  

Sorry I keep taking you off the field in my head Joe Bolden, maybe you can play WDE in dime w/ Ojemudia out, Jake Ryan style?


October 8th, 2015 at 11:38 AM ^

I'm guessing there will be at least one or two frustrating 3rd & long conversions where Bolden loses track of Vitale. Other than that, I'm pretty confident.


October 8th, 2015 at 11:44 AM ^

. . . and I especially loved BYCTOM's take on it last week:

". . . and letting Dan Vitale terrorize Ball State defenders and confuse Ball State coaches who presumably spent a week scouring arcane tomes of football lore to figure out what a superback was before deciding it was a myth and then found out only too late that it is a slightly different word to use for a tight-endish player. This is a successful tactic, and the Wildcats should come up with unnecessarily weird-sounding names for all of their positions, such as renaming guards to Man-Walls and the quarterback to the Unholy Shaman of the Ninth Eye."

Edit: link added   http://bringyourchampionstheyreourmeat.blogspot.com/


October 8th, 2015 at 12:49 PM ^

Very encouraged after reading this. Unless something goes really wrong, we should have a solid run. I am sure NW will have the best stuff for us as we are their best threat for the season. I am hoping we can run on them inside. If we turn one of their strength into weakness or even a push, we will be winning for sure. Hope Smith is back at full strength. We need BEAST MODE.


October 8th, 2015 at 12:54 PM ^

I think playing a spread team plays into our defense strength. It takes bolden off the field. Adds CB and gives peppers the freedom to reek havoc at the extra lb/playmaker role. He's gonna be blitzing a lot I believe.


October 8th, 2015 at 2:46 PM ^

As "meh" as NW looks, Michigan isn't flashy either. Northwestern is comparable to some  good teams nationally in terms of total offense production. Northwestern and Michigan are winning football games with rushing offense and bone-crushing run defense.

So where does that leave us? Worried that one of the offenses will commit fatal errors that creates short fields.

Michigan is more accident prone (lost 9 turnovers against iffy competition). Ranked 84th in turnovers lost.

Northwestern has lost 6 turnovers against better competition. Ranked 36th against turnovers lost.

Turnovers will decide this one boys.

Both defenses are very good.

The offenses are average, but Michigan's offense  is way better in the red zone than Northwestern. Michigan is ranked 12th in the land in redzone offense.

Link, NCAA total offense:  http://www.ncaa.com/stats/football/fbs/current/team/21/p2