"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.)
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.