Fee Fi Foe Film: Northwestern Offense

Submitted by Ace on November 13th, 2013 at 8:04 PM

In an effort to makes these posts easier to digest in one read, FFFFs will be broken into separate offense and defense posts from now on. Once again, I find myself watching Nebraska-Northwestern, which is really the only useful game film I can find of the Wildcats given the considerable number of injuries they've suffered. The short summary: Northwestern ran the ball well, couldn't throw or convert a third down to save their life, failed to fully capitalize on four Nebraska interceptions, and lost on a hail mary.

Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid? Spread. Even in goal-line situations, Northwestern is either in the shotgun or the pistol. They didn't take a snap from under center in this game.

Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? Mostly zone blocking concepts, though Northwestern pulled their backside guard—and on a couple occasions, also their backside tackle—on some read option plays that will be covered in more detail later in the post.

Hurry it up or grind it out? No-huddle all the way; Northwestern doesn't play at Indiana's tempo, especially when they're swapping QBs mid-drive, but they keep the pace pretty high.

Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): Once again, Michigan faces a team that will alternate quarterbacks. Kain Colter is the starter and will get the majority of the snaps; he's a very impressive runner:

I be like dang. He gets a strong 8.

Trevor Siemian, meanwhile, is your classic pocket-passing statue; Northwestern did run a read option with him on a third and very long and he shocked the Nebraska defense by keeping it—with lots of space in front of him, he... tripped and fell on his face. He did have one successful—albeit lumbering—scramble in this game, so he merits a 3, I guess.

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

Dangerman: With Venric Mark out for the year, this one isn't even a question: it's Colter, who's second on the team in rushing despite playing behind a line that gives up a ton of sacks, has much better passing numbers than Siemian, and can even play the slot (though he hasn't done that much this year—one catch for a nine-yard touchdown, that coming in the Big Ten opener against OSU—and he had a critical drop the one time he lined up there in this game).

Zook Factor: With the teams tied at 21 late in the third quarter and Northwestern running the ball very successfully, the Wildcats faced a 4th-and-3 at the Nebraska 41 and initially lined up in the pistol. Nebraska had just ten defenders on the field and called a timeout. After the break, Pat Fitzgerald called for a punt; while the punt pinned Nebraska at their 13, Northwestern mustered just a field goal—that coming on a very short field after an interception—for the rest of the game. I'm assuming Fitz would like to have that one back.

HenneChart: Dual Hennecharts once again. Neither QB threw a whole lot, so sample size is an issue. Scrambles are counted in the DSR as a positive, FWIW. This is a significant boon to Colter, who was 4/8 on a bunch of short passes and escaped the pocked for a couple first downs.

Nebraska 0 2 (1) 1 2 (1) -- 1 -- 2 2 57%

"Downfield" is a pretty generous distinction here, as Colter's four completions went for 45 yards with a long of 17—that play coming on a play-action throw to the flat with significant YAC.

Siemian, meanwhile, was brought in to orchestrate two Northwestern drives at the end of the first half, made a brief cameo in the third quarter that ended with a pick-six that wasn't his fault—the right tackle totally biffed a cut block and a Nebraska DE intercepted the pass on a wide-open out route, charted here as a BA—then came in for a couple third-and-longs and split a fourth-quarter drive with Colter. He finished 4/13 for 36 yards with a long of 28. The chart is ugly, even with the interception not counting against him:

Northwestern 1 3 (1) 1 5x -- -- 2 1 1 50%

Siemian sailed a miraculously-open-at-the-sticks 3rd-and-20 post route high and wide of his receiver, which I considered charting as an INX; while I filed that as a regular IN, he earned the 'X' later with a should've-been pick six on a throw to the flat that he left a full yard inside of his receiver.

OF NOTE: Last year I noted that Siemian had a similarly awful performance—in fact, the DSR was identical—right before the Michigan game, mocked Fitzgerald's decision to insert him in the Michigan game on Twitter, and Siemian immediately threw a series of NFL-level throws that birthed the "Unstoppable Throw God" meme. I'll note that Siemian has completed a pedestrian 57% of his passes this season for 7.5 YPA with seven touchdowns to six interceptions; I won't comment any further on Siemian for fear of that happening again.


Formation chart:

Formations Run Pass PA
Gun 25 23 5
I-Form -- -- --
Ace -- -- --
Pistol 11 -- 1

The pistol is (1) almost exclusively run by Colter, not Siemian, and (2) obviously a run-tip; the play-action charted above was a goal-line naked bootleg—Northwestern's last offensive snap—in which Colter was buried in the backfield before the tight end could leak into the end zone, and it was clearly a run-pass option to boot. While this seems like it would be easy to key on and blow up; as you'll see, it isn't that simple. First, here's the down distribution:

Down Run Pass PA
1st 20 7 4
2nd 12 7 1
3rd 4 9 1

The first- and second-down reliance on the run would be even more obvious if the Wildcats didn't have two separate drives in the last two minutes of the first half in which they inserted Siemian and tried, unsuccessfully, to air it out.

This offense is predicated on a lot of read and speed options with wrinkles galore, so it's very hard to key on one thing despite the fact that Northwestern shows the same few formations and makes it obvious that they want to run. They did have a lot of success in this game with non-option runs, as well, though much of this was due to Nebraska's porous defense (sorry, I know). In addition to the video I just linked, here's an example—Northwestern RB Treyvon Green, the guy in white crouched on the near hash at the 13-yard line, scored on this play:

This required a miserably blown tackle by the contain defender and the middle linebacker (near hash, 8-yard line) taking such an awful angle that he didn't even touch Green. Green, who'll most likely start on Saturday, tallied 149 yards and three touchdowns on 19 carries; he hadn't exceeded 34 yards or four ypc in any other Big Ten game. He's fast and is capable of spinning his way out of crappy arm tackles; I can't say much more about him given the competition.

The offensive line was decent in run-blocking, executing their assignments well even though they didn't get a ton of push up the middle; they had a lot more success on the edge, in part because NW could option off a defender. Their pass-blocking, on the other hand, was quite poor. The Wildcats allowed four sacks, a number that would've been higher if not for a couple remarkable escapes by Colter, as they struggled mightily to pick up Nebraska blitzes—the Huskers did a good job of not tipping their hand and generated a ton of pressure via free runners off the corner and stunts getting defensive ends unblocked up the middle.

I can't say much of anything about the receivers; as a group, they combined for four catches that netted 23 yards, and the BTN cameras usually zoomed so far in on the LOS that I couldn't see downfield routes. "Superback" Dan Vitale is a player to keep an eye on; while he didn't do much statistically in this game, he'll line up anywhere from shotgun running back to fullback to H-back to tight end, and he hauled in an impressive 28-yard catch on a wheel route for Northwestern's longest passing play of the day by a full 11 yards.

It's all about stopping the run against this team; keep them behind the sticks and the run-first, short-pass-second offense falters, especially if Siemian is off his game. This isn't as easy as it sounds, though, because of how many different looks the Wildcats can show you from the same formation.


On that note, here's a look at what Northwestern will throw at Michigan from their base pistol set, which features their tailback directly behind Colter and a fullback (who often motions down to the H-back spot) next to him.

This will be pretty straightforward zone read with the fullback coming across the formation to lead the way for the quarterback keeper. Here's the mesh point:

As Colter pulls, you can see that Nebraska's playside defensive end has crashed, while their not-very-good playside linebacker appears to be stuck in quicksand—he's actually crashing, too, making this a very easy keep read for Colter:

The fullback gets out and mashes the safety trying to flow downhill:

Colter bursts into the secondary for a big gain. Video:

Simple enough, right? Not so fast, my friend. Northwestern often motioned the deep back next to Colter, turning the pistol into a more even shotgun two-back look, and got solid gains by running power to the boundary:

The very next play featured the same blocking scheme and a read option, though Nebraska sniffed that one out and stuffed it at the line. The interior of the line caved on that play; it wasn't the only time that happened, and Northwestern tried shuffling a few different guys at guard without much effect. (Yes, this sounds familiar.)

The speed option—with the deep back motioning to the playside right before the snap—also featured prevalently from this formation. They could also run a simple iso without any motion. One formation, all runs, a lot of possibilities.



November 13th, 2013 at 9:25 PM ^

Northwestern has gone 0-4 and we have gone 1-3. Which team is more desperate??? Even though now I am preparing for a 7-6 season so it wont hit me as hard as the last 2 games. 


November 14th, 2013 at 12:06 AM ^

I'm sure we will find a way to lose.  I already lowered my expectations from an 8-4 season to a 6-6 season. So any win the remainder of this season will be just dandy!