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.
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.
SPECIAL TEAMS BULLET
- 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.