Through the Tape: Big plays add new dimension to Northwestern offense against Duke
Last year’s Northwestern offense was undeniably punchless, something that needed to change coming into 2016.
In particular, big plays in the passing game were particularly hard to come by last season. The Wildcats’ offense, led by then-first-year quarterback starter Clayton Thorson, rarely put together explosive plays through the air. Coach Pat Fitzgerald has mentioned in multiple press conferences this season that taking more shots downfield is a big part of the team’s plan in 2016.
It took a few weeks for that vision to materialize, but Saturday’s game against Duke might have marked the arrival of the big-play passing attack Fitzgerald is looking for. NU had just 12 pass plays go for 25 yards or more last season. It had five such plays against Duke, including all three of the Cats’ touchdowns.
A lot of pieces need to come together to make a big play happen. The offensive line needs to hold the pocket together long enough for the play to develop, the receiver on the other end needs to get open and the quarterback needs to throw the ball accurately and on-time down the field. Too often last season, one of those components failed, but on NU’s first touchdown of the night against the Blue Devils, everything went according to plan.
The Cats’ offensive line, much maligned following the loss to Illinois State, keeps a clean pocket for Thorson (No. 18) on the play. Junior superback Garrett Dickerson (No. 9) uses a nice burst to get open in the seam, and Thorson hits on the throw for a 26-yard score.
Duke frequently sent blitzers from all over the field to get after Thorson, leaving its secondary stretched thin on some plays. Last season, against heavy pressure, Thorson rarely looked to make the defense pay downfield. But on this play, he stands tall in the pocket and delivers a 44-yard strike with a free rusher bearing down on him.
Junior wideout Solomon Vault (No. 4) is on the receiving end of this touchdown after beating the Blue Devils’ coverage over the top. The kick return specialist adds a speed element on the outside that NU was missing last season, and on this play he demonstrates his potential as a vertical threat taking the top off the defense.
Sometimes, a good design for the defense you face can manufacture a big play, like on the Cats’ final touchdown play in the fourth quarter.
Duke brought the house, rushing seven men and leaving only four back in coverage. NU counters by running crossing routes with senior receiver Austin Carr (No. 80) and sophomore receiver Flynn Nagel (No. 2) from the slot at the top of the screen, hoping to confuse the few defenders left to cover on the play and create an opening. The Blue Devils oblige, as two defenders move towards Nagel, leaving Carr wide open for an easy 58-yard touchdown.
These plays demonstrate a big-play ability through the air that was simply lacking last season. For a few plays Saturday night, the offensive line held up just long enough. Receivers, either through personal talent or smart play design, got open. And Thorson embraced Duke’s pressure and stood tall to make throws down the field.
The passing offense wasn’t perfect by any means, and neither was Thorson, who went just 18-for-39 and threw two picks on the night. But hitting on big plays gives the Cats a margin for error they didn’t have a year ago, and with the defense appearing to be rounding into form, that might be enough to surprise the rest of the way.