Despite sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson’s 41 passing attempts in the loss against Illinois State on Saturday, Northwestern is a run-first team.
The offense’s best player is junior running back Justin Jackson, and the Wildcats are right to try to build their offense around his abilities. But a runner can only be as good as the guys in front of him, and Saturday’s game against the Redbirds exposed serious issues along the offensive line that brought NU’s offense to its knees in the defeat.
A major staple of the Cats’ rushing attack is the outside zone play, a wide run where the offensive linemen, rather than blocking a specific player at the snap, move laterally and look for players to block in the zone around them as the play develops. Meanwhile, the running back runs outside until he sees a hole form, makes a cut upfield and accelerates through the crease. The keys to a good outside zone team are an athletic offensive line comfortable making blocks in space and a runner who has the vision and decisiveness to take advantage of the holes in front of him.
When it works, it can look brilliant — like Jackson’s 46-yard touchdown run against Western Michigan in Week 1.
Sophomore guard Tommy Doles (No. 71) moves well to his right on the play and gets enough of a Broncos linebacker to keep him out of the hole, while Western Michigan’s safety to that side of the field overpursues to the outside, leaving a big crease that Jackson exploits. It’s the quintessential outside zone run— using finesse and patience, waiting for the hole to emerge and cutting hard upfield when the opportunity arises.
On paper, NU’s offensive line seemed to have a major advantage against the undersized defensive front of Illinois State. But on the same outside zone plays that worked against Western Michigan, the Redbirds’ quickness seemed to be too much for the Cats’ bigger offensive line, who looked a step slow repeatedly and failed to establish this key weapon in NU’s arsenal.
Here’s an example early in the game of a missed block leading to penetration that killed the play before it started.
Sophomore left tackle Blake Hance (No. 72) is slow off the line and whiffs on a block of an Illinois State lineman at the line of scrimmage, leaving the pulling junior center Brad North (No. 69) to clean up the mess in the backfield. North can’t do much about it, forcing Jackson to hesitate and resulting in a loss on the play, but it was Hance’s inability to connect at the line that led to the stop.
Sometimes, the Cats’ linemen just weren’t quick enough to make the blocks they needed to, like the pulling Doles on this play.
Doles is unable to move quickly enough to his left to make the block on a Redbirds’ linebacker, who penetrates and picks up the stop at the line. That play put NU behind the sticks on the drive, and the Cats ultimately went three-and-out.
NU’s version of the outside zone play frequently asks its linemen to pull and act as lead blockers for the running back, as in the plays above. Even when the blocks are solid, that can leave the Cats susceptible to backside pursuit, like on this play.
A quick burst off the line from an Illinois State defensive tackle right into the space vacated by the pulling Doles gave that play no chance from the start.
The outside zone asks a lot of offensive linemen athletically and forces them to make some difficult decisions and blocks on the move, and against the Redbirds, NU’s offensive line wasn’t up to the task. With the Cats unable to find success with one of their bread-and-butter plays on early downs, they were forced to rely on the arm of Thorson, with predictably inconsistent results. And if the team struggled this much to establish the outside zone against an FCS opponent, doing so against Big Ten defenses could be an insurmountable task.
Coach Pat Fitzgerald hinted that some personnel changes could be in the works, although the starting offensive line was unchanged in Monday’s official depth chart. Beyond that, NU might be wise to consider changing up their game plan running the ball, mixing in some simple downhill plays to make the line’s job easier or some zone read carries by Thorson to slow down defensive pursuit.
Whatever the remedy, the Cats can’t keep going back to the outside zone if they can’t run it effectively. A run-first team that can’t run the ball generally loses, and NU found that out the hard way Saturday.