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Through the Tape: Northwestern’s offensive line comes up short in run-blocking against Redbirds

by Max Schuman 0 Comments
Through the Tape: Northwestern’s offensive line comes up short in run-blocking against Redbirds
(Daily file photo by Zack Laurence)

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.

Rapid Reaction: Illinois State shocks Northwestern in low-scoring upset

by Max Schuman 0 Comments

Things just got worse for Northwestern.

After losing their opening game against the MAC’s Western Michigan, the Wildcats managed to hit a new low by losing on a last-second field goal at home to FCS team Illinois State, 9-7.

Redbirds quarterback Jake Kolbe threw for 287 yards and the Illinois State offense did just enough to hold off NU, who falls to 0-2 on the season.

The Cats opted to lean on sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson offensively, as Thorson threw a career-high 41 times while junior running back Justin Jackson got just 11 carries before exiting the game in the fourth quarter. But the offense never truly got into gear, giving the Redbirds a chance to pull the upset.

Meanwhile, NU’s defense gave up 369 yards to the Redbirds but came up with some timely big plays to keep the game within reach throughout, including an interception in the end zone by sophomore cornerback Montre Hartage in the second quarter and another pick by sophomore safety Jared McGee in the third.

The first half was a struggle for both teams, but after taking over with 5:49 left in the second quarter, the Redbirds marched down the field in 11 plays and punctuated the drive with a six-yard touchdown run from running back George Moreira late in the half, breaking the deadlock and giving Illinois State a 6-0 lead at halftime.

The second half looked a lot like the first for NU, until a 12-play, 55-yard drive by the Cats ended with a fourth-down touchdown throw from Thorson to senior receiver Austin Carr that ended up deciding the game. After senior kicker Jack Mitchell hit the extra point, NU took a one point lead that it wouldn’t relinquish until the game-ending kick.

Northwestern stats to know

  • Clayton Thorson: 17-for-41 with 191 yards and one touchdown
  • Justin Jackson: 11 carries for 39 yards, did not play for much of the fourth quarter
  • Austin Carr: Career-high seven catches for 73 yards
  • Montre Hartage: Nine tackles and one interception

Illinois State stats to know

  • Jake Kolbe: 30-for-41 with 287 passing yards
  • Anthony Warrum: Nine catches for 116 yards
  • Christian Gibbs: Six catches for 71 yards
  • George Moreira: 12 carries for 57 yards

Half-N-Half: Optimistic and Pessimistic Outlooks for Week 2

by Max Gelman 0 Comments
Half-N-Half: Optimistic and Pessimistic Outlooks for Week 2
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

Each week, two Daily writers will debate the upcoming football matchup. One will take a glass half-full view and other glass half-empty. Here is the Half-N-Half for Northwestern’s contest against the Illinois State Redbirds.

1. Will Anthony Walker double his tackle output from Week 1?

Half-full (Max Gelman): After Saturday’s loss, both Walker and coach Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged that the All-American may have been trying to do too much on the field. Against an FCS team though, Walker will be sure to rebound from the paltry seven-tackle performance from Week One. This is Anthony Walker we’re talking about after all — the Anthony Walker who finished fourth in the nation last season and led the Big Ten with 20.5 tackles for loss. The Anthony Walker who led the Wildcats in tackles by more than 30. The Anthony Walker who may very well end up in the NFL next season. He will be sure to regain his elite form when he faces Illinois State.

Half-empty (Tim Balk): Anthony Walker and the linebacker corps came into the year with sky-high expectations, and mostly disappointed in the opening showdown against Western Michigan. Walker was oddly quiet, recording just seven tackles. The Franchise will respond — we haven’t seen many underwhelming performances from the junior in his time in Evanston — but a huge performance might not be in the cards against Illinois State. Walker only hit the 14 tackle mark three times last year, and he was particularly quiet in NU’s battle with FCS Eastern Illinois. Walker won’t disappear like he did in the second half against Western Michigan, but he also won’t have a repeat of the Duke game last September. Take the under on 14 tackles.

2. Will NU be able to keep Justin Jackson’s carry total under 30?

Half-empty (TB): With Warren Long sidelined by a broken hand, it’s going to be the Justin Jackson show for the next few weeks. Even more so than usual. The Cats’ passing game was quieted against Western Michigan, mainly because the offense was off the field for so much of the game, and Clayton Thorson should have more opportunities to throw the ball around this week. But NU will still call Jackson’s number plenty. If the Cats can get the no huddle offense going the way the want to, it’ll mean more plays, and, of course more touches for The Ball Carrier. So a big carry number might not be a totally bad sign. But don’t expect Jackson to get much rest.

Half-full (MG): The Cats’ offensive gameplan over the past few seasons with Jackson as starter has revolved around shoving him down opponents’ throats. Jackson finished third in the country in 2015 with 312 carries as NU eased then-redshirt freshman quarterback Thorson into a starting role. However, in last year’s sole matchup against an FCS opponent — Eastern Illinois — Jackson only ran the ball 22 times out of a total 69 rushing attempts, good for about 32 percent of the team’s total carries. Seven other Wildcats ran the ball against the Panthers last year, including walk-on Navy SEAL Tom Hruby who rushed eight times. NU will find plenty of opportunities to spread the work among the other running backs and give Jackson some rest.

3. How many turnovers will NU be able to force after failing to force any last week?

Half-full (MG): The Redbirds came into 2016 without their biggest playmakers from a year ago, quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Marshaun Coprich. This year, sophomore quarterback Jake Kolbe is leading Illinois State in his first year as a starter, and his inexperience may very well lead to multiple miscues on offense. Additionally, even though Illinois State loves to run the ball, as seven Redbirds combined for 313 rushing yards in its opening week 50-13 trouncing over Valparaiso, only two of their eight rostered running backs are upperclassmen. For NU, senior cornerback and team captain Matthew Harris performed well against Western Michigan receiver Corey Davis last week, and Harris led the Cats with four interceptions in 2015. Harris’ dominance, coupled with the relative inexperience of Illinois State’s new playmakers, will likely lead to at least two takeaways on Saturday.

Half-empty (TB): If there was one big takeaway from NU’s opener, it’s that the defensive line wasn’t quite ready for showtime. The exits of Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson represented significant losses, as the two disruptive defensive ends spearheaded a mighty defense with a knack for picking up sacks and forcing turnovers. Against Western Michigan, the defensive pressure was lackluster, and Western Michigan looked comfortable in racking up 416 yards without a single turnover. Junior defensive end Xavier Washington and senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo are by no means slouches, but NU’s opening week performance suggests it may take some time for the two, and whole defensive front, to get going. NU has big playmakers like Walker and Harris, but the Cats will likely need to get more pressure to start turning teams over. Meanwhile, Illinois State is a ground and pound team that ran for more than 3,000 yards last year. Look for the Redbirds keep it on the ground, limiting the chances for NU to get takeaways on Saturday. NU still has the potential to be a big takeaway team. But this might not be the week for such things.

Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 2

Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 2
(Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson)

Running back Warren Long and defensive tackle Jordan Thompson are the two big subtractions from Northwestern’s Week Two depth chart.

Long, a senior, injured his hand during his only carry against Western Michigan and has been ruled out for at least four weeks, coach Pat Fitzgerald said. Stepping up in Long’s place will be redshirt freshman John Moten IV, who made his college debut in the latter part of Saturday’s game but did not receive any touches.

Coming into the season, Long projected as a reliable backup who would lighten junior starter Justin Jackson’s workload. With Long out, Jackson will receive most, if not all, of the Wildcats’ carries. Moten, an unproven commodity, likely hasn’t gained the trust of the coaching staff and will probably come in only to spell Jackson on the occasional pass blocking assignment.

But don’t expect that to change the play calling of NU’s offense. This is still a run-first team — Jackson will just be getting a few more carries than he otherwise would with Long still healthy. Based on Jackson’s 312-carry 2015 campaign, that shouldn’t be much of a problem for him.

Thompson is day-to-day, Fitzgerald said, so there’s a chance he could play Saturday against Illinois State. Even if he doesn’t, the defense will still be in good shape. The Cats’ defensive line relies on a constant rotation of players. Losing Thompson’s talent hurts but the players stepping in for him have game experience and should be more than up to the task.

Advance Scouting: Illinois State

by Ben Pope 0 Comments
Advance Scouting: Illinois State
(Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson)

After a heartbreaking loss to up-and-coming Western Michigan, Northwestern must now look ahead to a matchup against another team that may well be the best in their conference.

Fortunately for the Cats, this time the conference in question is the FCS-level Missouri Valley Football Conference and not the FBS-level Mid-American Conference.

Illinois State (1-0) will roll into Evanston after a 10-3 campaign in 2015, tying for the MVFC regular-season title with a 7-1 conference record and ultimately advancing to the second round of the FCS playoffs, as well as a dominant season-opening win over Valparaiso on Saturday.

It’s still a likely win for NU, no doubt. FBS teams were 43-4 against FCS foes in college football’s opening weekend and the Cats won 41-0 last year against an Eastern Illinois team that Illinois State then beat only 34-31 the following week. (Illinois State did lose to Iowa by only a 31-14 score, however.)

Still, this matchup will likely be more difficult than coach Pat Fitzgerald expected when it was scheduled several years ago.

Last time out: Illinois State hammered Valparaiso 50-13 at home on Saturday to begin their season.

Valparaiso’s football program is perennially weak — they’re 9-69 dating back to 2009 and went 1-9 last year — but the Redbirds still had an impressive showing in the game, using seven different runners to rack up 271 rushing yards (compared to Valparaiso’s mere 22).

Biggest Strength: The offensive and defensive lines for Illinois State return a lot of experience from last year’s excellent squads.

The entire five-man offensive line unit started all 13 games last year and is back again in its entirety this season. Center Mark Spelman earned all-MVFC honors, while left guard Kyle Avaloy was second-team all-MVFC.

The group paved the way for the Redbirds to rank tied for fifth in the FCS in yards-per-rush attempt last year and could pose a major obstacle for the Cats, which struggled mightily to penetrate Western Michigan’s O-line and get pressure on quarterback Zach Terrell on Saturday.

On the other side of the ball, Illinois State also returns three defensive line starters from a defense that allowed only 21.2 points per game last year. Nose guard Dalton Keene and tackle Matt McCown are the leaders of a unit that isn’t particularly aggressive (not many sacks) but is hard to push downfield.

Biggest Weakness: The passing game remains a huge uncertainty for Illinois State after the graduation of two-time All-MVFC quarterback Tre Roberson.

Sophomore Jake Kolbe, a Naperville Central product, started for the first time in his career against Valparaiso and wasn’t tested much, completing 11 of 19 passes for 166 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Kolbe has a solid cast of receivers to work with — headliner Anthony Warrum’s 1,290 yards a year ago ranked third in school history and he was one of just four FCS receivers named to the CFPA National Performer of the Year Watch List for 2016 — but the passing attack will soon be facing an NU secondary unlike any they’ve seen before.

Biggest Question: Can Illinois State contain Justin Jackson?

Even in the Western Michigan loss, Jackson appeared to be in prime mid-season form, mixing his standard up-the-middle rushes with some explosive long plays that haven’t always been a big part of his game.

Against an FCS foe like Illinois State, Fitzgerald will likely look to keep the ball on the ground even more often, and Jackson will be a tough assignment for a Redbirds linebacking corps that the team’s own media guide describes as the “most thin” positional group.

2016 Football Preview: Breaking down Northwestern’s schedule, Part 1

2016 Football Preview: Breaking down Northwestern’s schedule, Part 1
(Daily file photo by Sophie Mann)

After a record-setting season, the Wildcats come into 2016 with high expectations for themselves. Despite a blowout loss in the Outback Bowl, their 10 regular-season wins arguably helped them achieve their second-best season ever. But expectations from the outside are not as optimistic. In the season’s first AP Poll, Northwestern went unranked and received just five votes even though the team spent most of 2015 in the Top 25 and finished at No. 23. So what’s really in store for the Cats in 2016? Here we take a look at their schedule, starting with the first six games.

Sept. 3: vs. Western Michigan. Last year — 8-5 (6-2 MAC), won Bahamas Bowl. Coach — P.J. Fleck (fourth year) 

Fleck has earned a reputation as one of the best recruiters outside of the non-Power conferences and has led the Broncos to back-to-back 8-5 seasons after going 1-11 his first year. In 2016 they return almost all of their starters on offense, including senior quarterback Zach Terrell who threw for over 3,500 yards last season and 29 touchdowns against nine interceptions. This is a team that NU should not underestimate, as starting off the season on the wrong foot will be detrimental in trying to forget about the blowout at the end of last season.

Best case scenario: Justin Jackson takes advantage of Western Michigan’s seeming inability to stop the big run play and rushes for two scores. Clayton Thorson also gets in on the running game, using his legs to keep the opposing defense off-balance. NU’s defense confuses Terrell and the Cats win by 17.

Worst case scenario: The absence of Keith Watkins II immediately burns NU and the experienced Terrell takes advantage of the non-Matthew Harris side of the field. Jack Mitchell misses a field goal, and Thorson throws at least two interceptions as the Cats look woefully unprepared to start the season and fall to the up-and-coming Broncos.

Sept. 10: vs. Illinois State. Last year — 10-3 (7-1 MVFC), reached FCS quarterfinals. Coach — Brock Spack (eighth year) 

As the only FCS opponent on the schedule, Illinois State is by far NU’s easiest game, but that doesn’t mean it’s a complete cakewalk. The Redbirds were consistently ranked in the Top 6 of the FCS throughout 2015, even reaching as high as No. 2 and drawing a few first-place votes away from consensus favorite and champion North Dakota State. Illinois State lost its quarterback and running back from last season, but the rest of its starters return looking to steal a win in Evanston.

Best case scenario: This won’t be as big a win as last year’s early-season victory over Eastern Illinois, but the Cats will easily handle their FCS opponent. NU gets a big enough lead where they can rest their starters and Matt Alviti actually throws a touchdown pass.

Worst case scenario: The Redbirds keep the game close to the end, but NU manages to pull out a win at the last second. It’s a startlingly close game where Jackson leaves with an injury in the second quarter, knocking him out for a couple of weeks.

Sept. 17: vs. Duke. Last year  — 8-5 (4-4 ACC), won Pinstripe Bowl. Coach — David Cutcliffe (ninth year) 

NU faced the Blue Devils a year ago in Durham and won by 9 in a game that was the perfect embodiment of Pat Fitzgerald football — dominant defense, field possession and working the clock. This year the programs face off under the lights in Evanston and Duke is looking to establish some form of consistency. After starting the year 6-1 the Blue Devils lost four of their final five games but salvaged the season with an overtime win over Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl. Their up-tempo offense sputtered against the Cats last year, and this matchup could determine whether last year’s close win was a fluke.

Best case scenario: NU again holds Duke’s offense to just one touchdown and Solomon Vault returns another kickoff for a touchdown. Thorson is responsible for three Cat touchdowns using his legs and arm and doesn’t turn the ball over, while Anthony Walker forces two fumbles.

Worst case scenario: The game is scoreless going into halftime. NU muffs a punt early in the third quarter and Duke takes advantage, but Thorson nearly saves the day by throwing a touchdown pass with three seconds left in the game. Fitzgerald opts to go for two instead of kicking the extra point to tie and the Cats fail to convert, losing the game.

Update: This post was written before it was announced Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk will miss the season with an injury. Without Sirk’s two-dimensional style of play, NU will have a much easier shot at winning.

Sept. 24: vs. Nebraska. Last year — 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten), won Foster Farms Bowl. Coach — Mike Riley (second year) 

The battle for “The Real NU” could end up as the Cats’ toughest home game on the schedule. Nebraska struggled mightily last year after firing Bo Pelini, failing to reach nine wins for the first time since before the Pelini era, and Northwestern barely came away with a win in Lincoln last season. The Cornhuskers have already won the battle of the uniforms for this game (those shiny red N’s are superb work) and you can bet Ryan Field will be stocked with opposing fans. Heading into this year, Nebraska’s biggest question mark is its secondary, and it will be interesting to see whether or not the Cats decide to let Thorson air it out to take advantage.

Best case scenario: The Cats appear much more comfortable on their home turf as Nebraska struggles to put together anything that resembles an offense. A team rated highly by many “experts” in the preseason, the Cornhuskers are unable to put together more than 200 yards on offense.

Worst case scenario: Nebraska brings back the memories of the 2013 Hail Mary and 2014 Homecoming games and takes advantage of the Wildcats in prime time. The Cornhuskers move to 4-0 on the season and first place in the Big Ten West in a loss that will burn the Cats for the rest of the season.

Oct. 1: at Iowa. Last year — 12-2 (8-0 Big Ten), won Big Ten West, lost Rose Bowl. Coach — Kirk Ferentz (18th year) 

NU’s loss to Iowa in 2015 was deflating for multiple reasons. First, the Cats got destroyed in the trenches, something Fitzgerald lamented following the loss and believes his team needs to be successful at in order to have a chance to defeat top-tier teams. Second, it proved the blowout loss to Michigan the week before was not a fluke and suggested the Cats were not as good as their record. Finally, it eliminated almost any chance NU had to win the Big Ten West, which had been one of the team’s goals from the beginning of the season and seemed within reach after knocking off a ranked Stanford team to open the season. The Cats need this win in order to have a shot at the Big Ten West again, but it’s unlikely they’ll get it.

Best case scenario: The Hawkeyes are not going to go 12-0 again in the regular season, but last year they managed to win a lot of close games (40-10 blowout over NU aside). That kind of run is unsustainable in any sport, and, with Iowa losing two elite offensive linemen, the Cats somehow, some way, eke out a win before their bye week.

Worst case scenario: NU limps out of Kinnick Stadium after another drubbing. The Cats are manhandled at the line of scrimmage. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Oct. 15: at Michigan State. Last year — 12-2 (7-1 Big Ten), Big Ten champion, reached College Football Playoff quarterfinals/lost Cotton Bowl. Coach — Mark Dantonio (10th year) 

The Spartans were a strange team last season. They won 11 games in the regular season, but some very unconvincingly. There was the last-second field goal against Ohio State and the ridiculous punt-return touchdown against Michigan last season. Michigan State comes into the season at No. 12 in the nation, and it is still a very good team that could win double-digit games again. A blowout loss to eventual-champion Alabama burst the Spartan’s bubble at the end of last year and the team comes into 2016 without a definitive answer at quarterback after Connor Cook was drafted by the Oakland Raiders. However, Mark Dantonio’s squad has a legitimate shot at being the best defense in the country.

Best case scenario: Fitzgerald has discussed ad nauseum in the past about October slumps, and if it starts against Iowa it won’t get any better against the Spartans. This game is one Michigan State should absolutely win, but, if the Cats can keep it close like the Hawkeyes did in the Big Ten Championship Game last year, they may have a shot. NU would have to play perfectly though.

Worst case scenario: Two weeks after being blown out in Iowa, the Cats are shut out in East Lansing. NU heads into its first game against Ohio State since ESPN came to Evanston, having been outscored by 70+ points in its previous two games.