Wide Open: A Look at Passing Touchdowns against Northwestern

We've noted how crazily open opposing players are when they score receiving touchdowns against Northwestern. We've noted this again. We've noted this again and again and again.

Through half of NU's season - a season which currently contains a four-game losing streak - the Cats have allowed a pretty reasonable eight passing touchdowns. (We've thrown ten.) However, the nature of these touchdowns is what's striking. I've screenshotted as many as I can to show how absurdly open the opposing receivers are. Sorry for any poor photo quality.

Eastern Illinois

Kenny Whitaker, 72-yard reception

Closest NU defender: 10 yards

MountainTiger looked at this for the play of the week way back when:

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It's very blurry, but, yes, the guy at the far left is Whittaker. There is a guy within ten-ish yards, but he's covering another receiver, while the guys who should be on Whittaker bit on a play action and are almost 20 yards away near the Murica N.

Illinois:

A.J. Jenkins, 9-yard reception

Closest defender: two yards

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This is a rare not damning one: David Nwabuisi gets hung up on a crossing route after running into the opposing tight end, Jenkins gets a little bit of space and beats Nwabuisi to the pylon where there is no help. This is more of an example of "you shouldn't have a linebacker covering one of the conference's best receivers one-on-one" than it is an example of a major breakdown.

A.J. Jenkins, 33-yard reception

Closest NU defender: three yards

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Same story: Matthews is one-on-one with Jenkins and he just gets beaten. Jenkins is running a go route on the sideline and while he's sprinting to the sideline, Matthews is standing still when he probably should have been backpedalling. Soon, Jenkins is gone. Again, this is not a team defensive breakdown so much as bad corner play.

A.J. Jenkins, 50-yard reception

Closest NU defender: Roughly ten yards

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MountainTiger also did this one for his play of the week, profiling what he called Jordan Mabin's "Oh, hamburgers" moment, but he didn't get a screenshot of just how friggin open Jenkins was when he caught the ball. You can see Mabin hanging out there on the other side of the hashmarks, but the camera angle isn't wide enough to capture the fact that there's another defender next to him. This was pretty hard to screenshot, because Mabin is literally only in the same frame as Jenkins for about three quarters of a second at most. This was a play action where Mabin thought he had safety help and there was none.

Michigan

Steve Watson, 9-yard reception

Closest NU defender: six yards

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Now, this is kind of a copout. As you can see, the ball is not in this photo. When Watson actually catches the ball, Ibraheim Campbell is only about two yards away, but I decided that wasn't really telling the whole story. This is another play action: Michigan ran a rare play from the i-formation and faked to the running back. Campbell bit while Watson ran towards an entire half of the end zone that was completely uncovered. The reason Campbell is only two yards away from Watson when he receives the ball is because this is one of the worst throws I've ever seen: with even scant coverage on Watson, it would have been a pick. Instead of leading Watson into the entirely uninhabited end zone, Robinson throws a floater behind where Watson was when the pass was thrown, meaning he had to backtrack and eventually go to the ground in order to secure the catch. The ball stays in the air long enough to make Campbell's coverage look respectable where it completely wasn't.

Jeremy Gallon, 25-yard reception

Closest NU defender: five yards

Not the best example, as this is a screen pass. (It's also a play action again.) But the point is there's still nobody there, even if this isn't indicative of a major passing breakdown.

Iowa

Keenan Davis, 47-yard reception

Closest NU defender: four yards

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Demetrius Dugar isn't that far from him compared to other photos here, but he's still four yards behind Davis, but there's no way to describe Davis besides "wide friggin open." It's a play action - you guessed it - and Vandenberg hits Davis in plenty of space as there's no help and no way for this not to be a score. You can tell just from the screenshot that Dugar is literally sprinting in a hopeless attempt to catch up with Davis.

Marvin McNutt, 35-yard reception

Closest NU defender: six yards

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I tried for a long time to play "who is that guy sprinting after McNutt" with the defender who isn't Campbell but couldn't figure it out. That just about says it everything you need to know about how wide open he was, but I'll keep going. Take a guess what type of play this was. (Hint: it rhymes with "Gay Faction".)  

 

Conclusions:

Although the results weren't quite as comical as I'd thought - if you'd ask me how far the average defender was at the beginning of this exercise, I'd have said nine yards, it's probably closer to six or so - the point is still clear that this is absurd. Northwestern has given up eight passing touchdowns this season, and I'd say the defender was nowhere near the guy making the catch on six of them. On seven of them, the opposing QB did not have to make a throw that I'd qualify as "difficult" for a Big Ten quarterback, and even the eighth - the crossing route TD to Jenkins - was to a guy whose defender had no chance of making a play on the ball.. These aren't jump balls or throws that could be picked off. They're IM football quality passes that are just going completely undefended. I'm sure if I looked at tape of another team's defensive breakdowns, I'd have similar findings - a lot of touchdowns come off of silly big plays - but probably not to this extent. Think of the throws Dan Persa makes for touchdowns. Many of them are incredible. His touchdown throw to Jeremy Ebert Saturday was threaded between two defenders on a third down. Northwestern doesn't ask opposing quarterbacks to do this. It asks them to make throws they make in QB-WR drills in practice. 

All five of the non-Illinois TD's come off of play action, I can't ascertain on all of them that the reason it's a touchdown is because the defenders took the bait, but I wouldn't be surprised if that's a factor. 

After the game on Saturday, Demetrius Dugar and Pat Fitzgerald said that defenders were unclear on certain plays whether they were playing man or zone. It's week seven, and "what type of defense am I supposed to play" is a problem. I hate calling things in sports "unacceptable", especially in college sports, because really, none of this matters. But this is unacceptable. There are multiple people who earn money to make sure some college students at my school don't play football horrendously, and right now, those people are doing a terrible job. I wouldn't be upset if this was just playing badly, or being less athletic than the opponent, or just making stupid mistakes. Any one of those would be understandable. But Northwestern's pass defense is doing all three this season, and I doubt they'll win a game against pretty much anybody if that continues to be the case. 

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