Play of the Week: Path of Destruction

This was the kind of game where no one play stood out.  Northwestern won because they didn't punt until the fourth quarter; Venric Mark's muffed punt and a kneeldown to end the first half were the only NU possessions that didn't end in points before the offense downshifted at the end of the game.  That is to say, the first nine times that Northwestern's offense got on the field and attempted to advance the ball, they scored eight touchdowns and a field goal.  After that point, NU had two drives: a three and out on two runs and an incompletion, and a nine minute grind to kill the clock (17 plays, 54 yards.  Before kneeldowns, 14 plays for 62 yards).  So the NU offense really had only one unsuccessful drive in the entire game.  The Northwestern offense is good (matching Wisconsin's 59 point mark) and the Indiana defense is absolutely awful.

So what is your play of the week? You're going to have to jump to find out.

Venric Mark's potential as a returner is well known; after the last two weeks, his struggles to catch kicks have become nearly as notorious.  He has not, however, played a major role in the offense.  Even against Indiana, he only got four carries; of course, he made those carries count, picking up 47 yards.  Three of these carries came on variations of a single play, while the fourth came off a play related to the triple option play I diagrammed against Michigan.

Mark's first carry came on the third play of Northwestern's first drive.  After a pass to Drake Dunsmore on first down, NU faced 2nd and 2 from the Indiana 36.  The offense lined up with Colter at quarterback with Mark to his right and Jacob Schmidt to his left; Indiana is in a 4-2 front with two deep safeties, though there is some confusion about the alignment of the defenders over the receivers to the left.

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At the snap, Mark runs on an outside path to the left.  The defensive end to this side is unblocked, while Schmidt leads left and the right guard pulls.  Colter reads the end, who stays home; he therefore hands off to Mark.

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This is what Chris Brown calls the inverted veer, with Power blocking.  Whereas Power traditionally uses one player to kick out the end and a pulling guard to lead the runner, this play replaces the kick out with a read; if the end stays home it becomes a sweep, while if he pursues outside the quarterback follows the guard into the hole.  In either case the play offers a good chance of breaking off a big gain.  In this case the end is sitting on Colter, so he hands off to Mark heading outside.  The receivers do a good job on the two defenders lined up over them, while Schmidt gets a piece of a linebacker.

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This leaves the playside safety with an impossible task.  He forces Mark outside for a gain of 14.

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It is worth noting a few things about this play.  First, the formation strongly suggests an outside run; Northwestern has usually used the pistol or split backs deeper than the quarterback for option looks this year.  I can't recall seeing this formation, with two backs level with the quarterback, at all this season before the Indiana game.  Second, while a great play, the inverted veer requires a certain defensive alignment.  As long as the defense gives a clear end and the offense can reliably seal pursuers inside, it offers a reliable gainer; if these conditions are not met, it cannot be run.  This makes inside runs and bubble screens important to ensure the proper defensive alignment.  This play, to me, sums up why NU dominated on offense: Indiana gave a vulnerable defensive look and allowed NU to pick up 14 without any particularly impressive individual performances.

Mark's next carry came in the red zone later in the first quarter.  It is first and goal from the 7, and Colter is once again the quarterback.  Treyvon Green is the back behind Colter, while Mark is in the slot to the short side of the field.

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Colter reads the end to his right; when he crashes down, Colter pulls the ball out of Green's gut and heads right while Mark gets into a pitch relationship.

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Colter now reads the man lined up over Mark before the snap; Colter pitches when the defender stands his ground.

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Because this is in the red zone, the playside safety is able to pursue hard to the outside; still, Mark fights forward and almost gets into the end zone.  The play design is reminiscent of the big gain to Adonis Smith that I highlighted after the Michigan game, with a slot receiver filling the role of the second running back in that play.  The way Mark finishes the run is really impressive for a guy his size.

Mark's two remaining carries were on the inverted veer, but each showed a cosmetic wrinkle.  Mark's third carry was the final play of the first quarter.  After a pass interference penalty, NU had first and ten from the Indiana 26.  Colter is once again the quarterback, with Schmidt behind him to his right and Mark in the left slot.  Before the snap, Mark motions towards Colter.

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This motion sets up the play.  A formation that suggests a pass or inside run now has the fastest player on the field threatening an outside run.  The blocking is the same as the first play run to the left instead of the right: a guard pulls, Colter reads the end, and Schmidt releases to seal pursuit inside.  This time, the linebacker flows hard outside, evading Schmidt's block, and forces Mark outside, where he only picks up 6 yards.

Mark's final carry came on the third play of the third quarter.  After two consecutive passes from Persa to Colter, NU has a first down at the Indiana 48.  The formation is back to the first formation: Mark is to Colter's left, with Schmidt to his right.  The receivers have cut down their splits and are closer to each other than on the earlier play.

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Notice just how much space the reduced receiver splits produce; with the outside receiver just inside the hashmark, an outside run to the right offers plenty of room to work with.  The inverted veer scheme should be familiar by now: the left guard pulls, Schmidt seals the playside linebacker, and the receivers each take care of the nearest defender.  Mark heads outside with lots of green in front of him.

Nuvuimarktightinvertread_medium

The blocking on this play is fantastic.  With the corner backing off and the inside defenders sealed inside, Indiana's secondary has to force Mark outside and prevent him from getting the corner.  They manage this, but Mark gets 21 yards before they are able to force him out of bounds.

The plays lead to a few conclusions.  First, they illustrate the way that Northwestern's offensive coaches are fitting players into specific schemes to produce rushing offense without a feature back.  Mark is a dangerous player in space, but he isn't a complete back at this point in his career.  Using him as a pitchback and on the inverted veer maximizes his talents without requiring the rest of the offense to learn anything new.  Second, the three inverted veers show how cosmetic variations can make one play look and function differently.  Motioning Mark drew attention to the outside run; while it helped the linebacker get to the play in this case, this quick reaction presents opportunities to create big plays on counters to the veer.  Changing receiver splits can change defensive spacing, preventing them from getting comfortable with defending static offensive looks.  It also helps disguise tendencies, as some passes require tighter splits; by running from this formation, the offense can prevent the defense from keying on receiver splits as a tell.  

Fun Fact: after Saturday, Northwestern has scored 253 points and allowed 252 on the season.  Another bizarre (and unsurprising) stat: according to Bill Connelly's S&P+, before the Indiana game NU had played up and down to their opponents more than any team in the country.  This will likely not be true after this weekend's numbers are taken into account.

Next week's game looms large in salvaging a bad first two thirds of the season.  In spite of Minnesota's win against Iowa, they are a terrible team.  Rice is also not good at all.  Northwestern should win those two games handily.  The other two remaining opponents played on Saturday in a game that you can take as positively or negatively as you want.  On the one hand, the road game in Lincoln looks even more intimidating after Nebraska crushed a Michigan State team fresh off beating Wisconsin; on the other, this is the same Nebraska team that got handled in Madison and hasn't impressed on defense before Saturday.  Michigan State now has two losses, both eggs on the road, to go with a solid win over Michigan and the win over Wisconsin on a play measuring approximately 1.3 Victory Rights.  You could see the game as a sign that neither Nebraska nor Michigan State is much beyond the bloated middle of the Big Ten, or you could see it as a struggle within an upper tier far above Northwestern.  Whatever the case, Taylor Martinez's skills mean that the offense will need to pull out all the stops to give Northwestern a shot at the upset.

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