In my inaugural contribution to the game prediction column, I predicted that Michigan would beat Northwestern 35-24 when NU proved unable to keep up with big plays from Denard Robinson and the Michigan passing game. I was off by a touchdown (my bad), but in the end I don't think that there is much to say about Northwestern's weaknesses after Saturday that wasn't obvious going into the game. Michigan is a very good team that I expect to win the division, and they demonstrated this by dominating in the second half. So instead of dwelling on the failures of the past, I am presenting an all positive edition of Play of the Week in honor of the rapidly approaching NU midseason winning streak. The play I chose was a 23 yard run by Adonis Smith that showed Northwestern adding wrinkles to offensive wrinkles.
Find out what went right after the jump!
With the game tied at 7 in the first quarter, Northwestern faced a 2nd and 4 from the Michigan 34. Northwestern lined up with Kain Colter at quarterback in a pistol formation with Adonis Smith behind Colter and Jacob Schmidt to his right. Michigan's defense showed a 4-2 front with a defender playing tight to each receiver. Before the snap, one safety backed out of the TV shot while the other headed into the box.
This formation and personnel screams run. Not only are there two backs in the backfield, Colter is also in the game to provide a greater run threat at quarterback. This is a versatile alignment that allows Northwestern to run almost every running play in the playbook. In particular, this pistol look allows Northwestern to run triple option plays effectively. In the most obvious version, Schmidt would head left on an inside zone path while Colter reads the circled defensive end like a standard zone read, with Adonis Smith getting in position for a pitch if Colter keeps and heads to the right. This allows Northwestern to use each runner where he is most effective: Schmidt banging inside, Colter looking for space in the alley, and Smith heading outside.
This is a good, sensible way to run triple option from this pistol set, but Northwestern is going to do something a little different. At the snap, Colter opens to read the defensive end on the offensive right. But instead of meshing with Schmidt heading across, he opens up to Smith running downhill. Schmidt, meanwhile, retreats and widens to get into a pitch relationship with Colter.
The DE stays home to pick up the QB, so Colter hands off to Smith. The blocking here isn't great; the offensive line is engaged with the defensive line, but is struggling to get any push even with double teams. The linebackers and safety in the box aren't being inconvenienced in the least by blockers peeling to the second level. Smith, however, cuts left and finds a crease in the line where Al Netter has completely walled his man outside and the guard next to him has turned his man inside. The linebackers are both sucked to the offensive right by something they see before completely taking themselves out of the play by walking into the mess at the line of scrimmage, and Smith is able to get downfield for a nice gain before the corner at the top of the picture manages to trip him up.
You can see in this image how Schmidt is ready to receive a pitch if Colter keeps. If we return to the presnap alignment to diagram the play, it looks something like this.
There are advantages and disadvantages to using this backfield in this way. Whereas the possibility diagrammed above, of Schmidt running the inside zone and Smith setting up for the pitch, plays to each runner's strengths, this arrangement sends the best outside runner inside and the best inside runner outside. Furthermore, Smith's path to the mesh results in him heading closer to the unblocked defensive end than Schmidt would. These are not insignificant disadvantages compared with the possibility outlined above.
So what does this backfield action do for Northwestern on this play? First, it gets the ball into Smith's hands. The defensive end can dictate whether or not the dive back gets the ball, but he can't dictate who this option is. This means that changes in the roles of the backs can take advantage of defensive decisions to force the ball to one option over another. The second advantage is more speculative: Schmidt's initial move to the offensive right may have influenced the linebackers, allowing the line to seal most of the defense to the right and helping to create room at the second level for Smith. It is basically impossible to tell what a football player is looking at from a TV shot, but this is one explanation for why the linebackers got caught up on the offensive right and nobody filled the gap that Smith ran through.
Northwestern's running attack, as one would expect, is most successful when it presents varied looks to the defense and forces the opponent to make hard decisions. Plays like the sprint draw that Rodger diagrammed after the BC game are a part of this, but plays like this one have a role to play as well. Whereas the draw serves as a specific counter for the Northwestern's rollout pass schemes, this play is basically a wrinkle, or really two wrinkles, off of the zone read,. First, the pistol formation presents a more directionally balanced run threat than the traditional shotgun. Second, using Schmidt as a pitch option draws the defense away from the frontside of the zone run. These combine with the use of a special personnel package to create problems for a defense that don't exist on a basic inside zone or zone read play. In this case, a little creativity went a long way, helping to spring Smith for Northwestern's longest run of the night.