Play of the Week: Salt on the Wound

The NU loss to Army blows a hole in my confidence in predicting 9 wins.  I remain optimistic for reasons I will explain at the end of this post, but this game is a reminder that Northwestern depends on precise execution against even relatively unimpressive FBS competition.  Your play of the week is a painful memory, but it encapsulates the way that an option team can beat a more athletic opponent by identifying and taking advantage of "assignment football."

Army had run 17 plays on their first possession of the game when Trent Steelman brought his team to the line for a 2nd and 6 at the Northwestern 17 yard line.  The teams lined up in the base formations for this game: Army in the wishbone with a split end to either side, Northwestern in a 3-4 defense with a nose tackle, the ends shaded inside Army's offensive tackles, and the outside linebackers playing close to and behind the ends.

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There has been some discontent about Northwestern's use of a 3-4 front against Army.  I am agnostic about the gameplan, particularly given the problem posed by injuries to Northwestern's defensive tackles.  Though the classic anti-wishbone defense is probably the 4-3 over system popularized in the 1980s by Miami, a 3-4 look presents a nose tackle who must be blocked on every play and should enhance defensive pursuit by getting another linebacker on the field.  Furthermore, If a team is thin at tackle anyways, using only three linemen can mitigate the problems this causes.

The basic tenets of the announcing catchphrase "assignment football" are clear when defending from this front: the defensive end crashes the dive, the outside linebacker takes the quarterback, and the secondary goes for the quarterback.  Meanwhile, everyone pursues once the ball gets outside of them.  Of course, the option would never have been successful if a random blogger could tell you how to shut down the offense in two sentences.  In this case, Army runs an option variant designed to take advantage of Northwestern's assignments to get the ball outside.  At the snap, Steelman reverse-pivots (that is, he spins right 270 degrees) and fakes to the fullback heading on a wide dive path.  The offensive line blocks down, leaving the Northwestern outside linebacker unblocked.  He steps inside, only to be met and blocked by the left halfback.  The fullback, meanwhile, heads outside off the fake and blocks the inside linebacker, who has moved outside to pursue the play.  The left split end ignores the NU cornerback and heads for the safety.

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Steelman is now living the option quarterback's dream, heading outside with the right halfback ready for the pitch and an isolated cornerback to beat.  He attacks the line and the NU corner executes his assignment: he gets ready to take on the pitchman.

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At this point, the inside linebacker almost fights off the fullback's block to make the play on Steelman.  The Army quarterback, however, is able to shake off the arm tackle and the play is otherwise perfectly executed: Steelman sees the cornerback being read commit to the pitch man and heads downfield.

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The final element of the touchdown is an excellent block by the receiver on the NU safety.  Steelman is able to cut upfield near the sideline and put Army up early in the game, setting the tone for the rest of the afternoon.

This play shows why option offenses are enjoying a renaissance at the FBS level: Army was able to use Northwestern's defensive gameplan to set up a read on the NU cornerback, with the rest of the defense trapped inside by the fake to the fullback and a well designed blocking scheme.  Combined with a good downfield block by a receiver, this produced the first touchdown of the day for an Army offense that would be expected to struggle if it lined up and ran the same old spread or pro-style offense as everyone else.  The wishbone might well be archaic, but it is more an alligator than a dinosaur: ungainly in appearance but deadly in its element.

Earlier, I mentioned that I remain optimistic about Northwestern going forward from this game.  This has several causes.  First and foremost, Army has shown the ability to execute their offense at a high level in all three games.  Northwestern actually held the Black Knights to their lowest yardage total of the year, giving up 387 yards on 82 plays (an average of 4.72 YPP).  San Diego State allowed 446 on 84 plays (5.31 YPP) and Northern Illinois 409 on 79 plays (5.18 YPP).  Northwestern did only manage one takeaway, while those teams each managed three.  Furthermore, NU ought to be better than either of those teams, so mildly outperforming them in yardage numbers is somewhat disappointing.  Still, Northwestern's defense outperformed either of Army's previous opponents by a couple of core metrics.

The Northwestern offense, however, struggled to sustain drives.  Kain Colter is the obvious scapegoat, but it is worth remembering that he is a sophomore quarterback with a grand total of three starts under his belt.  Furthermore, a glance at his season statistics shows a quarterback with a 65% completion percentage, 6.5 YPA, only one interception, and 237 rushing yards on 48 attempts (4.9 YPC).  These are not earth shattering statistics, but they are still respectable.  Unfortunately, young quarterbacks will sometimes struggle.  I think that Dan Persa's return is a reason to be optimistic about the offense going forward, but one down game isn't nearly enough to make me give up on Colter's future.

The Army loss is disappointing.  Still, Northwestern fans shouldn't despair.  Army may not have the athletes of a Big Ten program, but they are executing a nearly forgotten offensive scheme extremely well.  The defense will get some major players back, and nobody left on NU's schedule runs the wishbone.  Offensively, I remain convinced that Kain Colter's struggles on Saturday were only growing pains and that he will be a fine option going forward.  With Persa's likely return against Illinois, he shouldn't be needed to carry the load anyways.  One final factor works in Northwestern's favor: nobody on the conference schedule looks particularly good.  The road trip to Lincoln is probably the hardest game in the regular season, but Nebraska's defense has looked vulnerable against mediocre competition.  Northwestern won't be favored in many games going forward, but at the same time no game looks unwinnable.

In his preseason preview, Bill Connelly noted the way that Northwestern's offense and defense mirrored each other last year: the offense was efficient but completely devoid of explosiveness, while the defense was decent at preventing big plays but hopelessly inefficient.  Though Jeremy Ebert produced an explosive play on Saturday, Northwestern remains committed to essentially the same formula.  Army was the perfect team to take advantage of this: committed to making plays of 3-6 yards over and over on offense and willing to challenge NU's quarterbacks and receivers to make big plays on defense.  So while Army is not one of the best teams on Northwestern's schedule, they might have been the toughest schematic matchup.

On tap for next week: a look at Northwestern's drives in two minute situations and my theory on why the close game record of the Fitzgerald years may have a nonrandom component.  I get to write about successes for once!

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