Normally, I try to look at plays that I think made a big difference in the outcome of the game. This week, however, I came up short when looking for plays. Trumpy's touchdown iced the game, but BC was already out of timeouts and Northwestern only needed a first down to be able to run out the clock. In any case, it was a boring play: a basic run, well executed. The defense did a great job by forcing a fumble inside the five yard line, but this was another routine play where Brian Arnfelt happened to get a hand on the ball. Otherwise, the game was a steady effort from both sides of the ball, with only one long pass for the offense and one big play allowed by the defense.
Without major plays to explain why Northwestern won, I decided to look at the plays that defined the flow of the game: Northwestern's repeated offensive red zone struggles. Jump for a look at the plays that could have cost Northwestern the game.
First Trip to the Red Zone
On Northwestern's first drive, 10 plays (including 3 of Kain Colter's 4 incompletions on the day) brought Northwestern to the BC 17 on 3rd and 2. The offense lined up with a three receiver bunch left and a single receiver right.
Before the snap, Venric Mark motions from the backfield to the left sideline. BC widens the corner over the bunch to cover Mark and moves a linebacker into position to blitz off the offensive left edge.
The massive cushions on Mark at the top and Kyle Prater at the bottom invite quick throws, but Northwestern doesn't take advantage. Colter takes the snap and looks right as the linebacker blitzes untouched off the left edge.
Nobody is looking for a hot throw. Before Prater goes into his break, Colter looks back left where he has a few choices. Unfortunately, the linebacker has arrived while Colter was looking off the coverage.
There are receivers open here, but Colter doesn't have much of a chance. He makes a great move to escape the first rusher and tries to scramble before being dragged down from behind.
This play failed because Colter didn't adjust to the blitz. Dan Vitale, running to the left flat, was a potential hot receiver, though he didn't look for the ball immediately upon releasing. Prater is open on the slant, but I don't think that Colter ever intended to work his side of the field and only looked in that direction to keep the middle of the coverage from converging on his primary receivers. An immediate throw to Venric Mark likely picks up the first down and maybe more, but once again Mark also didn't think that he was a hot read. If Northwestern had a response to the blitz built into this play, I can't find it. In any case, Colter appeared not to see the blitzer coming, so any hot reads wouldn't have been thrown.
Second Trip to the Red Zone
On Northwestern's second drive, a 41 yard throw to Tony Jones and a mixture of Kain Colter and Venric Mark runs got the ball inside the ten. On second and goal from the 6, Northwestern lined up with an empty backfield. Mike Trumpy is in the left slot, lined up deeper in the backfield than the other slot receivers. BC has most of the defense scattered sideline to sideline to defend the pass, with only the four defensive linemen between the tackles; a quarterback trap or draw in this situation has a great chance of scoring.
Instead, Trumpy motions towards the formation. Colter fakes a handoff as Trumpy passes in front of him before setting up in the pocket.
BC doesn't give the fake much respect. The TV angle cuts off the outside receiver to the right, but the other three are fairly well covered (the receiver in the middle of the field looks much less open on video). The protection is decent, but Matt Frazier gets pushed into Colter's face to apply a little pressure. Trumpy is available for a checkdown to the right, though he doesn't have a great chance of doing anything but getting back to the line of scrimmage. Colter decides to run it himself instead, which I think is the right decision. No offense to Trumpy, but I would rather Colter try to run the ball in from the ten than Trumpy.
I think Colter has a shot if he went outside to the left, but the defensive end manages to keep Colter inside and one of the other defensive linemen gets his feet to limit the gain to 3.
This is the play that has stuck in many people's minds. Northwestern comes out with a tight end and two receivers right and a single receiver left. BC stacks the box and puts a defensive back over each of the receivers on the line and Dan Vitale at tight end.
BC rushes four and drops seven, while Northwestern gets all five eligible receivers into the pattern. The protection is perfect.
Unfortunately, Colter turns his hips and starts scrambling. He makes it to the line of scrimmage and no further.
The BTN broadcast crew slammed Colter for missing Vitale, and they were correct that he was open, though the throw wouldn't have been easy. Rashad Lawrence, however, did an excellent job of rubbing his man off and was open on the offensive right. Trumpy released out of the backfield and also worked his way free. Instead, Colter got happy feet in a well-formed pocket and scrambled for no gain.
Third Trip to the Red Zone
This time, Trevor Siemian led a classic Northwestern dink and dunk drive to the BC 18. A throw to a well covered Cameron Dickerson on first down was knocked away, and a nice keeper on an inverted veer on second down brought up a third and 3 from the BC 11. Northwestern comes out with a three receiver bunch left and a single receiver right.
At the snap, Mark heads left for a swing pass and the bunch sets up blocking.
Siemian's throw is hard and a little off target, and Mark drops the ball for an incompletion. There were multiple errors on this play. Dan Vitale, the inside player in the bunch, allows his man to come upfield, possibly influencing Siemian's throw. Siemian doesn't throw the most catchable ball possible. Mark still should have made the catch and would likely have had a first down; instead, Jeff Budzien got a little more work.
Fourth Time in the Red Zone
Siemian once again led a drive to get NU to the BC 14. A short first down completion to Mike Trumpy and a Venric Mark run for no gain set up a third and six from the 10. Northwestern lines up in the trips bunch formation with the bunch right and motions Venric Mark from the backfield to wide right (like the Colter sack but to the other side of the field).
Siemian rolls right. Dan Vitale, lined up as the inside man in the bunch, blocks down on the defensive end to seal the edge. The other two receivers and Mark release downfield.
Mark hooks up at the first down marker, Rashad Lawrence runs a corner, and Christian Jones curls up at the goal line. Siemian throws to an open Mark.
The throw is high, but Mark brings it down. He is immediately hit and knocked back. His second effort can't get back to the sticks, and he is marked down at the five.
I like this play a lot. The protection made great use of a superback lined up where he would normally be expected to run a route. Particularly combined with this protection, the rollout offers the defense the additional threat of the quarterback running, which should open things up. An otherwise difficult throw to Mark becomes much easier by moving the quarterback's launch point. The only negative is the placement of the throw; if Siemian keeps this one down, Mark is in a little better shape to absorb the hit and might pick up the first down. Faced with fourth and one, Fitz decided to go for the kill. Unfortunately, on the next play, Northwestern comes out under center for a QB sneak, Siemian can't handle the snap, and BC recovers.
Fifth Time in the Red Zone
This trip came on the longest NU drive of the game (19 plays for 94 yards all told). After picking up a first and goal at the eight, a two yard Mike Trumpy run put the ball on the six. The offense came out with an empty backfield, with Trumpy in the right slot.
Trumpy motions across, Colter fakes the handoff, and the protection sets up well.
Colter sees Christian Jones come open in the back of the endzone. Then things get interesting.
Look at that footwork! Colter never really gets set after the fake, and he actually steps away from the line of scrimmage with his front foot while trying to drop the ball to Jones at the back of the end zone. Unsurprisingly, the ball sails too high for an incompletion.
On the next play, Northwestern again lines up with an empty backfield.
This time, BC shows blitz. Colter looks over the defense and calls out an adjustment. BC blitzes at the snap and gets a free rusher coming off the offensive right edge. Colter sees him coming and looks like he might throw hot to Trumpy.
Trumpy would have a chance to make a man miss if Colter gets him the ball here. He seems to be looking for a quick throw, suggesting that he is the hot read if the edge rusher comes. Instead, Colter scrambles left; I think he decides that Trumpy has drifted too far inside to get a throw past the rusher. Nobody else that I can see on the TV feed gets open.
Colter makes a spectacular effort, but he was never likely to get into the end zone by going in this direction. He makes it to the two, and Budzien comes out for another field goal. Sigh.
It was an ugly day all around; in my view, the quarterbacks grade out similarly poorly on their red zone performance. Colter's footwork problem on the play where he missed Christian Jones is a simple mechanical error which should be easily fixed. His other major negative play was failing to find Vitale, Lawrence, or Trumpy on the second trip to the red zone, a play on which he appeared skittish even when the protection was good. The sack on the first trip was a case of BC's scheme winning; considering that the play was likely scripted to see how BC would respond to Mark motioning out of the backfield, I give Colter the benefit of the doubt on that one. On the final drive, Colter needs to get the ball out of his hand, though Trumpy may have made the throw more difficult than it should have been.
Siemian wasn't great inside the twenty, either. On his first trip, he and Mark killed the drive when they failed to hook up on an easy play that both quarterbacks threw with some success during the rest of the day. His third down throw on the next trip was passable, but the fumbled snap on fourth down was a disaster. In his defense, Northwestern is a shotgun team and the quarterbacks don't get much work taking snaps under center. If I am not mistaken, the only other play Northwestern has run from under center this year was Colter's touchdown against Syracuse on another quarterback sneak. While I understand the temptation to just line up and sneak in short yardage situations, a team that doesn't run many plays from under center might be better using the pistol formations we have seen in most short yardage situations and forfeiting the ability to sneak.
Last of all, Mick McCall could have helped his quarterbacks out in a few ways. I don't entirely agree with the proponents of more running, as Northwestern tried to run in the red zone a fair amount without much success (I count 7 called rushes for 23 yards and a fumble out of 16 total play in the red zone. Things got worse the closer the offense got to the goal line, as 15 of those yards came from two runs: Siemian's seven yarder from the 18 and an eight yarder from the 20). Maybe going to the heavy package would have improved things, maybe not. One place where I would like to see a run, however, is the situation where Colter is alone in the backfield and the defense abandons the middle of the field.
In the passing game, empty backfields require the quarterback to complete passes to a hot receiver sometimes. Northwestern, however, seems resigned to hot throws being the only remedy to blitzes. Siemian had a nice throw (reminiscent of his touchdown pass against Army) in one of these situations, but Colter consistently struggles in them. Some screens to the receivers would punish defenses that want to blitz when Colter gets into empty formations. Likewise, when a quarterback is unsure of his protection and trying to take off quickly, getting him on a rollout can both help the protection and make the scramble more effective if the quarterback pulls the ball down. Hopefully, McCall has some adjustments in mind to help Colter be more consistent in his footwork and to punish blitzing defenses; South Dakota should give the offense an opportunity to work these out before conference play begins.