Play by play: Who was on the field for Northwestern vs. WMU

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Have you ever wondered what offensive players are on the field the most for NU? How NU manages its substitution patterns? Does the personnel differ when Colter is at QB vs. Siemian? Does Fitz put in different guys for running plays vs. passing plays? 1st down vs. 3rd down?

Well, I've been curious about those things, so I rewatched the Western Michigan game and for every offensive play Northwestern ran, I charted which receivers, running backs and superbacks were on the field. It was really tedious!

But since I did the work, I might as well share it here. A few interesting patterns (and non-patterns) emerged. The caveat here is that this is just one game, and these stats may or may not be indicative of anything, since different opponents call for different game plans, and injuries can force a shift in strategy.

Against WMU, NU had 76 offensive snaps, including plays called back by penalties, while the starters were still in the game, which was every possession except the last two. Of those 76 snaps, 49 were called runs and 27 were passes. (There was one false start penalty that I arbitrarily lumped in with the passes.)

Obviously, in our option-happy offense, some plays can go as either runs or passes, depending on the QB's reads, but I've tried to take my best guess at each play to determine what was the original call. Sometimes, like on a QB scramble, it's easy to see that a pass was the designed call, but other times, like on a play-action/option screen pass (which we ran a few times), the distinction is a bit blurrier.

A few general observations before I go into the position-by-position breakdowns:

There were no discernible differences in what down players come in on. We have a goal line package, but other than that, the backs and receivers all seem fungible. Everybody was also equally in on runs vs. passes, with the exception of Christian Jones, who saw most of his action on the field for passing plays.

Colter and Siemian, for the most part, got to handle drives all on their own, with no mid-drive switching, except once, when Colter came up limping after fumbling.

If you want to look at my full spreadsheet, linky here.

RUNNING BACKS

Green Trumpy Hanrahan M.Jones Buckley Long
Colter at QB 20 24 1 18 0 0
Siemian at QB 21 2 4 4 7 3
Running plays 26 17 5 17 5 2
Passing plays 15 9 0 5 2 1
1st Down 27 10 3 15 3 1
2nd Down 11 11 2 7 3 2
3rd Down 3 5 0 0 1 0
Goalline 2 5 3 2 0 0
TOTAL SNAPS 41 26 5 22 7 3


Despite being listed as an "or" on the depth chart, Green is clearly the lead back. He participated in 41 out of the 76 snaps, while Trumpy got 26 (Green and Trumpy shared the backfield on one snap, but otherwise only one was on the field at a time.) In terms of official carries, those numbers bear this out, too, with Green getting 20 rushes and Trumpy eight.

Green got the first abbreviated drive to himself, and then Trumpy got the second to himself. But after that, it was mostly Green starting out each drive, with Trumpy spelling him, except for one in the second quarter that Trumpy got to himself and another in the third, where Trumpy coughed up a fumble on the first play. In all, Green started eight drives; Trumpy three

Neither Green nor Trumpy was targeted in the passing game. But NU had at least one running back in on every passing play, sometimes split out wide. Trumpy was the RB in on every 3rd and long (5+ yards) except one, and Trumpy also got the majority of the goalline (from the 10 yard line and in) action. Trumpy also spent the majority of his snaps with Colter in the game, which makes sense as Trumpy appears to be better suited for blocking than Green, in Colter's option-heavy schemes.

Malin Jones got 22 snaps, mostly playing in what appears to be Tyris Jones' old role, as primarily a lead blocker/dive guy in that wishbone/pistol formation with four players in the backfield. LTP speculates that he's being converted into a superback, which explains why Warren Long got his redshirt burnt. I'm not entirely sure I buy into that fully, at least not yet. Jones also got the vast majority of his snaps with Colter in the game, which makes sense due to the formations he's in.

Buckley got a couple of carries in the first half to spell Green, but otherwise saw limited action until the third to last drive, when NU had a comfortable 21-point lead in the 4th quarter. He would add two more carries with Zack Oliver at QB in the penultimate drive, which I did not chart. Likewise, Long got his only two carries and catch in that third to last drive. Both saw a lot of action, along with Malin Jones, on special teams, though.

SUPERBACKS

VITALE SZOTT
Colter at QB 39 3
Siemian at QB 26 2
Running plays 41 5
Passing plays 25 0
1st Down 37 3
2nd Down 19 2
3rd Down 9 0
Goalline 7 3
TOTAL SNAPS 65 5


Vitale was an absolute workhorse, getting in on 65 out of the 76 snaps, which seems pretty amazing considering how much physical running and blocking his position requires. Sometimes he lines up as a receiver, other times in the backfield as a blocker. He had a quiet day catching the ball, with just one reception on three targets, but he was on the field for 25 of NU's 27 called passing plays. He was also in on every goalline snap, and every 3rd down.

Szott came in mostly on goalline formations.

In all, NU used at least one superback on 67 out of the 76 plays I charted.

WIDE RECEIVERS

T.JONES C.JONES LAWRENCE JENSEN PRATER DICKERSON
Colter at QB 33 18 31 13 11 12
Siemian at QB 18 15 21 15 10 8
Running plays 31 13 32 23 14 14
Passing plays 20 20 20 5 7 6
1st Down 30 15 30 13 9 9
2nd Down 17 12 18 12 7 7
3rd Down 4 6 4 3 5 5
Goalline 4 2 4 3 0 0
TOTAL SNAPS 51 33 52 28 21 20

The wide receiver substitution patterns were interesting, as I had never analyzed this before. Prior to charting this game, I thought that our wide receivers substituted randomly, but that wasn't the case.

Tony Jones and Rashad Lawrence are the clear starters, getting in 51 and 52 snaps, respectively. And almost all of the time, they were out there together. When they were subbed out, they were almost always replaced by Kyle Prater and Cameron Dickerson in tandem.

There was no pattern that I could see for when Jones/Lawrence came out for Prater/Dickerson. In other words, Prater/Dickerson being in the game did not indicate whether it was a run vs. a pass, whether it was 3rd and long vs. 1st and 10, or whether Colter was at QB or Siemian. It seemed to be purely a case where Prater/Dickerson would come in to give Jones/Lawrence some rest.

Christian Jones was the only WR whose snap ratio was heavily skewed towards the pass. And he ended up having the most passes thrown his way with 7 (he caught 5). At least for this game, whenever C. Jones was on the field, you could pretty well guess that a pass was going to be called. It'll be interesting to see if opposing defensive coordinators pick up on this fact, if indeed it's a trend. Would need to break down the Cal and Syracuse game films to see if that's the case.

Andrew Scanlan and Cermak Bland, despite being listed on the two-deep as backups to Jensen and C.Jones, didn't get on the field for any offensive plays until garbage time, when Zack Oliver took over behind center with the rest of the backups.

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