Every week, we'll examine one, or maybe more, we haven't figured it out yet, that stands out from Northwestern's game. It'll be a play that a) looked really pretty b) was well-designed c) was representative of strategies that worked well throughout the game d) was significant in the game e) had really sick individual performance, or, you know, some combination of all five. I'm not a football expert, I just read Smart Football a lot.
This week: Mike Trumpy's 34-yard gain on a misdirection play on Northwestern's third-quarter go-ahead touchdown drive, which moved NU from their own 47-yard line to the opposing red zone. It was NU's biggest gain of the day and was a tackle away from being a touchdown.
Why?: The gain is a result of three things that were huge factors all game long: first is the tremendous play of Northwestern's offensive line. Second is the passive Boston College defensive front - in this case, a four-man rush with two linebackers in the box - that allowed NU's o-line to be so dominant. Third is solid running back play displayed by Trumpy given a hole any running back would kill for.
After the jump, screenshots!
Here's how Northwestern breaks out of the huddle - err, no huddle. Shotgun, two split to either side. As you can see, the middle of the field is fairly open. With weakside linebacker Steele Divitto in pass coverage on the near side of the screen, the only defense in the middle of the field are the four defensive linemen and Luke Kuechly.
To open things up even more, Northwestern brings Drake Dunsmore in motion from the left of the offense to the right. This brings BC's focus away from that side of the field: In the first screenshot, you can see Kevin Pierre-Louis lined up directly over Dunsmore in pass coverage. Since it's a zone, he doesn't follow Dunsmore to the other side of the field. He merely shifts over a few yards towards the middle of the field and Kuechly moves over from from being lined up over Northwestern's left guard to over Northwestern's right tackle. There's now essentially nothing in the area the play is designed to go to between the left tackle and guard.
The ball is snapped, and Trumpy has already made a move to the right side indicating a play to that direction. It's almost imperceptible from these shots, but a more important move for the play has been made by Northwestern's offensive linemen. They've all taken a step to their right. In a zone blocking scheme, this indicates nothing: the play could still go to either side, making it impossible for defensive linemen to know the direction of the play based on the line's first step. This first step will allow Al Netter, the left tackle, to get into position to force his defender to the left to open up a hole for Trumpy between himself and Brian Mulroe.
A few things to note here: the obvious one is the entire play is shifting to the right, including Kain Colter, who is running towards Trumpy as if he's looking to one of the two receivers running pass routes on the bottom of the screen - a play style NU uses multiple times to make short passes to the sidelines, so, it's believable. Kuechly and Pierre-Louis, the linebackers, buy it wholeheartedly: they're pursuing to the right of the play, Kuechly presumably with his ears pinned back hoping to make a tackle should Colter scramble. Of course, this takes both of them out of position on the play.
The second thing to notice is what tipped me off to this play being a design and not merely a read by the QB: while the receivers on the bottom of the screen are selling their routes, Drew Moulton at the top is seeking out his cornerback, Dominique Williams, to make a block. For a while I was confused as to why Moulton didn't also run a route to sell the play even further, but I got to thinking: the odds that that corner completely buys into the play design of a pass/run to the right - and therefore takes himself completely out of the play - are probably a lot less than the odds that a nice block by Moulton will render one of the three defenders on the side of the play where the run is actually coming irrelevant.
Third, let's look at NU's offensive line. You see the guy Netter (75, his number is now perfectly facing the camera) is blocking? No? That's because in a little under a second, he's managed to easily turn his defender to the outside and is beginning to force him downwards, which is pretty much exactly what he wants to do. Now that defensive end has nothing to do with the play either. Since BC is only rushing four guys, there's nobody in the zone of Brandon Vitabile, the center. In a zone blocking scheme, with his first job - block the guy in your zone - clear, this means his duty is to help double-team someone else's pass rusher. Since the play is coming to the left, that'll be Brian Mulroe's guy. You can see Vitabile is shifting over to that side of the field.
Colter, having shifted over to the right, makes the give to Trumpy. Netter has demolished his man and is in the midst of pancaking him completely out of the play. Ever read people talking about how good Al Netter is at left tackle but never really understood why? Well, watch this play. His defender tries to hit the gap where the play will eventually go, instead, Netter effortlessly turns him left and pins him to the ground, taking away probably the most likely defender to make a difference on this play. That's good.
Elsewhere on the line, Mulroe has passed his defender off to Vitabile, who helped him on the double team, and is now moving upfield to his second responsibility, which is to put a block on a linebacker. This all means Trumpy is sprinting into a direction where there are literally no defenders. You can see Kuechly and Pierre-Louis realizing the play is now no longer going to the right, which is the direction they had been sprinting towards, and putting the brakes on. It's fun, because this is them realizing they're in trouble.
This is where I point out that with me as Northwestern's running back, this play is a gain of five.
Kuechly is a non-factor at the bottom of the screen, Mulroe is going to be able to prevent Pierre-Louis from making a play near the line of scrimmage, Moulton has his corner, Williams, sealed off, and the safety is 16 yards downfield.
Five yards downfield, Trumpy is going full speed, with Pierre-Louis converging and the safety coming up with Moulton's cornerback trying to break away from the tackle.
This is where we see the thing that eventually prevents this from being a touchdown: in an ideal world, Mulroe, having shifted his rusher off to Vitabile, would have been able to come out and block Pierre-Louis. However, he isn't fast enough: Pierre-Louis is a relatively quick linebacker and he's NU's left guard, and Pierre-Louis was four yards downfield when he started heading over to make the block. It's not Mulroe's fault this is a lost cause, if the linebacker had taken one step more pursuing the play to the right, Mulroe might have gotten downfield in time to make a block and Pierre-Louis would be out of the play. Here, it's clear that he's not going to catch up to the linebacker, who will be able to get in a position to make a play.
Here, it looks like the safety will be able to step up and make a play.
Luckily for Mike Trumpy and Northwestern, the safety in question is Hampton Hughes, a former walk-on wide receiver who converted to safety during camp. Making tackles isn't his forte.
Trumpy put on a simple juke to the left changing his direction just a little bit, and Hughes' dive for Trumpy's ankles came up short. In doing so, he crashes into the legs of Williams, the corner pursuing. In the last screenshot, that cornerback looked like he had a shot at making the tackle, but Hughes slows him down a bit by falling into him. It's now a footrace between Trumpy and Pierre-Louis.
Trumpy has a step but Pierre-Louis dives in a last-ditch effort of saving the touchdown.
It works, as he hangs on for dear life to one foot and drags Trumpy to the ground.
Northwestern's offensive line, as noted everywhere, did a great job allowing NU to put up over 200 yards rushing against a BC team that only allowed 80 yards per game last year. However, BC let them: time after time, Northwestern's line would be tasked with blocking four defenders and handled the job quite easily. Rather than attempt to pressure Kain Colter and force a sophomore starting his first game to make some bad decisions, they were content to drop a lot of guys into pass coverage and react, hoping middle linebacker Luke Kuechly could control the entire middle of the field. This is what you're supposed to do against, like, teams with great passing attacks that will pass almost every time. Why you'd assume this would be a good course of action for an entire game against a team with NU's QB situation that has been running over you all game is something I'm sure Frank Spaziani is wondering right now. Kuechly does have an impressive nose for the ball, but here that plays against him as he finds himself - and the rest of the defense - out of position. With great blocking and a poor defensive strategy, all Trumpy has to do is make a converted wide receiver miss to nearly take this play to the house.