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The Northwestern Offense: The Run Game

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Northwestern ran the ball on almost 60% of plays last season, and I am on record predicting more running this season. Expect to see the plays below the jump a lot next year.

Blocking Schemes

To my eye, Northwestern primarily used three blocking schemes last season: inside zone, outside zone, and power. Each of these schemes combines with different backfields to produce a few different run plays, so I will first discuss the schemes and then the plays Northwestern ran off of them.

The Base: Inside Zone

Northwestern's basic run is probably the most common scheme in college football right now: the inside zone. Chris Brown, as usual, has an excellent introduction to the inside and outside zones at Smart Football. The basic play is quite simple: the offensive line works towards the play side, working to push the defense back and to the sideline. The running back starts his path towards somewhere around the play-side guard. Once he has the ball, the running back is free to take the ball where the defense isn't. Against Texas A&M, the offense stripped the play down to its core, running the play without a running back, with Kain Colter simply taking the snap and running to daylight.

The most common wrinkle for a spread team like Northwestern is the simple zone read: instead of blocking a backside defender, the quarterback watches to see whether he pursues the running back and keeps the ball if he does. While there are some variations on the concept, Northwestern generally sticks to the classic read on the defensive end. As I will discuss at the end of the post, the zone read is also the starting point for most (if not all) of Northwestern's triple option schemes.

Outside Zone

Though many pro-style teams use the inside and outside zones to provide a base run and its counter, Northwestern ran the outside zone quite rarely last season as a simple handoff. The primary use of the blocking scheme in the Northwestern offense (if I understand the tape right) is as the base for the speed option. The basic concept is to run the pitch phase of an option play, looking to quickly threaten the edge. Within this scheme, there is significant room for variation. Though Northwestern primarily ran the play out of one-back formations, out of a two-back look you can use a lead blocker on the edge.

This is what you want to see:


This, not so much:


The most important choice on the play concerns which defender will be read. Northwestern ran the play leaving both defensive ends and outside linebackers unblocked. Reads on the defensive end were more common on those rare occasions when Persa ran speed option. This makes sense, as reading the end tends to result in a lot of quick pitches and more running back carries. Conversely, Northwestern preferred to read players at the second level when Colter was in the game, an option which offers more freedom for an athletic quarterback. I would expect reads of the defensive end to be quite rare unless injury or performance forces Colter out of the game.


The "Power" or "Power-O" scheme is another extremely common and versatile run blocking scheme. The distinguishing feature of the scheme is the backside guard pulling to serve as a lead blocker; in its classic form, a fullback kicks out the defensive end while the rest of the offensive line blocks down (that is, away from the play). As with the zone runs, Northwestern used both the simple scheme and an option variant. The simple scheme was a major part of the short yardage and goal line package, bringing a guard to lead the way when the yards get tough.

This was by far the less interesting use, though it accounted for the vast majority of the uses of the blocking scheme. The "inverted veer" play that I highlighted against Indiana was also based on the Power scheme, replacing a kickout block on the end with a read that sends a running back outside if the end sits down inside. I didn't see this play after the Indiana game, but I wouldn't rule out its reappearance, especially if Venric Mark establishes himself as a major part of the running game.

Note the end watching the exchange and the guard heading upfield to his right.


Triple Options

Traditional option schemes are notoriously complex and practice intensive. This is the price that option offenses pay for their effectiveness. Northwestern's triple option plays, on the other hand, can be considered simple backfield adjustments to the basic blocking schemes.

Northwestern builds a triple option by combining the zone read and speed option. The blocking is the same as on a zone read, with the backside defensive end left unblocked for the first read. If the quarterback keeps, the second back establishes a pitch relationship with the quarterback and the quarterback looks for his next key. This play can be run out of a formation with two backs:


Or the pitch man can start in the slot:


In the second picture, you can see the outside linebacker who will be the pitch key stepping up.


In the season opener against BC, Northwestern pulled out an interesting counter-draw for a big gain. Though the exact setup, faking a sprintout to set up a run in the other direction, was (as far as I know) new to Northwestern, it was a type of play that was common in the Randy Walker era that has mostly disappeared from the current offense. There are other such schemes: the wrap, with the backside tackle pulling to lead, was one of the classic spread runs that is hardly seen in college these days. Northwestern also used to run a counter that had the running back completely change direction after taking the handoff. Draws and delays were a bigger part of the offense in the early spread era.

In general, the current Northwestern run game is a stripped-down version of the system Walker developed. It emphasizes a small core of versatile plays which should allow the offense to threaten all parts of the field effectively. The current offense strongly emphasizes reading defenders, putting the quarterback squarely at the center of the run game.