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Williams: Strange Case of Northwestern Football

Former Northwestern linebacker Nate Williams will be providing X's and O's commentary about NU's games each week. Here's his breakdown of NU-Minnesota.

Initial Reaction:

This analysis was something I was really trying put off for as long as possible. I didn’t partake in the prediction thread because I simply didn’t know what team would show up on Saturday. It’s truly a Jekyll and Hyde scenario we seem to be having as of lately.

So who would show up? Would it be the team that went toe to toe with the No. 4 team in the nation, the one that was going to be putting up 35 points in one half, the team that had to put up big offensive numbers because of an opportunistic defense that was susceptible at best, or….. would it be the team whose defense turned into a stout unit, and an offense with an anemic front five, a QB who is uncomfortable in the backfield and a sense of conservatism in the booth (Spoiler Alert - it was the latter).

I knew the defense was continuing to improve upfront so it didn't come as a surprise that they performed very well. They weren’t perfect by any means, and still have some lingering issues but overall it was a good outing, and any inclination about them not performing well just because of a “lack of turnovers” out of the coaching staff is likely just “Coach Speak”. The offense on the other hand was a complete abomination of what is Big Ten football, and what has been described as Northwestern football in the past 4-5 years.

Defense:

Overall, I was very satisfied with this unit. Just like last week they gave us an opportunity to win and even more so this time around. Last week it was only for 25 minutes with help from 2 turnovers, and this time around it was nearly all 60 minutes, all due to just good defense upfront, a solid pass rush, and for the most part good coverage (with one obvious exception). They were also what appeared to be the only guys having fun out there.

I thought they came in with a pretty solid game plan that was pretty similar to last week. They loaded the box and made Minnesota's QBs win the game for them which its hard to argue they did. Minnesota wanted to run the football and throw the occasional play action pass to keep the Northwestern Offense off the field. Only problem was that Northwestern's Offense was keeping themselves off as much as Minnesota was trying via their offensive game plan.

The defensive line had a very good outing, made good fits, got a solid amount of pressure on the QB even on play action, and were able to get a few sacks out of it. The 3rd down package of 4 DEs played out very well as a much slower and not as athletic O-Line as we’ve seen in the past 2-3 weeks was not able to contain a lot of our pass rush. All 3 of the NU sacks came at very opportune times and its unfortunate our offense wasn't able to make anything from the energy created out of the defense. I also really enjoyed Ifeadi Odenigbo sack dance “saber pull” too.

I felt the linebackers had one of their best outings all year from a fundamental and production standpoint. Collin Ellis was all over the field, both Proby and Ellis found a lot of action in the backfield, and Chi Chi as well as Drew Smith both had very solid play. I saw very few missed tackles and missed opportunities on plays. This was certainly encouraging to see after how poorly this unit looked in the last half of play against Wisconsin. One thing I do continue to notice is that when they do get sucked up in the Play Action Pass they stay in “no mans land”. They are coached to either continue the rush to virtually become another blitzer or turn straight back around, run to the nearest target and get as much depth as possible. The play action passes I saw, there is always at least one LB up around the LOS looking a little lost on the play. This is something that will come with more experience, but this is already an experienced unit. Hopefully they will fix this fast, as we will see at least 2 or 3 more teams with similar offenses.

The only thing most of you will likely remember from the secondary unit, is Dwight White beating himself on the play action for a TD and get a personal foul penalty (which was pretty ticky-tacky). A lot will also say he probably got “Beat”, he did, he didnt help himself either. He didn’t bite on the PAP but got out of position by opening his hips in the wrong direction and doing a 180, which is why you’ll still see him and Matt Harris competing for the spot. I think this may have been the most physical game out of I. Campbell and the rest of the secondary. I had voiced concern for opposing teams WRs RBs and QBs heads falling off due to collisions with Campbell and it almost happened again, love his play. If it wasn't for VanHoose taking a huge blow by Minnesota's QB this would have been their most physically dominating performance out of a NU secondary since NU v. Iowa in 2008.

I had read in the Monday presser today that the staff was disappointed in not getting any turnovers out of our Defense. Yes, getting turnovers correlates to winning football games. However, its tough to do when one team only puts the ball in the air 14 times and almost all in play-action. We’ve been more than lucky in the past with how we’ve “created” some of our turnovers in the past, we were bound to not get any eventually. They almost created one, and were routinely trying to strip the football. Either way, solid day.

Offense:

Almost a month ago now, I wrote this:

"Despite not having Kain or Venric, Northwestern can still run the football and win football games. Though Trevor had a pair of interceptions, I was still very very impressed with his day. He looked like Dan Marino out there, studly performance. Siemian showed great poise in the pocket, delivered on smooth throws and used his feet admirably when needed."

Where did this go to? Where do I even begin? What in the world has crept up on this team to tear apart their mojo? I think it may be a number of things and it starts first and foremost with the coaching, line play and its overall affect on the QB.

Now to look entirely on the coaches wouldn't necessarily be fair, early in the year the players were executing at near perfection then went to mediocre execution then to absolutely zero execution. Execution has been a hallmark of this offense, and it hasn't been happing. However, lets remember one thing.... we run a spread offense. A spread offense has always been used to attack defenses vertically by spreading the defense horizontally, splitting superior athletes (which we have) out wide, widen alignment of typically inferior OL for gashing run plays, and typically run an uptempo pace. Where has that vanished to?

We saw little to no vertical attack, gashing runs only on one drive I can think of, and little to none uptempo offense. I think one of two things or a combination of these things are happening. Either 1.) the staff is trying to get Trevor feeling comfortable with quick easy throws and getting him out of the pocket, or 2.) they simply aren't very confident in Trevor at the moment or complete lack of confidence in the offensive line.

Before we look at Trevor's play, I think its more appropriate to take a look at the lack of performance out of the OL. Routinely our interior OL can not keep the QB clean, they simply get driven back nearly every play. With only Trevor being at the helm defenses know they can dial up the pressure up the middle, and not have to worry about him escaping too often. Its rattling for any QB. Simply put, defensive coordinators have figured us out with Trevor at QB and it revolves completely around the OL. Coordinators have a lack of respect for our front 5 and they should. Until they buck up and vastly improve we will see this the remainder of the year. I could be wrong, but I have seen very little rotation with our line which leads me to believe we don't have anyone that can step in and make it a competition, which is very disheartening.

I think Siemian has not felt comfortable since the Ohio State game. I'm no QB coach but I routinely see him throwing off his back foot and off balance even when pressure is not quite existent. Which tells me he flat out isn't comfortable with the OL play, and this is why you are now seeing a lot of his balls high and off target. In the first game against Cal, he showed to be poised in the pocket stepped into his throws, took hits, and delivered on time and on target. Its pretty obvious he is in a bit of a funk, his body language just isn't there and it affects the rest of the offense. If we can just give Trevor a little more time in the pocket and a little more separation out the WRs we can hopefully see the more confident, cool and collected Siemian we have all been accustomed to, or maybe we just need Kain back to take some pressure off him and get his mojo back.

The receivers played adequately but overall need to do a better job of getting separation on man coverage early and often. Especially if this is the kind of defense we will see routinely: reckoning havoc on our OL. This is where just being playmakers comes into play, but they weren't really given that opportunity very often with uber-conservative play calling. Christian Jones had a good game would have been great if it wasn't for his one big drop where he took his eyes off the ball at the last second before turning up the field. Tony Jones had a very good game and his one play on 3rd down with second effort breaking two tackles was quite impressive on a throw that likely shouldn't be thrown in a near double coverage checkdown short of the 1st down marker. Which brings me to my next point of playcalling.

I really do not understand how conservative we were and have been offensively. We only tested them deep a few times, and it really seems like we never use our players talents accordingly. For example, Trevor only throwing quick throws, bubble screens, and actual screens. Are we not going to use our QB who, when playing well makes beautiful deep downfield passes? If we are going to abandon the spread offense by its definition, why not bring an extra couple blockers, and run 2-3 man routes, let our QB get comfortable with what he is good at. Why do we run a power running game when Trevor is in with lineman more fit for the spread O? Why did we completely abandon the running game after the 1st TD drive? How else can we set up play action and take some pressure off of Trevor and get him testing the secondary vertically like he does best. I honestly do not see the proper or appropriate management of talent. Spread offenses were meant to attack vertically not dink and dunk all day then bring in tight formations for running plays. It seemed like all game Trevor was playing with Kains playbook of throws, and our offense as really become pretty bad in terms of tendencies and given away plays with alignments just on the basis of being conservative, but that is an article for another day.

Outlook:

Grim. There is no other way to put it. I would love to be an optimist again but this past performance has left me guessing too much. Kain is likely going to be limited in the coming weeks, so we will probably see a similar performance out of our offense unless some pretty significant changes happen. The only good thing about this weeks opponent is that Iowa is notorious for playing a very conservative base defense with very little pressure, but who knows, after seeing our past two games they may throw a change-up. I called our "Bugaboo" opponent to be the prototypical Big Ten Team with a prostyle offense who runs and runs play action who also has a stout front 7 on defense, and so far I've been right. Unfortunately we still have to play MSU and Iowa who are that, along with Nebraska who is improving and Michigan isn't too far away from where we are.

9-3 is crazy to think of at the moment, 8-4 is optimistic, 7-5 likey, 6-6 or worse and I might have to move to lose all faith in humanity. For now I'll continue to just act crazy and think we will go 9-3. Fingers crossed.

Go Cats!