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Williams: Wildcats Are "Almost" There

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-OSU.

Initial Reaction:

What a great overall experience the entire day was. I came down with flu like symptoms the friday before and still trucked on with 6am Gameday, full day of tailgating and getting rained on and a game that if a handful of plays that either a. didn't happen or b. go our way, we would have seen the biggest win of the Pat Fitzgerald era. If you missed College Gameday its a shame, it was truly a well put together production. If only the percentage of NU to OSU fans were the same for the game as it was for College Gameday, so to most of you East Side Season Ticket Holders - Shame on you. I know, it poured rain and initially called for downpours during the game in days prior, but it was Homecoming against a top 5 team. I don't want to get too far off topic, but this team, this staff and these 100+ 18-22 year olds deserve better. Kudos to the Students for coming out and providing an electric stadium environment, without them, all of Evanston would have heard the “O-H-I-O” chants.

Now with that said, lets get back into the game and what I saw this time from an in stadium perspective. I had predicted a 2 score Northwestern win, and it almost could have been. I think I was pretty right on about having a very favorable matchup in the trenches, granted OSU was able to run the ball pretty well on us in the 2nd half but I think we can at least call the day a wash between the two units of both teams. I really liked what the defensive staff put together to rattle Miller and their Offensive line, and I thought they did a tremendous job in the secondary not allowing any big plays, or glaring miscommunications. From the offense, I knew we would have a similar output as we did when we played Indiana last year. Kain took over the game, and though Venric didn't have that many rushing yards, he really added another dimension to the offense and special teams. If Siemian doesn't throw the one ball to the field flat against a man defense, we definitely win this game and he has one of his best games yet. I feel if anything that game showed everyone that Northwestern has the athletes at the skill positions to compete with any team in the nation.

Offense:

The NU offense looked like it was an INT, Botched snap, and a slightly better redzone gameplan away from having its best performance of the year. Kain played tremendous, Trevor played near perfection, the receivers never dropped a catchable ball, and the RBs looked “okay” running the ball.

Upfront, I felt like the O-line definitely improved. I knew they would have to in order to come in and compete and they certainly did. It wasn't perfect, but they gave us an opportunity to win and thats what was important. Ohio State was able to “big boy” some of our guys a couple of times but for the most part we held our own. When Ohio State did bring the blitz with Trevor in, they seemed to pick it up decently with a few exceptions, but it was never a full pocket collapse.

The RB play was up to par given the opponent and gameplan. Mark only had 17 touches but was able to provide a good spark to the offense, added another dimension in the passing game, and was a wrecking ball at times that really got the players and crowd excited. It is very tough to run the zone read option with a defense that is athletic as OSU behind the front four. Trumpy was called on, on a few 3rd and shorts and came up with a couple big ones and one play call that put him in a poor position on the perimeter.

The wide receivers looked great and if you can point out a blatant drop I would love to know where it happened. The only drop I saw was a poor low throw to T. Jones on a comeback that skipped into his hands. I would contend that we have the best group of wide receivers in the nation. Every week someone new has a career game. This week it was Lawrence’s turn and made some huge catches while everyone else did their part as well. Vitale, Jensen, and Mark all had big plays for us. I thought Prater was absolutely manhandling Roby and other CBs on the perimeter. I think Meyer got in the refs ear to call a hold eventually and thats why you saw a somewhat questionable call on him on the goalline.

The QB play was very good. Colter threw perfectly, and Trevor only had one mistake. It was unfortunate that Trevor threw an INT that came after an awful holding call because he would have had an unblemished tremendous night. He got what appeared to be man coverage from the CB and threw the longest throw on the field, a field flat. Big “no, no”. I thought that Trevor was almost too quick to tuck it away at times and thought that he likely could have made some more time with his feet on third down. He actually did exactly that later in the game that went for a TD, so its possible the coaches picked up on that as well.

From a gameplan perspective, while great, I think we could have been better. We came out swinging after the blocked punt which I really liked. Thought we got conservative at times with the lead (imagine that), and there are formations and plays that continue to baffle me.

I still do not care for the inverted wishbone look with two Super Backs. We used it primarily in the redzone and appeared to only work once out of three times. We used it a lot for a lead speed option with a shuffle pass option to Vitale. It seems fairly easy to read it from a defensive standpoint, you need to have more plays out of it than just 2 or 3 or else coordinators know what to key.

After the failed fake punt, I felt that we went conservative only to not give OSU enough time to get momentum, it was fairly evident we were just trying to set up a FG attempt. I think we have to go for the jugular in that scenario. It completely takes the wind out of OSUs sails.  Another time we went conservative was after the fumble by Miller on the goalline. This could have lead to a drive to put us up more than 2 scores. Instead we go 3 and out with a questionable play call on third and short with the option to Trumpy that OSU was all over.

Defense:

On Ohio States first drive, it quickly appeared as though the guys on defense were just playing with too much emotion. I think everyone in the stands thought that Ohio State was going to have their way with us on Offense. Thankfully they swelled up and made some big plays in the redzone to hold them to a FG to give everyone a sigh of relief.

Overall, I felt the game plan was phenomenal. We played a lot of cover 3 which allowed for very few pass plays to get behind us. We did a great job of corralling Braxton Miller when he wanted to run, and a great job of limiting big plays. The only area of concern was with controlling the run game, which Hyde had a career game against us. Part of this was due to not playing a lot of Cover 4 where a lot of inside run plays get spilled to our Safeties coming up for run support. I saw a lot more DL pass rush moves though not a ton of pressure. Miller too often had too much time to throw although I think we may have taken Braxton Miller completely out of the Heisman and B1G Off POY race.

One thing that was apparent on the 1st drive that  I did notice is that the LBs are still committing too much to play action. Sometimes guys will get “sucked up” into the run fake, in this case they have 2 options. 1.) turn and sprint back to the nearest WR 2.) act as another blitzer. I did not see this happen at all. Ellis likely could have acted as a blitzer a few times but looked indecisive at times. Some things I think they need to improve on greatly for Wisconsin is their ability to take on cut blocks, form up and not arm tackle, and being able to “shoot their gun”.

Arm tackling will kill us in the Wisco game, and the LBs weren’t the only ones with some issues here. “Shooting their gun” is a term that is about when a player is in position to make a play in open field and they have a moment of indecision instead of “shooting the gun” and going for the tackle while favoring the proper side for support. We are going to have to do a great job of forming up the RBs up in Madison and going for the open space tackle with proper support angles, or they may gash us when they get into the secondary.

If it wasn't for a few big plays out of the DEs it may have been the worst game out of the unit as a whole. The interior DL routinely got pushed back 1-3 yards on every running play. OSU was able to “Big Boy” our interior DL any time they wanted. We rarely got any pass rush out of our base guys when it counted. One thing that I will always be picky about in Interior DL play is their ability to absorb more than one blocker. Too often I saw free releases onto Proby and other linebackers out of the OSU Center or Guards. I also feel like it wasn't really as bad as it appeared to the naked eye. A lot of 3rd down and 4+ yards we had our four DE front. This is when Hyde looked his best. OSU was able to capitalize on the ability to have their horse(Hyde) in the backfield on passing downs. This brought in our four DE front which allowed Hyde to break free a few big gashes on 3rd down in the second half.

I felt the DE’s played very well. Lowry and Scott both played with their heads on fire and had multiple big plays. I feel like with the way our DEs play and the athleticism of our LBs, there will be very few teams that will be able to effectively run the Zone read on us. They provided big plays when we needed them with a caused fumble by Scott and a great deflection by Ifeadi Odenigbo that lead to a intercepted pass late in the game.

Kudos to the secondary, because they were the big reason we were able to be in this game all along. As I had pointed out when Dwight White first got to play significant snaps, I was never concerned about his progressive at corner.  I thought he and Harris played very well and White had a big hit on the opening drive that got me excited for his future. I think the play of Matt Harris helped push White to be better as well. When you have competition in practice it makes everyone better and it shows in the game. The few deep balls that were thrown there was great coverage. There were a few plays where I thought Campbell could have formed up the ball carrier and instead threw a hard shoulder into him, in B1G play we need those formed up. I am concerned for the remainder of RBs QBs and WRs who will get hit by Campbell, because I feel like he is going to rip someones head off in the near future. If he doesn't, Henry will. Those guys can light ball carriers up.

We had a tremendous outing in the redzone, which was one of OSU’s biggest successes coming into saturdays game. We almost had another TO in the redzone when Collin Ellis went for one near the goal line early in the game. His play during the OSU game was a few inches away from being B1G Defensive Player of the week. If he shoots his gun a little better and makes that Int, he would have had a few TFLs, Sack and INT against OSU.  Proby also showed up in the redzone while getting blocked punching the ball out of Millers hands near the goalline. He continues to play solid.

Special Teams:

Blocked punt aside, this was one of our best outings. I think Matt Harris is going to be a special, special player for us this year and in the future. He is absolutely fearless. Mark put us in great position to win the game when he came in on the kickoff return and it was unfortunate we didn't get to see him return any punts.

I am really concerned about what happened on the blocked punt. The fact that the ball was snapped in the first place concerns me. It seemed as though almost all the OSU defensive starters were out on the punt team. If I’m the punt coach and they come out with Roby, Shazier and all, I’m calling a Timeout or making sure we bring in people for protection. Now, if in fact OSU did this in previous games, then my argument is null and void. However, if not, that one is on the coaches. You gotta love how disciplined Jensen was with the Fake punt as well, and that is definitely something that is both coached and just good discipline with Jensen.

Going Forward:

I think its fair to say that we we are just a couple of Big Guys up front away from handily beating a top 5 team. While we lost, we proved we are a legitimate force in the B1G and the national scope. We proved we have the athletes and the depth of athletes to compete with any program on any day. Thankfully, we will not face a backfield as good as Hyde and Miller throughout B1G play. The best thing is that we are consistently seeing improvement in this team and aren't seeing the same mistakes and miscues happen again. In all reality we just needed the outcome of 1 of 3 plays to change and this game is all ours.

If we can eliminate the missed arm tackles, and form up on defense, I think we can go into Wisconsin and win. We will not have the same defensive gameplan of limiting big plays as we did against OSU. We will see us in our traditional cover 4, spilling the run game to our safeties. We just need the DBs to hold up against Abbrederis and I think we will be just fine. Offensively I expect huge passing numbers. I have very little concerns for us on offense. It will strictly come down to defensive gameplan and special teams. Until next time.

Go CATS!