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Williams: NU Wasn't “Due”

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-MICH.

Instant Analysis:

Most of my predictions from last week were mainly based on the the Nebraska-Michigan game. If you watched that game, you had to have a good feeling that our defense was going to have a great chance to do more than just keep the Cats in the game. That was proven to be more than true, even barring what appeared to be nearly 7 or 8 opportunities for INTs. I was more hoping I would be right about our offensive performance rather than admit that our track record in the past 5 games has been anything but abysmal from a coaching perspective on offense.

For the finale, I had felt that Michigan would show less “desire” to win. More of just a gut feeling after a lot of the rumblings going on in Ann Arbor from the previous few weeks. Plus, I really just felt “we were due”, but that didn’t pan out thanks in part to some conservative play calling, slippy (Pittsburghese for 'slippery') hands, and some questionable calls and non-calls out of what is typically revered as the best officiating crew in all of college football (Bill Lemmonier’s Crew).

*Just a little forewarning: I am once again high on the defense despite not forcing a turnover, and pretty low and rather critical on our coaching in concerns to offense.

You’ve been warned. Continue reading at your own discretion.Defense:

We as fans and even former players often like to look at the first drives as a good barometer of what we will see/expect out of both teams for the rest of the game. However, Northwestern's defense tends to let fans and offensive coordinators completely forget that they marched down for a score (though, holding Mich to a FG attempt was significant and felt like a “win”). I can’t remember the last time a team hasn't scored on the first drive (barring a Wisco 2nd play fumble). Its very impressive how this defense continually responds. Hankwitz brought the blitz, and seemed to be effective but Michigan did a good job of making holes for their RBs to run through. I thought NU looked a little over aggressive at times, and missed a couple tackles off of aggression alone. What mattered the most is they only gave up a field goal attempt after giving Michigan the proverbial “business” in the redzone, which was a trend that continued until OT.

This week could have been the best performance out of the front 7 as a whole that I’ve seen or been a part of. It started a lot with the guys up front. We brought a lot of zone blitzes, DL stunts, and this group as a whole swarmed to the ball better than I’ve seen in quite some time during this particular game. I actually noticed Lowry and Chapman's presence in pass coverage, and apparently so did Gardner because he overthrew his receivers a number of times when they released into Curl/Flat coverage off the zone blitz. This game alone should get you very excited for the future when Scott leaves. They played pretty sound gap control defense when they needed to on 3rd and short and 4th down. They did occasionally get out of their gaps and give up a couple gashes but they made up for that with Deflected Passes at the LOS, consistent pressure, sacks, and stellar pursuit to the football. Best part about what I’ve seen is the consistent development and how they played their best late in the game. Also, it appeared Odenigbo owned Lewan for most of the night off the edge — loved it.

Obviously our LBs missed some tremendous plays that everyone and their mother would have liked to see made, but even if you remove those, this was likely the best performance we will see from an execution standpoint. Proby is consistently stout in the middle. I didn’t notice a missed tackle out of him and he made a few non-routine plays that would have resulted in some serious yardage. Collin Ellis played like his head was on fire throughout the entire game. It got him in trouble once on a blitz when he missed Gardner for what would have been 10+ loss and occasionally was just a half step short of a few more big plays. The most impressive thing I see from him is his ability to rush off the edge in a field blitz with a quick swing route to the inside receiver on a Trips side and be able to make near missed deflections. I’ve never seen someone quite as adept to nearly making that play on a consistent basis. Andrew Smith saw a lot of action this game, and brought some heavy pressure and combined forces with Proby on a huge TFL to force a punt when Michigan was in our territory. That kid will be special. I feel like Chi Chi is playing the best football of his career right now. He looks and plays the part and if he isn’t on an any All B1G lists its only due to our inadequacies in the W-L department.

The DBs had yet another impressive performance after all the early season concerns. Henry had likely his best game and sold his body to make a lot of plays late in the game, and it looks like he will be limited this week due to it. I had originally thought that him having nearly 10 tackles in the first half was a bad thing, but they guy came from his position to make plays whether or not the front 7 let a play out. The corners had a spectacular performance, VanHoose had a couple of near game changers miss his hands but solid coverage all around. I’m sure he will be taught to not undercut a route unless he is 100% he can get his hands on it, instead they’ll tell him to secure the tackle with one arm and make a play with the other. Matt Harris looks and plays the part and looks cool calm and collected in any and every scenario. Campbell continues to be the player we’ve become to expect and I’m sure he, more than anyone, wishes he would have caught the gimme INT in the 4th with less than a minute left in regulation.

The DBs provided Hankwitz the ability to bring heavy pressure frequently and they should certainly be credited for the amount of pressure and sacks on Gardner. Biggest stat saturday: no explosion plays. This was a problem in the previous years, not this one. Hell, I remember when I use to read on the message boards (yes players do read those from time to time) about fans calling for Jerry Brown's job. It used to be complaints of never being in position and communication breakdowns, but now we are even young, but skilled and developed enough to be in position. But I guess they play DB and not WR for a reason.

The most impressive thing I saw out of this defense was they played tremendous team defense and as a whole, looked great swarming to the ball on perimeter plays. They owned the LOS when it counted. DBs, and LBs made great breaks on the ball and the front 7 provided consistent pressure. While we all would have loved to see even one of the 7+ opportunities to intercept, what stuck out to me the most was this: Michigan did not convert on a single 3rd down during regulation. Let me rephrase that, Northwestern did not allow a single 3rd down conversion during regulation. They also often got the short end of the field and were even pinned deep after a extremely shanked punt.

The only thing I could really legitimately critique from a coaching perspective on defense is that we got beat by rushing 3 against NEB late in the game and let it happen again. We also did it on a 4th and 4 late in the game. I personally would have rather seen our 4 DE front, if not at least a delayed blitz to bring some pressure or possibly a QB spy. I’m not going to lie, sometimes bringing in a 3 man front without a called pressure in these kind of scenarios does make you play slightly more passively. Its a mind set. However, having a 3 man front has its benefits in the scenario — keep the ball in bounds and in front and likely the clock will expire, which it should have in this case.

Offense:

During the 1st offensive possession we saw good ball movement, good pass pro and fairly decent running lanes (which were never seen again). Green and Trumpy looked fairly sharp on his runs, Kain did what Kain always does and offensively we moved the ball well on what was pretty conservative play calling. Trevor looked on point when he came in and NU methodically moved the ball down to make a 40 yd FG on a 15 play drive. I was pleasantly surprised with the play selection and even quite surprised with our 4th and 2 call, after choosing not to go for it in better situations in the previous Nebraska game.

As always, it all starts with the big boys up front on offense. They did give up a couple big sacks, but for the most part handled Michigan and their blitz fairly well. They didn’t open up many inside running lanes, but provided a fair amount of time for pocket passing given our play calling. One of the best things, not a single holding or offsides penalty. However, I must say one thing that I think I may have failed to notice (mostly due to TV angles and no game tape) and didn’t take into account in previous posts, is that: It really seems that our QBs and WRs are about a ½ second away from getting open and making a better read. I firmly believe that with the downfield pass plays we’ve had called, if we have just a split second longer to digest the play as a QB and a split second longer to get open we just MAY see a better offense. However, you still have to call the plays for what you have in front of you on the depth chart.

In the QB department, Colter made a lot of great plays with his feet, but seemed to miss seeing his receivers downfield at times and tuck it a tad quick at times (you can likely refer to my OL comments). Yet he single handedly (or footedly, if you straightforwardness is your thing) kept us in the game yet again. I thought Siemian looked pretty good for the first time in a while. He did what he was asked and even ran the ball well. He did convert on some very questionable tight throws, but also had a couple dropped on him. If it wasnt for the OT, it would have been a solid outing. He looked comfortable finally which was most important in my book for him.

This game could be a totally different game if the defense didn’t drop so many INTs and Tony Jones didn’t drop the one pass nearing the endzone. It was a big change in momentum for the drive. I think that would have been the one big opportunity for the offense to gain some real momentum and confidence. Thankfully, Jones came back to the game with some solid hands and made some very tough catches. Rashad Lawrence and Christian Jones also had some very good RAC. One of the more frustrating of things is our route length, at times they simply are not getting to the sticks and its killing us at times. There really isn’t anyone in particular but the group as a whole. It makes me wonder if the we think they can rely on their athletic ability too much just to get the ball out quicker. We never seem to be able to stretch the field like earlier in the year. I only counted 3-4 plays where WRs were targeted over 10 yds.  I’m also wondering where Vitale has gone in this offense. He seemed early on as though he would be featured a lot after his performances from last year and earlier.

The running back position didn’t provide too much to really look at. Green seemed to be healthy but you could tell the coaches were using him sparingly. I do not think he is playing near 100 percent. Trumpy got pretty fortunate a couple times after being put in the tough position of running the speed option. Caught a tough break on the 1st down that turned into 4th and in. They really weren’t provided too many opportunities to make any significant gains as Michigan did a fairly good job of clogging the holes without much if any push out of our OL and some fairly questionable play calling.

There are a number of play calls that I thought were somewhat baffling from a defensive player standpoint. There are just some things that confuse me plain and simple. I’d also like to note that it is a lot easier to point out inadequacies in offensive playcalling than on defense. I know we have a lot of injuries in the backfield, but too many times there is the speed option to Trumpy. We just are not playing to our skill set in the backfield. We saw Michigan doing a great job feathering the option all day and continued to see a lot of speed option. Later in the game with it all on the line there was a 2nd and 9 with 3:30 left we run a student body left with Colter on our own 35. It is easiest play to defend with full flow and easiest play to get a tfl. That is playing to hope to win after having 2 horrid punts already and knowing the weather isn’t in our favor.

The redzone offense seems to be the most of concern. On one play it seemed the offense didn’t know the play call in the redzone and we just ran a inside zone give. There simply doesnt seem to be a sense of urgency to get into the endzone. We have some very talented redzone targets, yet continue to run inside zone or speed option without regard to its success. I am also absolutely baffled as to how Kyle Prater hasn’t been attempted to be of any use. He is a 6-foot-5 WR that can leap small buildings and at one point of time was a No. 1 recruit, yet hasn’t had one fade or jump ball in the endzone, or anywhere else on the field for that matter.

I am one of the few who is really on the fence about mid-drive subbing Siemian for Colter, I know some have fairly strong opinions. Though, I will say I do like it when Colter still stays in the gameplan and not just used as a decoy. I noticed we actually ran a “trick play” with Colter in, but it may have slipped past a lot of people. Colter motion across from the slot, fake jet sweep to Kain with Trumpy leaking out into the field flat, almost worked for 5 yards. The 1st drive of the 2nd half was the only time I could see a legitimate case for anyone wanting to keep Kain in. Kain moved the chains twice and we got into the Michigan side brought in Siemian who almost got “sack fumbled” on and missed a juggling Jones (or possibly Lawrence) on the side lines. I liked the playcall a lot, but I could see people making the case for keeping Kain in.

Officiating:

 am usually not one to harp on officiating especially when this was a pretty fairly officiated game up until the last quarter and really last drive in regulation. I thought they let the guys play the game plain and simple. All up until the flag on Jimmy Hall. I thought it was definitely interference, but debatable. It should have been a non-call at that juncture in the game and with the way the game was called for 55+ minutes.

Earlier in the game they neglected an easy call on a Siemian slide for a 5-7 yard gain in Michigan territory where he was hit above the shoulders on the QB slide. The drive stopped a play or two later for a FG attempt. Also, one that hasn’t been brought up because it didn’t affect either team, but Christian Jones got flagged on offsetting personal fouls for roughing up a player during a play, the defender got pissed and actually threw what appeared to be an uppercut to Jones, Jones didn’t retaliate but still had his hands in blocking position and the defender threw another whiff at him without retaliation on Jones’ part right after the whistle. It would have put us at a first and goal.

The non-call on the hold for Michigans last TD was directly at the point of attack, on Northwestern's sideline, and fairly obvious. All after what happened here: On the Michigan last-minute FG, the whole PAT right side from the tackle out isn’t set anywhere near a full second, and neither is the kicker. It should never have happened. Either way it happened, acknowledge it and move on, but there should have been more accountability out of what I used to think was the most fair officiating crew in the B1G.

Final notes and Questions for You:

I really did not care for the comments in the post game about missed opportunities. I knew it was going to come out. It was really throwing the defense under the bus for allowing ZERO 3rd down conversions, ZERO big plays and 6 points through 59:59 of play. It simply doesn’t address the main problems of the team, and maybe that is “by design." Yes it is a team game, and any one of those possible INTs would have more than likely produced a win, but the defense was put it some very tough situations and came out on top. Not a game for them to hang their heads on.

I know one of Fitz's best qualities as a coach is how hands on he is, and how much of a "players coach" he truly is. However, one question I have for everyone relates to a possible issue  I’ve been noticing more and more. That is whether or not Fitz is micromanaging a bit too much. I watched the Saints-49ers tough chess match of a game and Sean Payton always seemed 3-4 steps ahead in clock/game management. If you can watch the last 4-5 minutes of that game. It was a thing of coaching beauty. Would it be better for Fitz not to be in charge of making sure the special teams groups are together to send off to the field and similar petty duties? I still see him counting players at times as when I was there. How many CFB coaches do you see doing that? Maybe its normal, I wouldn’t know, I’ve only had one CFB coach.

Some probably have or will question some of the 4th down decisions. People and fans need to understand that going for it on 4th down does not take big “cojones." It takes honest knowledge and the ability to make a calculated choice. I feel we had 4 opportunities to do something other than punt on 4th down. The first two I had zero questions, thoughts or concerns about. Our defense was playing lights out, there was a lot of wind, it was raining, and there was a fair amount of time on the clock. I had really thought we should have taken the safety inside our 5 yard line (I know hindsight is 20/20, but if you follow me on Twitter I said this very thing). The defense was playing well enough to get force a punt, we have crappy weather in our face, and I trust our kicker kicking off from the 20 even with wind in our face to change the field position significantly more than punting from inside the 5. History repeated itself and even worse than before, resulting in 3 points (I know hindsight is 20/20).

A bigger one I felt was after the odd Trumpy reviewed/not reviewed first down (still don’t understand what happened on that one). It turned into 4th and inches and we seemed to be moving the ball fairly well enough to at least put more thought into it. Seemed like a hasty decision. We had wind against us so we likely wouldn't shift the field that drastically and Williams’ head couldn’t have been in a more worse of places. I can’t say for a fact the opposite would have been for the better. After all, it’s still a calculated choice.

Outlook:

What’s more ominous than grim? I’m running out of synonyms. MSU looks tough, very tough. I had mentioned there would be parity in the Legends and was slightly chastised for it which would have been 100% true had NU won the close ones, but didn't see Sparty getting this strong. They dismantled Nebraska and I expect to see similar things out of them against us. They seem hungry and their offense, while still not anything to bank on, is improving week to week. If they can get a ground game started, watch out because I don’t see them giving us 6-8 opportunities to intercept a football with their style of offense. Who knows, it could go the other way and turn out to be a slugfest like Iowa. However, I really think our only shot is if they fumble the ball and Cook makes an errant throw or two, we actually catch it and maybe make a huge play in the special teams return game. The good thing is we finally know what our defense is capable of, the bigger question is do we know what our offense is capable of anymore?

7-5 at one point looked like a solid possibility after a couple game slide, I just may have been a tad bit dyslexic.

Go CATS!