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Williams: A Breakdown of NU’s Win Over Western Michigan

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-WMU.

Initial Reaction:

Overall a very unemotional win. The first quarter provided a lot of reasons to be concerned about this team moving forward. Thankfully it wasn't quite as bad as people think. We still came away with a win after coming out very flat. The first quarter was abysmal and thankfully our talent itself was able to come out and provide us with a comfortable win in the end. If you’d like take a look back at my predictions…. actually, I'll make your life easier, I was dead wrong on everything with the exception of Treyvon Green and being close to WMUs score.

For this post I will highlight what happened in the 1st quarter, along with my analysis of the offense and defensive units as a whole. I don't find it necessary to breakdown each position group and player because I think for the most part every group played “okay” and no one (with the exception of a few) played above and beyond the call of duty.

First Quarter:

This game could have and should have been over after the first drive. Matt Harris provided a great spark that should have ignited the team to go in for the kill. I think his return was the only highlight from the 1st quarter. After a couple of good runs by Treyvon Green, Kain got a little greedy instead of taking what was available. He threw into double coverage with a man underneath wide open for what should have been an easy first down. Okay, bad decision by him, that will happen.

The defense came out and seemed to play very well in the 1st quarter, forced a couple quick changes of possession. Trevor came in, moved the ball and we were held to a FG attempt that missed. Then our D gave up a pretty petty 13 play drive for a FG. The 1st Quarter seemed to be a perfect storm. It seemed to catch a lot of guys off guard and everyone seemed very emotionless. This was something we haven't seen out of this team after facing two quality opponents the first two weeks. Certainly the worst 15 minutes of football we’ve seen. A lot of penalties, drops, fumbles, poor perimeter blocking and poor tackling(on at least one drive).

The good thing is we made it through it. It seemed that talent took over shortly after the 1st quarter and things began to click offensively and were able to put some points on the board. I dont think we “looked past” our opponent, “played down” or whatever catchphrase you want to use. I think we simply had our first drive go sour, lost focus, missed a kick, and became unemotional.

Defense:

Statistically speaking the defense played very well but I do not share that opinion. They did their job, plain and simple. However, they never seemed to show a sense of dominance that you would like to see when playing an inferior opponent. They didn't seem to have the same swagger.

If we take a look at the game plan, we saw pretty vanilla schemes and blitzes, and rightfully so. We didn't need all sorts of different blitzes or schemes to put pressure on the QB and control the run game. The front 7 looked very stout against the run, and the secondary did their job with the exception of a few plays. We did blitz a fair amount and did so on clear passing downs and brought a fair amount of pressure to affect the QB. I would say about 80% of the incompletions were clear throwaways or at least throws so that no defender had a chance to intercept it. So the coverage I thought was pretty spectacular given the lack of defensive pressure. The D-line also barely missed a good amount of pass deflections at the line, so that trend seems to be continuing.

What is most concerning is our inability to get pressure out of a base front. The blitzes were fine, but when we have just 4 linemen down we cant get much if any push and this was against Western Michigan. One of the reasons behind that seemed to be related to the amount of line stunts we ran. The d-line will implement a variety of different stunts to put pressure on the QB once they recognize the play is a pass. I didn't see anything other than a few elementary stunts. So either they are struggling to do it, or we haven't put it in the game plan to keep teams from knowing we have them in our back pocket.

Another issue I saw was also centered around getting pressure. The blitzing defenders (mainly linebackers) struggled to really disrupt any of the plays while blitzing. When a LB gets a blitz called for them, their mentality is to get to the QB/ball. Unless they are blitzing from the edge, then they have to take into account keeping contain as well. Too often I saw LBs blitzing inside and just engaging with their blocker instead of making a move around the blocker to get to the ball or point of attack. Sometimes that is is part of the defensive scheme (man coverage), but that is only against teams with dangerous running backs who run screens or check downs often. I think we will start to see more pressure and sacks when our LBs start blitzing with a purpose and make moves to get to the ball.

Overall, it was a good outing, but nothing dominant. The only breakdowns were with Dwight White who got caught biting on the “Out n’ Go” route, and Nick VanHoose getting a little lost on what seemed to be a very awkward play for him. The good thing I saw out of Dwight was that he came back the next series with solid play and made a huge hit on a short route, great response. One thing I think is noteworthy is the play of Ibraheim Campbell. He has had the most consistent play of anyone. Continues to make the routine plays, big plays and timely plays. A phenomenal player and makes few if any mistakes or missed tackles.

Offense:

What stood out to me the most about our offensive struggles in the 1st quarter was the perimeter blocking. It occurred throughout the game too, but not nearly as much as it did in the 1st. Our receivers were not finishing their blocks. Last year this was the pinnacle of our receivers when we relied heavily on the run, and it showed this game as we ran the ball a lot more than we had in the past 2 games.

The QBs performed fairly well. Kain threw well aside from the one forced throw. Trevor seemed to be forcing his throws more than usual and didn't quite have the touch that he has had in prior games. It might be unfair to be overly critical of them as they weren’t provided the opportunity to throw the ball too much given the game plan.

I think its rather clear that the offensive line still has a way to go. We are simply not moving bodies, plain and simple. If it wasn't for a tremendous efforts out of Treyvon Green, and Kains typical outing we may have seen a lot more passing. They didn't do a great job of keeping the QB clean even on the limited amount of pass plays even when the WMU defense didn't blitz all too often. It really seems as though we do a decent job at the initial point of contact off the line of scrimmage, but fail to get to the second level and secure blocks. This will be very critical for us to get the big chunks of yards when/if we get Venric back in the lineup.

Treyvon, Kain and Trumpy made this offensive line look a lot better than they are. A lot of times the ball carrier looked dead to rights at the line of scrimmage and ended up gaining 5-10 yards. Green especially stood out, really ran tough out there, good to see him doing well.

Overall the offense also looked rather unemotional. Maybe it was due to not getting the big plays we have seen in the past two games, and really just relying on the run. It really just seemed like they were going through the motions. Putting the ball on the ground 3 times was certainly concerning and thankfully we got all but one back. However in the end we were able to put up 38 points off of primarily running the football, so we cant be too unhappy with that.

Special Teams:

Aside from the glimpse of Matt Harris, I haven't seen anything to get excited about. Maybe we just really need Venric back and healthy, but we just seem uber-conservative when it comes to punt returns. I would like to see some guys given the ability to make some plays on the punt return. I think its the coaches coaching it, and it really trickles down to the players. I saw too many times guys fair catch pooch kickoffs with plenty of grass in front of them, which leads me to believe that its on the coaches. I do look forward to seeing Matt Harris returning more kicks in the future though.

Conclusion:

I don't think we will see this team like this again. We were fortunate to have this happen against Western Michigan and not two games later. Hopefully we got the sloppy, unemotional, and lethargic play out of our system. I do think that we can account for some of this on the coaches, game planning conservative like this trickles down to players psyche and overall play. Still in the end we came out of the game without any injuries and a 3 TD margin of a win, and while we may grunt and groan about some particulars this is still a good team. We had a chance to come out hot and dominate a team to prove we belong in the top 10% of CFB teams, but we turned mild. In the end there are more important games to prove that to the critics.