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Williams: Is NUs Offense the Keyser Söze of CFB?

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-Maine.

Initial Reaction:

Cats are 4-0 and the first drives out of both the offense and defense were fantastic, and thats about where my enthusiasm ends from this game. There are still many glaring issues I saw both on offense and defense. Granted the Maine team we played was a very good, solid, mistake free team and they likely would beat a lot of bottom tier teams in the FBS but its not a team that should “hang around” with a top 25 team. The game plan out of the offense has yet again perplexed fans and I think I MAY have an answer/idea of why they are doing what we’ve seen from the past two games.

I think we all drank the purple kool-aid a little too early, myself included. I dont mean to be a “Debbie Downer” with this post because I’m still very optimistic about this team and their next game, but someone has to point out what is likely of most concern for the coaches and players and not just from a fan perspective. I still think we have a top team, but still see a lot of room for improvement as we are just not quite there yet.

Defense:

The first drive the defense showed a lot of blitzing which led to a lot of great pressure and forced a quick punt. They looked like they finally got some swagger back, a pep in their step, some raw and true emotion. However, the very next drive things began to take a turn for the worse and showed us exactly how to beat this defense. Two words: Play Action. We saw it early, and we saw it often throughout the rest of the game.

NU’s defense didn’t show a lot of different or complicated blitzes, but they certainly did bring the pressure. Only issue is that the play action leveled the playing field for a very good but FCS team nonetheless. We saw this as the Maine offense continually would put long drives together by running the ball to set up play action passes and thankfully they ended with missed field goals.

The Maine offense had a pretty simple game plan, run the ball to set up the play action passing game and control the time of possession to keep NUs offense off the field. Unfortunately they won't be the last team to do that to us. This will pose major issues for this NU defense as we start Big Ten play as we will face many pro-style offenses that will be able to run the ball a lot more effectively than Maine.

The good thing I saw is that NU finally found the ability to bring pressure from the front 4 and the LBs. The linebackers definitely improved on their blitzing. Last week I had mentioned how they were engaging blockers and not getting around blockers. In that idea they certainly did improve. However, when blitzing they really failed to sniff out any play action passes and were not able to transfer their rush/blitz of the initial play(run fake) to the final play (roll out/boot or play action) to put any pressure on the QB outside of the pocket. Its easy for me to say because I never really had issues with sniffing out plays. I played linebacker my entire football career (17 yrs) and prided myself on being a very instinctive player. A lot of these LBs with the exception of Proby had never played LB until college and will only get better instincts with more game experience. This is one of the disadvantages of recruiting safeties and athletes to play LB unless they are very instinctive players to begin with (ie. Sean Lee from PSU).

One play that seems to be a continuing problem is the play-action and TE up the seam on 3rd and short. Syracuse, Western Mich and now Maine have done it to our defense. Sometimes its a simple adjustment with the DE moving to a slightly further outside shade on the TE or bringing the SLB onto the TE to prevent a clean release. I think when it happened against Maine we were in man coverage, which would put the FS on the TE, and since the Safety lines up at approx 10-12 yds off the line, it allowed the TE a quick “pop pass” for an easy first down. Whether its man coverage, a blitz or base coverage its a tough play to defend, but we have yet to show the adjustment or ability to cover it. Its a tough play for a MLB with a free release, and tough play for the Safety with his depth in alignment and without a good “push” or disruption from a LB in the box.

The D-line showed the ability to generate pressure finally. While they only registerd 2 sacks they provided a lot of pressure and disruption, and Dean Lowry continues to impress. They also struggled at times with the play action pass and they routinely got caught up in the mix of the play action allowing the QB to escape on the boot without any pressure. The backside DE is responsible to check for a QB boot/playaction. The simple rule of all DEs or contain rusher is “flow away, slow play”. Meaning if you read strong flow away, you “slow play” or not fully rush the way of the offensive flow to allow yourself to prevent any boot or reverse while still maintaining good position for a cutback run if its not a boot/reverse. It takes a very discipline player to do this and honestly I’ve never seen any player do it better than my younger brother. Our two most discipline DL are Lowry and Scott, both of which we put into the DT spot on 3rd down and some 2nd and longs, and we put our less discipline “pass rush” DEs on the edge in charge of contain. I think this is why we saw the play action of Maine affect our defense the way it did.

I think the secondary performed very well. While Campbell didn't get his 6th straight game with an INT and Dwight White gave up 1 “explosion play” I still think the overall play of the secondary was pretty solid. I still have yet to see a major breakdown in coverage and only surrendering one explosion play is great . Sometimes guys get beat such as in Dwight Whites case (he’s young, it’ll happen). It happens all the time even with top DBs. What amazes me the most is how there hasn't been a noticeable miscommunication or breakdown in coverage. That tells me that everyone is on the same page, which is the absolute most important thing. It’ll be interesting to see how this secondary develops as more gets implemented into the game plan.

Another pet peeve of all coaches and fans alike, is tackling. Tackling will almost never be perfect and there will never be complete satisfaction amongst fans or coaches. For every person that see’s it in the stands, I’m sure its more than accounted for in the film room and practice drills. All around tackling needs to improve, in the hole, on the perimeter and in open space. This is somewhat nerve wracking with a bye week coming up where tackling usually takes a step back, not forward. Hopefully Fitz and Coach Hank will use some of this extra time to harp on the tackling fundamentals as we start Big Ten play with the big boys.

Offense:

The first drive the offense came out hot, and was nice quick and efficient. It was perfection. Then it seemed like they would get the ball into Maine territory and implode with a rash of penalties, mental errors, and missed blocks. After some of the dust settled, I was encouraged by the O-Line play. I saw a lot of lineman getting to the next level (LB Safety) looking to make run springing blocks. Though, I would still like to see them provide some more dominating run blocking against an FCS team. Neither QB really got into a groove passing and the past two weeks we just seem to be a hair off on some of the throws between both Colter and Trevor. If the pass to Jones on the seam route down the field was caught/thrown better I think this may have been a much different game.

The receivers and RBs all did their job and saw much improved perimeter blocking out of the WR group. Most noteworthy being Prater, who manhandled his guy on Colters last TD run. Prater also seems be getting more and more involved in the offense, which would make the case for opening up our playbook soon for some deep balls in the future. No one consistently stuck out at the running back position and everyone seemed “serviceable”. Stephen Buckley made some really good runs out there, I came away very impressed with his play later in the game. It is still perplexing to me as to why we continue to run Trumpy on the speed option. I feel like Green is the type of RB that can run inside as well as the option game. None of this has to do with the players abilities, but with the coaches using the players to their best traits.

Last saturdays offensive game plan failed to make any sense. I’ve seen/heard people questioning it for the past two weeks, and I think I finally have the answer.

It was once famously put that "The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world that he did not exist" Yes, I just quoted 17th century French poet, Charles Baudelaire. So Northwestern of me. But it begs the question: Is NUs Offense the "Devil"? Is the "World" Ohio State? It all makes sense! This isn't totally a conspiracy, I do have evidence and experience to back it up.

Let me walk you through the life of a coach and player in the week of preparation for an opponent. The Graduate Assistants are busy compiling and laboring to obtain as many tendencies as possible. Everything gets recorded and compiled from: what’s the % of run to pass in a given formation, on a given down and distance, on a particular area of the field, and with what personnel. Thankfully there are computers now a days because being a GA 15-20 years ago sounds like it was an awful, awful position.

Anyways, they take down all these tendencies and put them into a HUGE packet to give to the coaches and players(I guarantee you its larger than a Organic Chem textbook if you compiled all 12 together from a season). The coaches study it and develop a game plan around it. They usually start with 1st and 10, 3rd and long on the first day of practice and then implement different situations as the practice days go on. This occurs with every football team at nearly every level.

From the past two games, Northwestern's offense threw the biggest proverbial “Wrench” into the defensive staff at Ohio State. The overall % of run/pass means very little to anyone of importance, they dive way way deeper than that.  We went from two games of balanced offense, running the ball effectively and getting the ball downfield with pinpoint accuracy and spreading it around to all WRs. To two games of primarily running the ball and not seeing much of a downfield passing game. We still haven't used Venric Mark and no Defensive coordinator will know how to gameplan against us until we see him in action. Our RB personnel sets have been very head scratching at best from every perspective, especially when we see the pistol-inverted wishbone set. We have seemingly ran plays that curtailed our RBs strengths (ie, speed option with Trumpy in). The past 4 games I have not seen one tendency to date. The only tendencies I’ve seen have been ones that raise the question of “Are they purposely doing this to screw up game plans?”. Which begs the question, is the Northwestern Offense is the Keyser Söze of college football?

Conclusion/Predictions:

I think the answer is “yes”, NU offense is the Keyser Söze of CFB.  I think the NU staff is game planning the % of pass run for different packages for future opponents. Any other rationale or reason is totally inexplicable. If its not the case, its taking conservative coaching from an offensive perspective to the extreme.

It is all eerily similar to our first  B1G game last year, does Indiana ring a bell? Last year we saw a NU team come out with a big wins against Cuse and Vandy, where we performed very similar to this years first two games, followed up by BC and SD State, where we threw a couple change-ups followed by a 100 MPH fastball against Indiana. I think we see this breed of animal again coming out against Ohio State. Watch out Cat fans, it’s going to be an exciting game. I actually think we match up well against Ohio State. OSU would scare me if they had last years O-Line and D-line. They don’t, so I think the NUs def. front 7 may show an advantage while our O-Line vs their D-Line may be somewhat of a wash. We got spoiled by playing nearly mistake free and offensively efficient football for the first two weeks. If we see that along with a healthy Mark and a ton of new wrinkles, be on the lookout for upsetting another top 10 team for the 2nd time in the past 5 years.

The only remaining problem is that a win against Ohio State will likely only prove that they do not belong in the top 10, instead of “NU should be a top 10 team”. Had we of handily handled our business the past two weeks, maybe its different. I find this to be a very winnable game, I don't share the same thoughts about a “hole in our secondary” as many others do. I think Dwight White and Matt Harris are far more talented and athletic than our previous 2nd tier corners in years past, they just need experience. Ohio State hasn't impressed me after only 1 quality win, and if our offense shakes things up and our defense continues to opportunistic it will be a very fun Saturday come Oct. 5th. I look forward to being back on campus to watch the Cats play. Until then, Go Cats!