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Williams: An In-Depth Breakdown of NU's Win Over Syracuse

Nate Williams is a former starting Northwestern linebacker. Each week he'll provide some in-depth analysis of NU's game. Here's his look at the Syracuse game. Follow him on Twitter at @BigEasyCat44.

A look back at the preview: What an impressive performance by the ‘Cats. They absolutely dominated ‘Cuse with few exceptions. Take a look at my predictions from last friday.

I feel like both teams definitely improved from week 1 to week 2. Northwestern improved its pass defense and avoided turnovers, while Syracuse improved on its sloppy play at PSU. I was certainly right about there being more than 3 interceptions but was off on the amount of sacks by five! However, Syracuse’s offensive game plan of throwing most 3 step drop passes negated a lot the ability or opportunity to get significant pressure. NU most definitely did put up solid numbers offensively and it did not matter who was at helm. Its still TBD whether or not I was right about Drew Allen getting pulled as their backup, Terrel Hunt came in late in the 4th quarter since its possible they were giving him minutes with the game out of reach. So if Hunt see’s action next game I was correct. I was right on the money with this being one of our better match-ups we will see this year and that certainly was shown. Score wise, I just about nailed the differential (off by 1 point) but didn’t anticipate such a performance with our offense.

Initial reaction: What a great showing of talent, and athleticism.  I think we can finally say we have the talent at the skill positions, and when it all “clicks” like it did this weekend, we have the ability to compete and beat any team in the nation. We have so many playmakers we often to get them all on the field touching the ball. Northwestern showed phenomenal team speed and the 2QB system has never looked better. The defense made big plays everywhere and really only gave us one “oh no” moment where it seemed as though momentum may change. Great games by both QBs, Tony Jones, and Dean Lowry, although there were many guys out there playing at an “All Big Ten” level that are worth a mention and I will highlight them later as I go into breaking down position groups.

If you’d care to enjoy a musical selection inspired by the opponent next week (The Broncos) I picked: Lee Dorsey, Ride Your Pony. I think NU will be riding those ponies (Broncos) all night. Dorsey is another fellow New Orleanian and the song is produced by my favorite R&B musician/producer/arranger of all time, Allen Toussaint.

I wasn’t able to rewatch the Cal game as I had hoped, but I was for this game. There are only a few reasons to have any concern with this team, and thankfully, all will likely correct itself out with more game experience, and with one guy getting a little healthier.

Defense: As I had mentioned previously in my prediction, NU was finally able to gameplan for a team that didn’t have an many unknowns as Cal did, and it showed. We brought a lot of field pressure (a blitz from the wide side of the field) as you saw Collin Ellis commonly coming unblocked off the edge. As much as a lot of people wanted to see more pressure on the QB this game, Syracuses offensive gameplan didnt allow for it — quick throws and play action pass tend to not allow these things. Even without the pressure, we were still able to get significant disruption, whether it was from the field side blitz or the defensive linemen getting their hands up. The Syracuse offense did show us one reason for concern: still a lot of arm tackling going on, and it led to a lot of 3-4 yard plays break for another bunch of yards. Better teams will make us pay for that, but I know Coach Hankowitz will get them in gear with some extra tackling drills this week.

Defensive Line:

Even after coming up with only one sack, I was very impressed with this unit. Also, there was one sack taken away due to a forced holding call. Tyler Scott set things off with the only sack as he forced a fumble on Drew Allen. Scott continued to look like a beast in every situation, be it the run game or pass rush, and it scary to think that this is going to be his best year yet. Lowry really looks like he’s coming into his own ,as he had a monster game as well and having the interception (eerily similar of my brother’s in the Gator Bowl, though he made it to the endzone). The rest of the DL was very stout against the run and very disruptive. I don’t see the possibility of them allowing a 100 yard rusher until the Ohio State game.

I know most fans are worried about the lack of pressure, but they shouldn’t be. These guys are doing exactly what they are coached to do and sacks will come with time and different opponents. Offenses that feel like NU may bring a lot of pressure will gameplan to make quick throws, play action pass, and cut block. The most important thing a defensive lineman can do is to get his hands up to disrupt the passer. Sometimes this can be more critical than getting a sack. The benefits of getting your hands up versus rushing the passer a split second longer is that you allow yourself the possibility put the ball up for grabs on a tipped pass,.

I continue to love the 3 or 4 DE look and it will pay off for different opponents. I think every guy in this unit has a very good “motor” and show max effort every play their in, and that’s a good sign for a defense. My top player in this unit was Dean Lowry, and my favorite play of his was on the interception return by Ibraheim Campbell, where he absolutely leveled Drew Allen, who took a few steps to pursue the interception return (perfectly legal).

Linebackers:

Another great outing by this unit, and they almost came up with 2 interceptions again! Chi Chi Ariguzo made what could be the most athletic interception I’ve ever seen out of a linebacker with exception of watching Lavarr Arrington high school highlights. Damien Proby also had a huge pass deflection that led to one of the four interceptions that caused a huge change in momentum. However, the play that stuck out to me the most was from Collin Ellis, who came on a field blitz, pressured the QB, then sprinted down field to tackle the receiver who made a few guys miss. Love the extra effort plays. You can tell he is still hungry after the Cal game with all the effort and passion he showed, though he needs to not let his emotions get the best of him as he did when he took his helmet off after getting decked from behind. It should have been a penalty on ‘Cuse,, but he’s gotta keep his cool. We could have held them to a FG attempt, instead it led to ‘Cuses first TD. The LB play, overall, was very good. We do need to do a better job of tackling and taking better pursuit angles. Proby did make one kind of big “no no” for a MLB. Opening drive of the 2nd half, the TE ran a seam route up the middle off of play action for quick pitch n’ catch, Proby got caught up in the play action and wasn't able to get his hands on the TE to disrupt his route to help the safety.  Also I wanted to note that I've been noticing Drew Smith on special teams. He made a huge hit on a kickoff .

Defensive Back:

Biggest and best thing I noticed other than the interceptions is there were few, if any, noticeable missed assignments. I say noticeable only because without game tape I can't see all the checks that go on. However, this was one of the biggest issues in prior years. Overall a good outing, but had a fair amount of missed tackles early in the second half. This group got tested most on the perimeter and a handful of deep balls, and no one got beat deep. The only time Syracuse really tested Dwight White was when he was questionably called for pass interference, I thought he made a stellar play on the ball after he slightly stumbled during the route. Other than that play he looked a lot more comfortable, kept the play in front of him and gave everyone a lot of reassurance. I think he will develop into a great cornerback with the more reps he gets. Speaking of development, Traveon Henry is certainly becoming quite the playmaker out there. He is making a lot of big plays, and also almost had 2 INTs. He continues to impress me. Jimmy Hall came in and was more than “serviceable.” He actually had great coverage on Henrys INT and could argue he caused it. Overall a good outing, and if they can get a little better at tackling this will be one of the best secondary units Northwestern has seen.

Offense:

The opening drive was a thing of beauty. Kain really looked like a polished QB in that series, and it was all downfield passing. It really showed his capabilities. There is very little to be critical of on this side of the ball. All of our playmakers played spectacularly. We had receivers run great routes and catch nearly every ball (I counted two drops), two quarterbacks playing at All Big Ten levels, and “back up” running backs proving they are more than serviceable.  However one thing I still cannot believe from the time I started at NU to now is how we do not take the “Free Play” when we hard count and a DE jumps offsides. I think we may be the only team in football to not do this. I also question the use of the “Pistol Bone” formation. Thus far, it has been ineffective rushing-wise, but I will give it a pass until we see Mark in it. Either way, I think we still are the most difficult team to gameplan against. It has to be a nightmare to have a combination of RBs that all can line up anywhere on the field and a TE who pound for pound could be the fastest, most athletic playmaker on the team.

Offensive Line:

As a whole the offensive line looked “okay.” I do think this was one of the better front sevens that the offensive line will face this year, but saw some issues. Syracuse brought a good number of blitzes when Kain was in, and if it wasn’t Kain Colter back there escaping with tremendous plays with his feet, those could have been sacks. Aside from a few plays, we did not run the ball very well on this team. This wasn’t all their fault, but the line didn't really move too many guys around or make me notice anything good in particular. The good thing is most of the line is pretty young and will only get better as they get more playing experience, but if we played Michigan State tomorrow, I would be very nervous.

Running Back:

After a big outing against Cal, the run game wasn’t quite there on Saturday. I think some of it has to do with putting the right guys in the right positions. Trumpy just was not effective and looked out of position on the perimeter option plays. I think Mark’s return will help make Trumpy a better “change of pace” running back. Green ran well when his number was called, but really the offensive line didn't move enough bodies at times to help him or Trumpy get the inside space to run. We saw a lot of good speed out of Buckley and look forward to seeing what more he can do in the future, especially on special teams. The best thing I saw is they all got some action in the passing game, giving us more options gameplan-wise.

Receivers:

I could be wrong, but I only saw 2 dropped passes, one by Mark Szott (clear drop) and the other was Prater, where the ball was thrown behind him and had a defender draped over him. These guys are living up to every expectation and showing why they were touted as the best unit in the Big Ten in the preseason last year. Vitale continued his studly playmaking abilities and made his presence known wherever he lined up. Lawrence made some great catches, and possibly the best one on the two minute drill in the first half right on the sidelines to put the ‘Cats in scoring position. Tony Jones had his best performance, and if it wasn’t for Jeremy Gallon playing a great game against Notre Dame, he would have been my pick for Player of the Week in the B1G. Tony Jones, has really transformed into a great receiver. This time last year he was labeled as mostly a deep threat with great speed and okay hands. This year he is becoming one of the best big play, possession receivers in the league. He’s obviously put the work in to improve. I haven’t seen a player who is already very talented improve this much. Christian Jones made two great critical catches in the 2 minute drill, including a catch over the middle while he took a huge hit. This guy has the makeup to be a great one.

Quarterback:

Its incredible how each guy continues to impress everyone, and we saw near perfection Saturday. This was possibly the best performance I’ve seen out of the two of them as a whole. Kain dazzled everyone with the combination of his feet and arm and Trevor put together an impressive near perfect day throwing. Watching Kain in the open field toting the rock is such an exciting thing to watch and he put together an impressive opening drive that showed his improvement in the passing game. Watching Trevor throw the ball is like watching an eagle soar in the sky, as I mentioned last week, he still looks like Dan Marino out there.  The read option set with Colter didn’t provide what we’re used to seeing and hopefully Mark’s presence will aid in that department. I did notice that Green seemed to be the best RB pairing for Siemian.

Special Teams:

Aside from kickoffs and field goals, there was nothing too noteworthy, and that could be somewhat concerning. I remember when we used to use special teams to our advantage, and it used to actually win us games. Budzien did his job, Williams could have been slightly better, but not having Mark back there doesn’t provide us with any excitement or the opportunity to make game changing plays. This will be very critical as our opponent quality continues to improve with Big Ten play.

Conclusion:

If this is what we can come to expect from our offense, this is going to be a great year. I’m truly excited to get to see the way things develop. I feel if the offensive line improves on picking up blitzes and continue to get some guys the extra experience we have a chance to be a top 10 team. Assuming all goes as planned the next three weeks, we have a chance to “upset” Ohio State in our house. However, I think this can only happen if we get Venric healthy and the offensive line begins to gel. I think Venric could be the missing link that will make all phases of the game “click”.