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Northwestern's struggles defending the wheel route

Minnesota hit a few big plays through the air, none bigger than a 52-yard gain on a wheel route in the second quarter

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Panic level: elevated


Big Picture

To the surprise of nobody outside of Minnesota, David Cobb did not put up Melvin Gordon numbers; instead he ground out yards at an anemic 3.2 YPC. With the run game sputtering, Minnesota put their offense on Mitch Leidner's shoulders, and he stepped up in a big way, scrambling 22 yards to convert 3rd and long on Minnesota's first TD drive, hitting tight end Maxx Williams on a wheel route for 52 yards to set up their second TD, and going 4-5 for 55 yards on Minnesota's final scoring drive. Northwestern dared Leidner to beat them through the air, and he did.

The offense had another mildly encouraging day against a tough defense, grinding out a pair of 16 play scoring drives in the first half and adding a 13 play, 97 yard march to tie the game at 17 in the second. Justin Jackson was the star on offense, finishing with 106 rushing yards on 23 carries to go with 50 yards and a touchdown on 4 receptions. When the offense was doing well, Trevor Siemian worked short and intermediate passes to keep the long drives going; however, Minnesota's defense wasn't letting Jackson break into the open field, and Siemian couldn't connect with receivers downfield, leaving Northwestern without much threat of explosive plays.

Still, the offense and defense were both good enough, piling up a 393-274 advantage in total yardage. Northwestern might have come out ahead were it not for the third phase of the game. Most obviously, special teams had a massive breakdown on the Jalen Myrick kickoff return, handing Minnesota the winning margin, but the punting games also helped Minnesota win field position: while Minnesota averaged 40.8 net yards per punt, Northwestern managed only 32.5; Minnesota put 3 of 5 inside the 20, while Northwestern put only 1 of 6 deep in Minnesota's end. The end result was that Minnesota's average starting field position was their own 35, while Northwestern's was their own 21, helping Minnesota to more efficiently convert yards into points.


For a run first, run second offense like Minnesota's, the passing game doesn't need to be particularly sophisticated. Minnesota's biggest play of the game came from winning a one-on-one battle from a very simple play.

With the game tied at 7, Minnesota pushed the ball out to their own 38 on three straight runs. On first down, they show an I-formation with two tight ends to the left.


Before the snap, Maxx Williams motions across to the right side of the formation. Northwestern's responds by shifting the safeties, with Godwin Igwebuike moving closer to the line and Traveon Henry replacing Igwebuike in the middle of the field; the play looks to me like man coverage, with Henry playing the deep middle, but the way it develops makes it hard to say what anyone except Igwebuike, Henry, and Nick VanHoose are up to in coverage.


Mitch Leidner fakes a handoff, drawing the linebackers in, but they aren't really relevant to the play; Minnesota sends out only two receivers, both heading deep, with the lone wide receiver running a post to threaten the middle of the field while Williams heads to the sideline before turning upfield on a wheel route. Nick VanHoose sticks with the receiver, while Igwebuike picks up the wheel.


Williams opens up a step on Igwebuike, and the throw is right on the money. Worse, Igwebuike grabs the tight end's facemask while missing the tackle, allowing Williams to pick up a big chunk after the catch before Nick VanHoose forces him out of bounds and tacking on a few more yards due to penalty.


There's nothing fancy here; just send a couple guys deep and see if one can win his matchup. The offense executes well, the defense doesn't, and Minnesota has 1st and goal from the 5.

Next Week

Nebraska is the most complete offense Northwestern has faced; Ameer Abdullah is the only back on the schedule comparable to (or maybe even better than) Melvin Gordon, and Tommy Armstrong is a true dual threat at quarterback. The defense will have their hands full, and even in the best case they will need the offense to step up and score a good number of points. The Nebraska defense is a respectable unit in its own right, though, so without the kind of field position dominance that helped against Penn State or the turnovers that crippled Wisconsin, I don't see Northwestern keeping up well at all.

Panic will increase if: Nebraska wins by 20 or more

Panic will remain the same if: Nebraska wins by a moderate margin

Panic will decrease if: Northwestern hangs in until the final whistle or pulls the upset