Panic Level: High
It's tempting to drop the panic level all the way; whatever good or bad happens for the rest of this season, the 2014 Wildcats will, first and foremost, be the team that beat Notre Dame in South Bend for the second consecutive game. But this team still can make a bowl and finish .500 in Big Ten play, which would be a nice rally from where they were at the start of October; they just need to keep up Saturday's energy over the next two games.
Notre Dame shredded the defense pretty badly, which was to be expected; fortunately, they came up with 4 takeaways, including the improbable fumble that gave NU one last chance to tie (an instant addition to the hall of game-saving fumbles, alongside Ron Dayne in 1996 and Anthony Thomas in 2000) and a strong performance in overtime to help seal the win. While Purdue and Illinois have both been threatening at times, the defense looks poised to finish the year strong.
The offense was a revelation, pulling out their best performance of the year in a variety of categories: 547 yards at 5.7 yards per play was significantly better than the previous season highs of 394 (against Northern Illinois) and 5.1 yards per play (against Wisconsin). The strong performance was led by the running game, which accounted for 263 yards (60 more than their previous high against Wisconsin), averaging over 5 yards per carry for the first time on the year. The usual suspects were a part, with Justin Jackson posting a career-best average per carry (though he fell short of his best yardage total, which he set against Wisconsin) and Treyvon Green picking up a season high 67 yards on the ground, but Trevor Siemian also stepped up, looking more mobile than he has in some time on a few zone read keeps.
Siemian also had one of his best days in the passing game, generally delivering throws on time and on target and throwing in some key scrambles, including a fourth quarter touchdown to bring the game within 3. His final line was pedestrian (30-48, 284 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs), but that had a lot to do with an unbelievable collection of drops from his receivers. Tony Jones dropped two sure touchdowns and a throw down the seam that could have been one, while a few other receivers got in on the act. The receivers weren't all bad, as they were much more consistent in picking up YAC than any game this year, but they were very much the weakest unit on offense in this game.
In many ways, the biggest surprise to me was how the offense moved the ball without looking great: there were the dropped passes, a fumble returned for a touchdown, a bad goal line interception, and many other miscues, yet they overcame them all to put together their best game of the year. The most important difference between Saturday and the rest of the year was a burst of big plays: Green and Jackson both had runs of over 40 yards, Cameron Dickerson added in a 60 yard reception, and whereas the last few weeks have seen the offense needing to string together 15+ play drives to score, only two of Northwestern's nine scoring drives (including overtime) needed 10 plays. It is nice to have the ability to grind out those extended drives, but college offense is mostly about making big plays happen, and those haven't been there during the rest of this season.
Speaking of big runs, let's talk about what made them happen.
On Northwestern's opening drive, the offense faced first and 10 around midfield. After initially showing an empty backfield with a trips bunch right, Justin Jackson motions into the backfield to present a 2x2, one back formation. Notre Dame's defense is in exactly the look a spread offense wants to run the ball against: the safeties are deep and outside, helping with the pass, and they are respecting the perimeter passing game with two more defenders to each side. This leaves only 5 men in the box, with only one linebacker to plug gaps between the tackles.
Northwestern goes with their bread and butter run play, outside zone. The blocking is great: on the front side, the guard and tackle get Notre Dame's defensive linemen moving towards the sideline, allowing Brandon Vitabile to release to the next level. Backside, two things happen: Jack Konopka is able to get playside of the defensive tackle (leaving the end unblocked), and Matt Frazier delivers a nasty cut block to the linebacker, sending the defender sprawling and leaving a massive gap up the middle. Jackson lets the blocking develop for a second before planting his left foot and bursting up the middle.
The defender with the best chance of limiting the gain is the playside safety, who is coming downhill to provide support on the perimeter. He has two problems: the center heading downfield, looking for a block, and the 15 yards of open field left by Frazier's destruction of the linebacker. Jackson decides to head straight upfield, giving the safety no chance to make a tackle.
Linebacker Jaylon Smith, who started the play defending the right alley, eventually catches up with Jackson around the 25, but Jackson easily shakes off a diving attempt, managing to keep on his feet until he is swarmed under at the 5.
Just a great run from start to finish: the offense got a favorable look from the defense, everyone did their job, and the result was Northwestern's longest run of the season so far.
Treyvon Green would surpass Jackson's run later in the first quarter under somewhat different circumstances. After Notre Dame scored their third touchdown to go up 20-9, Northwestern started their drive with a 1 yard run from Jackson and an incomplete pass. Facing third and 9, Northwestern put Green on Siemian's right and Dan Vitale on Siemian's left as potential pass protectors. Notre Dame's defense is in a pure pass defense look: on the offense's right, the two receivers face a deep safety over two more defenders, while Notre Dame has a press corner, an off corner, and a safety on the offense's right. This leaves five defenders in the middle of the field, with three down linemen and two linebackers threatening a blitz.
The linebackers drop into coverage at the snap, while the linemen immediately rush the passer. The result is that the three linemen are immediately taken out of the play while Vitale and both guards are able to release downfield to look for blocks.
Those blockers are easily able to take the linebackers out of the picture, giving Green an easy path to the first down marker.
Green is able to make one safety miss, extending the run into a 45 yard gain, beating Jackson's long run by 1 yard.
Green wasn't finished on this drive; on third and 5 from the 10, he would take another carry for 6 yards to keep the drive moving towards its finish, a Kyle Prater touchdown catch in the back corner of the endzone. Green's career has been up and down: after being pressed into service as a true freshman when injuries depleted NU's running back corps, he was pushed down the depth chart by Venric Mark's emergence and Mike Trumpy's return from injury in 2012, and something similar happened this year with Justin Jackson taking control of the feature back role, leaving Green to mostly play in these passing situations. As a sucker for senior third-down backs, it was good to see him making key plays in a big win.
Both of these runs benefited from the defense playing the pass heavily. This is usually going to be the case on 3rd and 9, but it was surprising to see Notre Dame respecting an anemic Northwestern passing game so much on first down. If Purdue and Illinois give Jackson many opportunities like that, expect big things from him to finish the season.
Purdue is bad, but they are much better than the team that went 0-8 in conference play last year: their worst loss was a 38-17 drubbing by an awful Central Michigan squad in week two, but that was when they thought that starting Danny Etling at quarterback was a good idea. Since turning to Austin Appleby, Purdue has looked frisky without pulling any upsets; they gave Minnesota a scare a few weeks ago and moved the ball on Michigan State the week before that, but their only win came over the Fighting Beckmans at the start of October. Appleby's impact is mostly in that he (1) is not Danny Etling and (2) puts a bit of stress on the defense with his legs; his only passing game over 6 YPA came when he torched Illinois for 202 yards on 20 passes, which says more about Illinois than anything else. The rest of Purdue's offense has some big play threats without the consistency to make much happen; if NU can limit big plays and harness some of the offensive improvement from Saturday, they should win comfortably. Given what we've seen during the rest of this year, Northwestern is more likely to ride the struggle bus, which still might be enough to win and keep bowl eligibility in sight.
Ed Note: Important additional analysis.
Second Ed Note: The author did not have Ariana Grande in mind when writing this. Here's his choice: