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Nate Williams: Northwestern linebackers exposed, offense still predictable in loss at Michigan

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Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Nate Williams is a former Northwestern linebacker, a former leadership council member, and an avid follower of Wildcat football ever since his playing days ended. In 2013, Williams began providing analysis of NU football to give us and our readers a perspective that nobody else on our current staff can provide.

Williams saw some major issues in Northwestern's loss to Michigan. Here's his analysis:

You only need one word to describe Northwestern vs. Michigan: Drubbing.

To start, here's a recap of my Saturday:


I woke up nice and early after a good night's rest, readily awaiting the NU vs Michigan game. I’m currently renovating my house, and had to drop a sizable load of debris off at the dump (similar to what Michigan did Saturday). I fixed a thing or two on the side my tenants occupy in my shotgun double. I caught a few good early Big Ten games, then started setting up shop in my living room, a nice productive morning I thought. Until, I start to notice a bit of glare on my TV after fixing an old window that used to have an AC window unit on top of it, put back up the blinds I had custom cut months ago, and realized I ordered the wrong length of blinds since there is no longer an AC Unit in there (which means 4 others are the same way). It was at that moment, I knew we may be doomed... It was a bad, bad omen.


Northwestern was flat out never in the game. The Wildcats caught a good old-fashioned ass kicking through all phases of the game, offense, defense, special teams and especially coaching. Let’s take a look at a couple plays and drives that stood out to me on defense and offense that make me think the Wildcats aren't quite near a top 10 defense as we thought, and take a look into the reasons we are a bottom-fourth FBS offense.


Defense

The defense got its butts kicked in the first half. It was arm tackles galore, missed reads, missed assignments all across the board, and the defensive line got manhandled. It was most certainly not what we saw the first five games...

Or was it?

Apparently, Fitz had pulled the linebackers in last Monday for Minnesota film review citing their poor play. I never noticed poor enough of play from the broadcast out of that group, so I decided to kick on the Michigan replay instead (as hard as that may sound). After a closer look, I’m amazed at the lack of run reads, missed assignments, and poor alignments out of a group of college football linebackers. They flat out cannot play a sound base defense consistently. Can they blitz? Hell yeah. Can they trigger? Hell yeah. Make big plays? Hell yeah... But they have not been playing well enough in a base defense on a consistent enough basis to win against formidable opponents, whether it be via run reads or very basic zone coverage concepts. Hankwitz seemed to have adjusted away from a lot of base defense in the second half, as he switched to mostly man or cover 1 coverage and brought some good pressure.

The linebackers and sometimes the safeties are not making the most rudimentary of reads of tight ends blocking down, and pulling guards in the most traditional formations. This is certainly of some concern. I think that most of the good play early on was more so a product of the defensive line taking care of business, but they got their ass kicked too against Michigan in the first half which seemingly sucked some life out of the linebackers, and thus the whole defense defense. Let's take a look at a couple examples:

Play 1: Counter

Situation: 1st-and-10, first quarter, 12:53

Formation: I-Formation, TE Overload to Field, FB "Queen" w/ Motion to the Field.

(Video courtesy of BTN)

Let me first state that this formation, aside from the overload, is the most basic, rudimentary formation that exists in football at every level, the I-formation. In the formation above, the linebackers are in the proper alignment. Their "keys" or reads start and begin with the offensive guards back through to the fullback and running back. If a guard pulls, you point and go with it, basically moving your "gap responsibility" over the next way. If no guards pull, you react off the back's second step and fill your gap if it opens.

The linebackers do none of this on this play. Here, a guard pulls, and the linebackers freeze because of the counter action in the backfield, which this tells me they are NOT reading the guards and their eyes are in the backfield. Their eyes are in the wrong places and that’s the most basic discipline. And this is on the first drive of the game.

Now, you might say "That’s only 1-2 yards, no big deal." That’s not the point. The point is, these guys aren’t doing what I know they’re coached to do. The only one that is is the safety who comes in and fills with the tight end blocking down, which saves the defense.

Let’s see another example:

Play 2: Zone Read Keep

Situation: 1st-and-10, second quarter, 2:25

Formation: Trey (TE Trips), Gun Near

(Video Provided by BTN)

In this play formation, the alignment of the linebackers is horrible to begin with. Walker is playing a mere three yards off the ball, and the Sam (Smith I think) is playing on the hash, when he should be splitting the difference between the tight end and the next wide receiver, especially on a 1st-and-10 play against a run-heavy team. That is not situational awareness.

Walker makes what appears to be a "gap" call (or he should have), meaning if Michigan goes zone read to his side, he is responsible for his gap in front of him. Now let me first state, that the defensive end does not do his job. However, if we go through the read progressions of Walker, they are not what he was coached.

Walker is supposed to read what’s considered his "near triangle" which is the two guards to the running back to his side. No guard pulls, so then you step laterally with the back, if he gets the ball and your "gap" opens, you take it or play off the lineman in front of you. But Walker doesn’t do that, he does not take a read step, and because he’s three yards off the ball, he takes two steps forward and basically blocks himself.

Walker isn’t playing football here, he’s playing blitz-ball. There is no "read", only reaction. I've seen all the linebackers do it through the first six games, I do not mean to single Walker out. This is how they played against Stanford and Duke, but they were making plays. When they're not, it will cripple a defense versus efficient offenses. It's something that will give the defense problems with the ensuing slate of Big Ten games.

Offense

To sum it up, this offense is Mickey Mouse. High School Harry. Plain Jane, you choose your preferred phrase for it. It’s simplistic, there isn’t a word that exists for how predictable it is, and it still doesn’t play into the qualities of its key players. They are forcing a square peg through a circular hole with Thorson. Michigan didn't respect Thorson on the dive read option (nor did any of NU's past opponents), allowing defenses to suffocate Jackson simply because Thorson does not keep it. Ever.

We did see more two-back sets, but these formations and play calls within the framework of a zone read offense scheme only work if you involve your QB in it. So either Thorson isn’t making good reads, or isn’t being coached to. Michigan did not respect the zone read option and rightfully so. Northwestern still runs speed options even though it netted the Wildcats -6 yards on the three or four times they ran it in the first half alone.

"Mickey Mouse you say?" Want to know exactly what I’m talking about?

There were nine minutes left in the first half. Northwestern had moved the ball well and got up near midfield. Then this happened:

  • 1st-and-10 - Speed option to the right (field side) - Suffocated, two yard gain.
  • 2nd &  8 - Speed option left with play action pass (field side) - Suffocated with pressure - Incomplete pass, holding on the play.
  • 2nd & 18- Speed option to the left, suffocated. Three yard loss
  • 3rd down - Sack after a 5-yard offsides call on Michigan
  • 4th down - Punt

This was not just three or four plays within a drive, it was three consecutive plays, and it was what led to the end of a drive. These plays happened, one right after another. Go re-watch it if you can bare it. I see no way to justify this. I do not need to elaborate. It is what it is. Do what you want with that information. The Wildcats literally ran three speed option plays in a row after never having a successful play come from it all season.

Schematically, the zone read option game is so far removed from proper play design. The offensive line isn't blocking it up front as if the QB is supposed to be reading the DE, they are blocking as if it's a designed sweep. They are pulling back side guards for a speed option. It is utterly insensible.

Zone read blocking is supposed to give the QB one player to read off of, while the offensive linemen block down, or go to the next level. But Northwestern is pulling guards and reach blocking, which extends the play laterally, not vertically. Running backs and quarterbacks (if they ever keep it) have literally no chance to make a read or get up field.

Northwestern Fans

We need to stop justifying Northwestern on its losses just because we played what you now deem a "great team." Stop. Yes, Michigan played great Saturday, but there were a lot of shortcomings on Northwestern's part that led to its loss, coaching included. The team had an "oh sh*t" moment across the board, while Michigan was experiencing a "come to Jesus" moment. Nearly a perfect storm.

Northwestern can get its defensive struggles fixed. The offensive struggles, maybe. Northwestern still has a good shot at winning the West with a win over Iowa this week, so let’s not pout too much. This team is still capable of great things, and after watching most the other Big Ten West opponents, if NU can win Saturday, the road to Indianapolis should be pretty clear. Maybe this team needed a loss, a good ass-whooping. They certainly left their swagger back home in Evanston. Hopefully they'll pick it back up this weekend.