Every week, our Ian McCafferty will go back and critically review one or more plays from the past Saturday's game. These are the plays that, more than any others, were crucial in determining the outcome of the game. He'll check the film, and breakdown the how and why of those decisive few seconds.
After five straight weeks of highlighting successes, we're going to focus on shortcomings and mistakes for the second straight week. This week we're only going to look at one play, but one which exemplifies a startling problem for the defense: making basic reads in the running game. We know that Akrum Wadley ran for over 200 yards and 4 touchdowns, but it was his first touchdown that shows us the weaknesses in the defense. Today we'll look at Wadley's 35-yard scamper to start the second quarter.
(All Video via BTN)
Well here we are again, trying to figure out what happened to what was, just two weeks ago, one of the nation's best defenses. Injuries are certainly a factor, but the defense isn't exactly decimated, especially up front. It's still unclear if the first five weeks were merely a fluke, but the defense did not look good against Iowa.
For those in attendance, Saturday's game had an eerie similarity to last year's homecoming loss to Nebraska. Just like in 2014, the defense gave up four rushing touchdowns to one back, and was absolutely gashed in the second half. But this time, that back was a third-stringer from Iowa, not a second round NFL draft pick.
The defense looked bad pretty much all day, but it all began in the second quarter. In fact, the Hawkeyes only rushed for 17 yards in the first quarter and threw the ball more than they ran it.
However, with 3:10 left in the first quarter, running back Jordan Canzeri, fresh off a 43-carry, 256-yard game, went down with a lower leg injury. In came third stringer Akrum Wadley, and it appeared as if Iowa would have to win the game through the air. Then at the start of the second quarter, Wadley broke lose:
The first two things you'll notice with this play is that it's a well-designed counter play, and that it is not defended well. Similar to last week against Michigan, the defense is just following the flow of play and not making the reads necessary to avoid plays like this.
Iowa is lined up in a basic three-wide receiver set, with C.J. Beathard under center, a tight end to the left of the line, and Wadley in the backfield. This is significant because it spreads out the defense just enough to help the play succeed. Northwestern is in its nickel package with only two linebackers. And as Nate Williams has detailed has happened too often to this set of linebackers, it's with the two of them that this multi-level breakdown begins.
The first thing to point out though is that this is both a well-designed and well-blocked play. Iowa's two receivers to the wide side of the field command the attention of three NU players. Safety Godwin Igwebuike rolls towards the sideline to give Marcus McShepard and Keith Watkins help over the top.
Great one-on-one blocking from offensive linemen removes another four defenders, NU's down linemen, from the play. That just leaves the two linebackers, Traveon Henry and Nick VanHoose as players who had a shot at stopping this play.
The linebackers then take themselves out of the play at the snap. They bite on the misdirection. As soon as Beathard spins back to his right, linebackers Nate Hall and Anthony Walker take off towards the line, and get sucked in. They both commit themselves to Beathard's and Wadley's initial movement.
This not only opens up space to the tight side of the field, it plays right into Iowa's play design. Hall and Walker take themselves out of the play, and get easily sealed off by two Iowa offensive linemen who have moved to the second level. Hall and Walker overcommit, and once Wadley makes his counter move, there's nothing to be done.
That leaves Iowa playing three-on-three to the offensive left side of the formation. Deonte Gibson loses his individual matchup and gets blocked in. That leaves Wadley and a blocking wideout vs. Traveon Henry, who has come up from his safety position, and Nick Vanhoose.
Henry seems to play this about as well as he can. He likely presumes VanHoose has outside contain, and comes up from the safety spot to try to meet Wadley. He's there in the hole, but so is Iowa wide receiver Jacob Hillyer (17). Hillyer leaves VanHoose, cracks down and lays a block on Henry as Wadley cuts to the outside.
All that's left then is VanHoose. But he's already made a fatal error. He's caught too far inside. On a crackdown play like this, the cornerback is supposed to do what is called a crack replace. If the wide receiver comes in and "cracks" the safety, then the cornerback has to be there to "replace." What this means is VanHoose should have stayed a little farther outside and kept contain, essentially taking the place of the safety. Instead he follows the receiver too far inside and leaves Wadley with six or seven yards of room to the sideline.
Wadley simply takes the room that's given to him and turns the corner up the field. To add insult to injury, VanHoose misses his attempt at a diving tackle and is left lying on the ground behind the play.
After the game, VanHoose was asked about Iowa running crackdown plays and admitted that he didn't play them well.
"We knew their wide receivers were going to crack and when you're up in man coverage and someone goes to crack, you've got to have really, really good eyes. It's a pretty tough job to do and that's something I didn't execute that well today, so we'll definitely start working on more crack down plays in this upcoming week. "
They better be working on those plays this week, because they will seeing a lot more of it against Nebraska, especially after Iowa seemingly exposed the defense's weakness. That's the big takeaway here. The mistakes we saw in the Michigan game can no longer be ignored as "a bad game" or nerves from playing in Ann Arbor.
The defense has issues that it must address. The good news still is that they are addressable. We know the Wildcats have the athletic ability on the defensive side of the ball to make plays. But you have to put yourself in a position to make those plays. If the defense can't manage to do that, then it's going to be a very long autumn in Evanston.