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Nate Williams: What went wrong for Northwestern against Iowa

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Jerry Lai-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.

For a second straight week, Williams looks at some glaring issues for NU in an ugly loss:

The Wildcats put themselves through the wringer for the second week in a row. The defense came out reasonably strong through one quarter of play, but did not seem to have enough gas in the tank to hold the Hawkeyes at bay from a sputtering offense full of turnovers, poor field position and drive killing drops. When the tank ran out, the Hawkeyes ran rampant over the Wildcats.

That's what I saw from my first in-person perspective this year, and from watching the tape earlier this week when I got back down South. I didn't see quite as many scheme issues from re-watching the game tape except for a handful that I'll highlight later. I think we saw an Iowa team that simply wanted it more and showed it by doing the little things right, not making mistakes and protecting the football. Iowa was playing with a crippled QB, backup (yet NFL caliber) RB, and without a number of other key players on both sides of the ball. But the backups took the flag and ran with it.

Before I get into the game, let's take a look at a few random notes I had in reference to the general game day experience at Ryan Field.

  1. Good turnout. However, the young alumni were a no show in their section, which is a little embarrassing considering it was homecoming. Other than that, it was the best ratio of NU to Iowa fans I've seen at Ryan Field. (Edit - Was not the Young Alumni Section. Was the other section for students.)
  2. Rose Bowl Jersey — fine looking jersey. Unfortunately through 20 years, they're 0-2 with that combo. I think the 1995 regular season look with the shoulder stripes would have been a better option. (Edit - actually 0-3 they donned the same look for the Citrus Bowl)
  3. Why commemorate the team as the "Rose Bowl" team and not "1995 Big Ten Champion" team? That team deserves having the honor as winners. It's that damned "participation trophy" era.
  4. Some poor song choices and timing for whoever "DJs" the game. I think "I Don't Care" by Icona Pop (whoever the hell that is) came up as we were down 40-10.
  5. "Hands up in the Air" with Seth Meyers and Zooey Deschanel was another mishap in my opinion. These are pre-recorded, meaning you have somewhat of a choice when to put them up. Gotta think putting her up saying "Who am I kidding, I didn't go to games" as we are getting curb-stomped is embarrassing.
  6. New Jumbotron leaves much to be desired, it does not look any different.
  7. Can we please make the giant Wildcat head the players "enter" the field from a fire-breathing Wildcat head? If not, get rid of it, it looks childish and MAC worthy.

Okay, vent over. Back to football.

First half

For most of the first half, the Wildcats played pretty sound defensive football. They fit their gaps accordingly, safeties and corners both came down physically and filled when needed, and for the most part did a decent job at the linebacker position of attacking the Iowa zone plays and leads. The front seven didn't get a great push, but had just about the right amount of pressure and attack needed to push Iowa's run game lateral. It seemed Iowa wanted its offense to be pretty balanced, and it didn't work for most of the first quarter.

It wasn't until the start of 2nd quarter that the Hawkeyes set up what turned out to be a very deadly counter play that Ian McCafferty highlighted earlier this week. They then ran it later in the game and had similar success with it along with the rest of their run game. For being put in such poor field position through most of the first half though, the defense did okay. It at least looked like a good Big Ten matchup.

With the offense, it was just flat out a dreary day. Most Northwestern fans got the first-down pass plays they've wanted, and saw some more downfield passing schemes out of the offense only for most of the critical downfield pass plays to be dropped, under/overthrown, intercepted or done in by pressure on Thorson. One drive aside, nothing clicked. Penalties and drops were the biggest drive-deflaters against Iowa, but nothing was in-sync even outside of that. The run game never even appeared to be a threat, and the pass game was feeble. Thorson certainly had an off day in terms of hitting his targets, and unfortunately even when he did, the passes weren't reeled in.

Some cause for concern, with a little over a minute-and-a-half left in the first half...The defense forces fourth down. When the offense got the ball back, after one negative play, NU flat out gave up on getting points out of that drive. The Wildcats ran two "creative" run plays to run the clock down, but because they didn't try to pick up many yards, Iowa was able to get good field position and almost get an extra three points before the half. Have some faith in the offense that just drove for scores on two consecutive drives.

Second Half

The offense came out fast, dinking and dunking, then with a couple bad throws by Thorson, the first drive was over, and Iowa basically took control of the game from there. There isn't much else to elaborate on with the offense that wasn't already apparent in the first half. Thorson did a bit better job of picking yards up with his feet, but the continual drops, missed throws, miscues, turnovers and penalties became too burdensome to overcome. Iowa did switch to more of a "psycho" front pressure package that seemed to get just enough pressure to mess up our offense. The offensive line didn't seem to have much of an answer for it.

However, in all reality, the game ended rather abruptly with the start of the second half. After Iowa's first drive, and the subsequent NU turnover, this defense's tank ran dry. The defensive tackles got their asses kicked from there on out, the linebackers started playing outside the framework of the defense, the secondary started filling downhill a lot slower, and the corners' "crack and replace" became more and more of an issue. From then on, Iowa was able to do just about whatever it wanted on offense.

I do not think it was a lack of effort. For starters, I think there may be a handful of guys on the defense playing hurt. I saw the interior defensive line being outmanned and outmatched in the second half, which in turn allowed Iowa to easily block the linebackers after misreads, and put way too much pressure on a secondary. There were even a handful of times I saw defensive tackles guessing, and against Iowa, who then started to switch to a ground-and-pound offense, that will get you burned. This all put the game just about out of reach when the fourth quarter came around. This defense has a lot of fixing up to do. A lot of it can be fixed, but the bye week can't come soon enough.

Film breakdown

What was of most concern is that the defense got fooled twice on the same play. However, this counter play is a killer. Let's take a look at it again.

Counter 1

Video Provided by BTN

Ian did a good job diagnosing the play and our defense along with their responsibilities in his review of it. So I won’t add in too much. Only thing I may add is that the linebackers are reading just the offensive line instead of the line through to the running back. Just when I get on them last week for not reading the offensive line, they flip flop. The defensive linemen do a pretty good job, but there are breakdowns elsewhere.

Counter 2

Video Provided by BTN

This here is the exact same set and formation. The only difference is that NU's cornerback is now not in a press technique. This was likely a halftime adjustment with the poor fits our cornerbacks were having with the crack and replace. The linebackers still have the exact same issue, they take the same step off the running back (fine) but then they cross over their feet, and start coming downhill (not fine). They are supposed to take a lateral step off the back when no one pulls, read off the play, but as I mentioned last week, they play "blitzball" — not much read, all reaction.

By the time the ball is even handed off, the linebackers put themselves in position to be easily sealed. The Safety comes up to fill the gap, but he is playing too "heady" and not just gunning in and making a play. He is too concerned with the crackback block coming in and thus takes himself out of the play and blocks himself. The defensive line gets completely annihilated. Before the ball reaches the running back, they are three yards back in the laps of the linebackers. The linebackers still have to play off them though, it shouldn't be an excuse.

In this case, they get so suckered into plays that they never adjust back for counter plays. The only guy on the field who does his job well is Dean Lowry, who is just about the only one who is consistent on this defense. The guy is a player.

When the free safety fills, the cornerback, although late, replaces. You can see when the linebackers don't take their read steps properly, they can't fall back for the cut back, and the running back breaks off a big one.

Food For Thought

I feel like fans — and I'm guilty of this as well sometimes — have irrationally over-scrutinized NU's play calling and fail to dive deep enough into what are likely bigger issues. Sure, running the ball 98 percent of the time on 1st down isn't a great idea. Neither is the speed option. But it's an even worse idea when you don't complement it in the game. So it doesn't mean the run game should be abandoned (except for the speed option, that should be killed with fire). We've heard coaches say that they want to come out with the plays they think they can achieve the highest percentage of success with, and run those. That's fine. My biggest beef is that there is no complementary "10 moves ahead of you" type of offensive strategy that I see out of our offense.

Everyone who takes issue with the offense is wondering why we run on first down, and asks why we "don't pass on first instead" and get "more creative." That's not sound judgement, thinking, or critiquing. We do not need "creativity." We need to revamp our entire strategy. There is a script the offense has for at least one or two drives per game. When the script goes wrong, it's over. Other than the said scripted drive, there's no setup game, no "gotcha" moments. There is no "okay, we ran this against this look and saw them over commit, so let's run something else, take advantage of that and rip a big one". Its simply "what play works and what play does not against said look," and run what is perceived to work. Maybe I am wrong, there's certainly a lot that goes on unbeknownst to anyone outside of those walls, but from my experience, I do not get that feeling. Iowa gave us a couple "gotcha" plays, and the defense suffered twice from it.

Outlook

Northwestern has suffered two really tough defeats in a row. It stings, it hurts, it burns, [insert painful verb here] and it feels just that. Win one of those two games, and I think everyone's outlook is very bright; lose them both by nearly 70 combined points, and it's dreary. Does a win over Nebraska change things? Maybe. I do not think it looks good on paper as Nebraska looks very weak on it, but it's a quality road win. If the Wildcats can get the W in Lincoln, and come back and get their bruised and battered players healthy over the bye week, I think they can certainly have a very good November. If this week turns for the worse, it will be a very, very long November. Let's hope for the former.