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Williams: Linebackers, defensive line improve in Northwestern's critical win over Nebraska

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Steven Branscombe-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.

After a couple tough columns, Williams is back with a bit more praise as he recaps Northwestern's 30-28 win at Nebraska:

Northwestern was able to right the ship this week coming off of two devastating losses. This win was big, albeit ugly. If NU were to be on the other side of the outcome, it would be a tough pill to swallow and the Wildcats would be staring down the barrel of a 5-3 record with at least two to three formidable opponents left on the schedule. Northwestern needed this one to go into the bye week with a better psyche. Now, the Wildcats set up to put together what could be a very special November.

The best thing that I came away with was there was a significant amount of improvement out of the linebackers, which certainly had a lot to do with the defensive line playing a very physical game. The offense pulled out a lot of stops, making it appear as though Mick McCall and co. have fully opened up our playbook. Below, I review the win and look at a handful of things I saw that I think Northwestern can improve on, as well as areas I am already seeing improvement in.

Defense:

For starters the game plan was pretty vanilla on first and second down. That is certainly by design. Defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz was basically saying that Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong was not going to consistently drive down the field and he was mostly spot on. The scheme was to take away the run and give up the long field short routes which is why there was rarely any press coverage out of the cornerbacks especially out of the field corner (the CB playing the wide side of the field). It was super conservative, but it was the right move. If they could put Armstrong in a situation where his arm would have to beat them, Northwestern was going to win those battles much more often than not. All they needed to do was get Armstrong throwing off his back foot for most of they day and, by bringing occasional pressure, they succeeded.

The defense was put through the wringer against Nebraska. Along with going up against the Huskers' offense, the Wildcat defense also had to contend with poor play from the NU passing game, bad punting and a staggering difference in time of possession. This defense is still good, but it won't win many more games similar to this if the offense and special teams can’t at least hold up their end of the bargain more consistently.

The defensive front took a major step forward after getting its tail handed to it the past two weeks, so kudos to them for stepping up to the plate and having some pride. They seemed to play with a bit more bite, along with improved fundamentals. Dean Lowry is continuing to be one consistent, bad mammer jammer. I also noticed some good ball out of the young defensive tackle Jordan Thompson, who could turn out to be a great player for Northwestern in the trenches in years to come.

The secondary does not quite look the same without Matt Harris. I hope there is some good news about his status in the coming weeks (though doubtful). The safeties seem to have lost a bit of their swagger. During the first four to five games there were some monster hits, filling run lanes and otherwise very physical play out of both safeties. That seems to have dwindled and has been for the most part non-existent in the past three weeks. I’m beginning to think more and more that there could be some lingering "hurt" in the secondary that is leading to this. There was also a fair share of either miscommunication, mis-reads or blown assignments. There were probably five to six balls that had the defensive backfield caught out of position and it seemed to be a matter of blowing some pretty basic zone principles. Northwestern needs this unit to get healthy and improve on the basics.

The linebackers have been improving greatly in their reads after I came down pretty hard on them in the past couple weeks. Now, let's take a look at a few good examples of some good plays for a change.

QB Power

Video by ESPN

To start the play, Anthony Walker and Drew Smith in the box with three backs in Nebraska's backfield. From this look, they should be reading the guards back to the backfield. Smith reads a hard block down from the tackle (hopefully he saw the guard as well) through the defensive end (Deonte Gibson) and fills in the backfield immediately (no read step, but otherwise good reaction). Gibson does a great job forcing the tackle down into the play so he can not get to the opposite linebacker (Walker). Walker for the first time I've seen, takes the proper read step laterally, points the pull out, scrapes, then gets down hill for the tackle for loss. It was a beautifully defended play. It's also worth noting how the two defensive tackles (Tyler Lancaster and Thompson) annihilate their guys. The only thing I didn't like is the way Igwebuike comes into the box looking like he'd be better suited throwing his purse at the ball carrier than tackle him (just kidding Godwin). But seriously, he needs to come down with better body form/control and position. He looked a little loose. Other than that, great defense right there.

Inside Zone Counter

Video by ESPN

I told you we'd see this again. This is a slight variation to what Iowa burned Northwestern with last week: the counter zone. Nebraska puts it together a bit differently and in a different situation and with no where near the amount of success. There was a little window dressing with the motion across, and the back is only five yards deep, but its still an inside zone counter action with the offensive line, quarterback and running back, and you can even see the wide receiver coming in late to attempt to crack on the safety. Smith is lined up over the tight end and sees him block down. He should have squared up to the line of scrimmage and read the mesh but gets a bit caught up with the motion and is out of position. Since Northwestern rolled to a Cover 3 look, it turns out to be okay because the safety will be able to replace, which he does, and makes it difficult for the wideout to get the crack block. The defensive line does a good job, except for Max Chapman who gets pushed into Jaylen Prater's lap. Prater, at least, doesn't over commit or quickly fit his gap, allowing him to be able to play the blocker in front of him. Good adjustment, but still not perfect. What is perfect, though, is Walker's play. Walker, again, takes his lateral read step off the lineman and finally sees his second read progression: the running back, who counters back. Walker sees it, stays home and adjusts off the lineman in front of him. Thanks to Igwebuike coming up and taking away the edge, Walker is able to make the play and force a third down. The kid is starting to play football, ladies and gentlemen.

Offense

There is not much to say about the offense's outing Saturday. I’m very, very glad and happy the group somehow found ways to score enough points to win. The receivers need to catch. The quarterback needs to be more accurate. The offensive line can block better. That's about it.

My biggest pet peeve this year has been the lack of a set-up game within the game. One scenario that bugged me was on first-and-ten, the first play of a drive, Northwestern ran a play action pass off the zone look to Justin Jackson. Aside from the first one (which was the first play of the game) it leaves me dumbfounded. For starters, the entire premise of running a play action pass is to catch the defense off guard because you’ve been having success running the football in that game. You shouldn't just rely completely on tendencies. It’s the whole cart before the horse scenario. NU has not had success running the football the past two weeks, certainly not on first down. And that certainly continued against Nebraska. The Huskers' safeties and linebackers were not ever over-committing to the run. Because of that, the play action is an unneeded part of the offense. Let’s take a look at few of the many play action passes. All of these were on first and ten.

Video by ESPN

Even if Northwestern's going to try to attempt to set up a play action, the Wildcats' offense is doing a terrible job executing the play. (And before its mentioned in the comments, yes I know one of these plays goes for 60 yards on a Thorson run). Here are some of the issues I saw:

  • Nearly immediate pass sets by the offensive lineman except for the first play.
  • No receiver ever sells a block on the secondary.
  • The running back-quarterback fake exchange is always very poor. The last play is the worst as Jackson is two yards in front of Thorson when "faking" the exchange.
  • Thorson keeps his eyes downfield the entire time on the mesh fake instead of looking the ball into Jackson's gut as he would on a run play.
  • Only one player, Nebraska's middle linebacker, on one play, ever takes a step up to defend a potential run.

To run a successful play action pass, a guard has to pull to make the linebackers bite. Or the tight end has to block down hard for the safeties to bite to get the wide receivers space. Using those two concepts, doing the exact opposite of what was stated above along and having previous success running the football will make for play action passes that might actually work.

Big Ten West outlook

Now that the College Football Playoff scenario is out of the question and Northwestern got back in the win column, the Wildcats can re-adjust their goals. The Big Ten Championship is unlikely. The only thing NU can do is keep winning and hope Iowa and Wisconsin drop off hard. Iowa has an easy road ahead, and Wisconsin's is also pretty easy. Although winning the West is still mathematically possible, it's very unlikely. The Wildcats will just have to keep on keeping on and improve their bowl outlook. On the bright side, Northwestern will basically be playing three home games this November with the game against Illinois at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Bye week and Penn State

Northwestern needed this bye week likely more than they needed the "W." The win was huge to be able to set up for a nice break and get some banged-up guys healthy and maybe get a bit of a mojo back. November sets up very well for NU. The team matches-up well against all of its remaining opponents and Pat Fitzgerald has always had James Franklin's number -- whom I loathe for reasons even unbeknownst to me -- for years now. The offense needs to find its identity these next two weeks. If it can find it, it should take just enough pressure off the defense. At the very least, the offense certainly can not continue to be a liability for the team. I look forward to this matchup as Northwestern plays against the biggest school from my home state, a program that never really recruited me until it was too late. I'll be in attendance and hope to not bring any bad Ju-Ju since the last game I came in for was the Iowa matchup. Have a happy bye week.