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 was impressed with Northwestern's victory over Minnesota. Here's his analysis:
What a great day Saturday turned out to be. A big win for Northwestern and a couple of big upsets propelled the Wildcats closer and closer to the Top 10... but the road to being the Big Ten West champ is looking even more difficult in October with a stronger Michigan and Iowa and an always formidable Wisconsin.
Northwestern fans had their reservations about the type of team that would emerge from both the home and visiting locker rooms. Minnesota may turn out to be a bad team, or at least one with a bad offense, but shutting out a Big Ten opponent is always tough. The best feeling that came from that game for me was when it was 3-0 in the first quarter and I felt that Northwestern had all the points it needed to win the game. That says something about this defense. It's not every day you have a "taking care of business" quality win to open up B1G play.
On a more specific level, here's what I saw during Northwestern's 27-0 drumming of Minnesota:
I was pretty rough on Thorson last week and while I certainly didn't mean to be, I was just pointing out what his shortcomings were and where he needed to improve if Northwestern is going to be a Big Ten contender. I felt it was deserved and warranted, and I'm sure he was hearing the very same things on Monday in meetings. The good part is we saw little to no speed option (I think just one) and very few easy passes to "get him comfortable" while the playbook started developing into something that should look like the "Clayton Thorson-style" offense to come. Thorson was on point, made improvements in his read progressions (he's still not there yet, but improving) and, to top it off, was consistent throughout the afternoon
The most impressive thing I saw out of Thorson came in the first half. It was third-and-short, and when Minnesota was bringing the heat, Thorson made a quick read to throw to Christian Jones, who had not even turned around or come out of his break on the hitch route to clear the sticks. Jones turned at the last second and made the tough catch, while Thorson took a lick. That is grit and smarts, and, most of all, trust. You do not see many pro quarterbacks who have that kind of trust in a wide receiver and in a route.
He's getting there, and it's exciting to see him develop. I think the team success is giving him a great amount of confidence in his arm. He still needs to work on his reads, and even though he had a couple good scampers, I do not see him being a threat with his feet yet, at least not with this play-calling. On the other hand, he looks a lot more comfortable in the zone read option than he does with the speed option, which appears to be in the gameplan for now. One thing I'll highlight later is that he needs to work on his play fakes.
It was Northwestern's best outing as far as the line of scrimmage is concerned, on both sides of the ball. If both lines play like they did Saturday, Northwestern will be a very scary team to play week in and week out -- not Halloween scary, more like scarring-the-minds-of-children scary.
The offensive line flat out kicked Minnesota's ass. It controlled the line of scrimmage and opened up a lot of space for all three running backs to cruise through. The linemen also looked superb in pass protection, only letting Thorson get sacked once (which I don't even remember, but it shows up in the stats) and not allowing pressure be much of an issue, even with a stacked defensive front. They did this all against a Minnesota team that appeared to have a game plan aimed at pressuring Thorson.
This defensive line is capable of putting together something special with Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson paving the way. It's playing with passion and swagger within the framework of Mike Hankwitz's defense and making the job of the other seven guys behind it to play lights out. The line lost in the trenches to Ball State, but a strong performance like this showed it was a fluke. If Lowry continues to play how he has in the past five games, his name will be called for a handful of awards at the end of the season. The entire unit allowed just 74 rushing yards to a team that knows how to do nothing else, but it will still need to bring this type of performance out for the next three contests for to continue its dominance.
I did not see many change-ups in the blitz package department, though. Minnesota didn't give Northwestern many spread looks, which is typically where Hankwitz loves to dial it up and mix it up by getting the secondary more involved and dropping out the line occasionally.
Hankwitz is a prideful, prideful man and coach, maybe the most I've played for in 17 years of football. He is not satisfied, and that should be very encouraging for any fan to read. He preaches the values of "Kaizen," the Japanese practice of continual improvement and will have this defense more and more prepared as it goes against better offenses. He's going to have to make his best adjustments in the next three weeks, though, for Northwestern to be in control of the Big Ten West. From a talent pool perspective, he has all he needs to allow his secondary to fly around in man coverage and make tremendous plays, a plan which was on full display late in the game against Minnesota. The defensive coaches had their guys ready to play all across the board. The linebackers were doing their jobs, and the corners were winning their one-on-one battles, leading to calls of "Harris and VanHoose Islands". If its keep this kind of play up, Northwestern's secondary might be coined the "Chicago Keys" with their own respective islands in Lake Michigan.
It's coming together. It's not entirely there, but it's close. Changing up tendencies is still a work in progress, but I think as the quarterback play improves, so will the frequency of using Thorson and his arm on first and second downs. The best part was that the coaches had their guys ready to play at every position. Kudos to them after facing a lot of scrutiny in years past from fans and the media, myself included.
There were only a handful I things I did not care for. There were two quarterback-designed runs in the same drive after the huge interception from Matt Harris, both out of the same package and formation. Northwestern had to settle for a field goal (it was missed) because Minnesota knew those plays were coming and its defense was all over them. The coaching staff can't call plays just because they worked once before during the same drive, or else it'll turn into the Trumpy speed option (no offense, Trump). Also, there wasn't a single attempt to make a big play after Harris' pick and that isn't smart football.
More on Northwestern's 5-0 start
Northwestern makes a statement: Wildcats are legitimate contenders
The Wildcats recorded their second shutout of the year, and they won in convincing fashion
More on Northwestern's undefeated start
Last week I highlighted a handful of areas that Northwestern needs to change in order for the offense to be capable of winning games. Here they are, in no particular order:
- Overall tendencies
- Cutting out the speed option
- Implementing a two-back set
- Limiting Jackson's touches
- Throwing the ball downfield more
Literally all of those things were addressed against Minnesota...someone in the football office must be reading.
The offensive tendencies were atrocious early in the season in terms of keeping the opposing defense guessing. While it wasn't perfect, the offense certainly started to change some things up a bit against Minnesota. Pat Fitzgerald told the media that "they need to start throwing more on first down." This is encouraging, as Northwestern has almost exclusively run the ball on first downs.
The speed option seems to be on its way out and there were some two-back sets, which can make things very scary for defensive coordinators. "Twenty-one" personnel -- which is when an offense uses two RBs and one TE -- with Jackson, Vault and Vitale could be a deadly grouping for a zone read option running attack and a five-wide spread passing attack; that package will be a nightmare to draw up a plan to defend. Even a "22" personnel with Garrett Dickerson when he comes back healthy healthy could be lethal. The two-back sets Saturday certainly helped limit the touches for Jackson, which is needed to help his overall production. He needs around 20 touches a game, not 30, and I think we saw why Saturday. Furthermore, Thorson being on target likely helped open up the playbook immensely as there were a fair amount of throws downfield.
What I want more of:
Zone read option package out of a two-back set
I think this will be where Thorson gets his feet active and starts slashing defenses. Having the added dimension of an extra back to run a play fake to the opposite side will create just enough time for Thorson to finally make a difference in the running game.
Thorson is not continuing his play fakes too well. If he's going to be running the zone read, he needs to continue them to throw off the defense. They make all the difference in a zone read offense. His play-action pass fakes are not tremendous either. If Northwestern is going to be running as much as it has been this season, they would make all the difference. Quality fakes crush linebackers and safeties, resulting in big, big gains.
This weekend against Michigan will be Northwestern's biggest test yet. Jim Harbaugh has his guys ready to play. I think Northwestern wins it by a couple scores, and the difference-makers will be the signal-callers. Michigan's Jake Rudock will implode, and the offense will cripple. This is a very beatable Michigan team if it can control the line of defensive line of scrimmage. If Thorson plays as well as he did against Minnesota, the Wildcats should be in the clear. It could be a "M00N" game, but I think both offenses will put some drives together for points. While this game got skipped over for College GameDay, if Northwestern takes care of business, the following game at home against Iowa could be in the running for GameDay on Homecoming week no less. Not sure it happens as there are some potentially very big games on the slate that weekend, but let's not jump the gun. First, Northwestern has to take care of business and beat Michigan.
Crystal ball prediction
I made the prediction that the SEC would be held out of the playoff. Well, Ole Miss lost, Georgia lost and LSU isn't such a high-quality 4-0 team after two rough games against Syracuse and Eastern Michigan. So, now only three undefeated teams remain in the SEC: LSU, Florida and Texas A&M. They ain't staying undefeated. Plain and simple. I think the only chance the SEC has of getting a team into the playoff is going to be a one-loss Alabama team running the table. If Northwestern wins next week, mark my words, there will be more Big Ten teams in the Top 10 than the SEC, and maybe more in the Top 25.
If you have any questions or concerns feel free to ask them in the comment section, as I usually try and answer or explain anything I see that comes up. I'm look forward to this game against a formidable Michigan team and writing up some more analysis this time next week.