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.
Similar to the week after EIU, Northwestern so totally controlled the game on Saturday that there was no real turning point. Instead we're going to look at one of the more interesting and controversial plays of the game. Now this isn't a review to see if it was a catch or not — the refs made the call, and Northwestern still won by 27 so it doesn't matter. This is a review of how Solomon Vault, a running back, got behind the defense. It's not very often that we're going to break down an incomplete pass, but today we'll look at Vault's almost-touchdown.
Not having a big play to write about for the EIU game was understandable, but Northwestern's 27-0 dismantling of Minnesota was unexpected for pretty much everybody not named Pat Fitzgerald.
It is strange however, that, in a game that Northwestern won by 27 points, the only thing anybody could talk about after the game was an incomplete pass.
Saturday's game was rife with "interesting" refereeing, and a couple notable Northwestern alumni weren't happy with the zebras.
You have got to be kidding me!!!! That is a disgrace!!!!! Disgrace!!!!— Mike Greenberg (@Espngreeny) October 3, 2015
Clearly a catch. Disgusting.— Mike Greenberg (@Espngreeny) October 3, 2015
Between the on-field officials & B1G replay folks incompetence has ruled the day in Evanston.— Michael Wilbon (@RealMikeWilbon) October 3, 2015
All this anger stemmed from a play with 11:50 left in the third quarter when Clayton Thorson hit Solomon Vault for what was originally called a touchdown on the field. Vault appeared to a make a fantastic one-handed catch in the end zone, but after further review the play was overturned and called incomplete.
Whether or not Vault caught this pass is irrelevant, Northwestern won by 27. What we're here to see is how Vault, a running back, got so open deep down the field, and how maybe Northwestern can use this in their upcoming matchup with Michigan.
The first thing note is, naturally, Vault's positioning. He's lined up in the slot as one of four wideouts, something Northwestern has shown at times this year, but not a leading feature of the offense. It's something we know Vault — with his speed and pass-catching ability — can do though, and something we expected to be a weapon for the Wildcats this year.
The other important note is personnel. Minnesota naturally counters NU's three-receiver, two-back package with its nickel package — four down linemen, two linebackers, three cornerbacks and two safeties. Christian Jones, NU's most dangerous receiver, draws the third cornerback in the slot to the far side of the field, while Vault draws a matchup with 6-foot, 200-plus pound safety Adekunle Ayinde (4).
Because the safety is forced to play Vault man-to-man, he has no help over the top. Rather than rotate Antonio Johnson (11) into centerfield, Johnson sticks to the far side of the field. Jalen Myrick (5) has one-on-one coverage with Cam Dickerson to the near side, a decent matchup for the Gophers. But Vault in the slot is a mismatch, and Minnesota fails to adjust its coverage accordingly.
With Dickerson running what seems to be a medium-length route, Vault is given the whole deep end of the field to work with. And he takes advantage of it with his speed, running what looks like a straight go-route from the slot and beating Ayinde.
Here's the defense right before the snap, Ayinde is actually set up to play pretty good defense given the situation. He knows he has no safety help so he's playing a good eight yards off the line, and 10 yards off Vault. This should give him to time to backpedal and keep Vault in front of him. However, all this space does is allow Solomon Vault to pick up speed.
There's no footage available for us to see what happens in the secondary between the snap and when Thorson throws the ball, but based on Vault's release off the line, the play seems pretty straightforward. The beauty of it is in the play design and pre-snap recognition rather than the post-snap actions.
To be fair to Ayinde, he actually plays this coverage about as well as you can. But Thorson puts the ball right on the money. It's one of those "us-or-nobody" throws, where overshooting Vault is far more acceptable than undershooting him. Thorson's placement makes an interception all but impossible:
We all know what happens next, Vault hits the ground, appears to come down with the catch, but it's overturned after further review. Was it a catch? Maybe, maybe not. Okay, probably not.
There are a few things here that aren't exactly play-specific, but are things Northwestern needs to start doing more of.
The first is throwing the ball more on the first down. Now that's not to say they should abandon the run game, but at some point running on every single first down gets a little predictable. Being a bit more aggressive on first down will open up the offense.
Speaking of opening up the offense, NU should throw the ball deep more. One way to do that is to try to find mismatches for the likes of Vault or Dan Vitale — especially Vault. Not only is he fast, but the man can catch (allegedly). Miles Shuler is the only natural deep threat in the offense, but Vault certainly has the speed to be one. Look for offensive coordinator Mick McCall to continue to use Vault and his playmaking ability in the slot.