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.
We took last week off because it's pretty hard to break down a play from a game that didn't happen, but now we're back following Northwestern's last second win against Penn State. If you read the above paragraph you'll see that we're technically supposed to be looking at the plays that were crucial to deciding the game, but to be honest we haven't totally stuck to that throughout the season. However today we're going to look at the two most important plays that led Northwestern to victory. The defense's third down stop of the wildcat and Zach Oliver's pass to Austin Carr on the game winning drive.
(All Video via ESPN)
Welcome back! Bye weeks are nice, but nothing is better than actually having a football game to talk about. Even if that game almost gives you a heart attack.
Most of the time for Inside the Play, we only look at one side of the ball, but on Saturday each unit had a critical play that contributed to Northwestern getting the win.
It all started early in the fourth quarter when Saquon Barkley took a snap out of the wildcat formation and trotted into the end zone to give Penn State the 21-20 lead. This, of course, coming after Northwestern had been leading for most of the game. Then, with three minutes left, Pat Fitzgerald decided to punt the ball back to Penn State and trust his defense.
The defense had been good for most of the game but for some reason could not stop Penn State's wildcat formation. But on third-and-1 with the game on the line, they finally did:
Even after this stop, Northwestern still had to get the ball into Jack Mitchell's field goal range though. And given the struggles of both Mitchell and the offense that was not the easiest task. They faced a third-and-15 from their own side of the field, and things seemed bleak. Zack Oliver promptly followed with arguably his best throw of the game:
These were two of Northwestern's biggest plays of the game, and perhaps the season. Let's take a closer look, starting chronologically with the defense.
If this looks familiar, it's because it is. Penn State ran this exact play out of this exact formation at least four or five times during the game. It's a pretty basic wildcat formation. The Nittany Lions have six players on the line, and an H-back, wide-receiver and running back in the backfield. They also have a wide receiver in the slot and Christian Hackenberg out wide. That's to at least give them the option of throwing the ball, although everybody in Ryan Field new what the call was going to be.
Northwestern is lined up with one deep safety and eight players in the box. It's a 4-3 under alignment, with Drew Smith, the SAM, up at the line of scrimmage right on top of Penn State's extra tackle, who is lined up as a tight end. Nick VanHoose, with no receiver to his side of the field, creeps into the box. The linebackers are only three yards away from the line of scrimmage. They're entirely committed to stopping the run.
The time from snap to whistle is approximately two seconds and everything develops in the half second after the snap.
As soon as Barkley finishes his fake, every single Northwestern player collapses towards the ball. VanHoose stays outside to keep contain on a potential handoff, but no other defensive player even comes close to biting. At this point, Barkley has two different options, he can either try to bounce this outside or run it up the gut. Given that it's third-and-1, and with Dean Lowry all but forcing Barkley to commit inside, he stays middle.
Once Barkley decides to run up the middle, there's a hole to his left, but Anthony Walker is there to make the "tackle." Honestly at this point Barkley just sort of slips, but the defense did a great job collapsing and giving him nowhere to run.
It actually appears as if Penn State blocks the play poorly though. C.J. Robbins draws a double-team, leaving Walker free to dart into the backfield and corral Barkley.
The big question here is, what did Penn State do different here than earlier in the game, when they had had so much success with the wildcat? Well let's look at almost the same exact play that ended with a different result.
Same pre-snap alignment, same play call, Barkley still runs it up the middle, but a completely different result. Why?
Well it's actually quite simple, the linebackers are taken out of the play. C.J. Robbins gets pancaked which allows an offensive linemen to get to the second level and block Walker. However, Nate Hall just plays this poorly. Hall over-pursues, assuming that Barkley is going to take it outside of the tackle, and leaves his assigned gap wide open.
Barkley then jukes Nick VanHoose out of his shoes and waltzes into the end zone. Pretty much everything is the same on these two plays, except the play of the linebackers and Penn State's offensive linemen.
Now let's quickly transition to a much simpler play on the offensive side of the ball.
The Breakdown, Part 2
You are currently looking at the entire reason that this play occurs, and it brings up one very important question. WHY IS PENN STATE PLAYING COVER ZERO ON THIRD-AND-15? Seriously though, there isn't a single Penn State player more than seven yards off the line. It makes absolutely no sense. Why play man-to-man with no deep safety on a play where the other team needs 15 yards?
Penn State technically has two safeties on the play, but one picks up the near-side slot receiver after the snap, and the other is either spying on Zack Oliver and his 5-plus second 40-yard dash time, or in man on Solomon Vault, who has motioned into the backfield after originally lining up in the slot. Either way, that's a very odd decision though. To use a safety as a spy on an immobile quarterback as opposed to putting him in centerfield would be foolish. To have him so close to the line against Vault, who ends up blockin, on a third-and-15 also doesn't make much sense.
Penn State brings a six man blitz, but it's picked up very well by Northwestern. Oliver brings Vault back beside him, perhaps in response to the look that the defense gave Oliver, and Vault does a great job picking up a linebacker in between the left tackle and left guard:
Vault and the offensive line allow Oliver to set his feet and not be put off by the rush.
To make matters worse for the Nittany Lions, cornerback Grant Haley (15) gets fooled by a simple cut from Austin Carr, and suddenly Carr is wide open. Thanks to the extra time given by the blitz pickup, Zach Oliver is able to step up and float a ball to Carr over his outside shoulder, and Carr makes a great catch.
The reason Carr is so open though is the play design. Mike McHugh, lined up to the wide side of the field to Carr's left, runs a crossing route, which vacates all the space between Carr and the sideline. Because there's no safety help over the top, and because McHugh's route is shallower, Haley plays an inside technique. When Carr breaks to the outside of the field, Haley is cooked, and all Oliver has to do is, as he said after the game, give Carr a chance to make a play.