Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main reason Northwestern was able to notch its eighth win of the season this past Saturday versus Purdue was the success of the Wildcats' running game, which has had an up-and-down season. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall established the run early on. Five of the seven plays on NU's opening drive were runs, and all were successful.
Our own Ian McCafferty broke down quarterback Clayton Thorson's big runs from the game already, but more important is that Justin Jackson is back on track, and Warren Long is once again a significant part of the offense. After three straight games in which Northwestern could not get its backs going (at Michigan, Iowa, at Nebraska), the Wildcats' running game is rolling once again.
Let's look at a few plays to show how:
Video: Big Ten Network
The first really well-blocked play Saturday was the fifth of those five runs on the opening drive. After Warren Long picked up a first down with consecutive runs of 5 and 2 yards, Long stays in on first down. But this play is all about the offensive line.
Northwestern had a ton of success Saturday pulling its guards. Both left guard Shane Mertz and right guard Matt Frazier bolt left at the snap, and its those two that expertly create the hole for Long. Mertz (No. 70) seals a linebacker to the outside of the field, and Frazier (No. 57) prevents Purdue defensive tackle Ryan Watson (No. 92) from sliding over and getting to Long. Right tackle Eric Olson (No. 76) also gets to the second level and helps get Long to the goal-line untouched.
There's not more to this play than a pretty well-executed blocking scheme along with pure speed from Warren Long, who is a perfect complement to Justin Jackson. He doesn't even have to make much of a read other than just running where Purdue's defenders weren't in order to get the score. It's a quickly developing play that shows the athleticism of Northwestern's linemen.
Northwestern's second big play of the day was a similar scheme. Deep in their own territory after a Purdue punt, the Wildcats again ran left, this time to gain back some field position.
With Dan Vitale motioned to the left side of the line, where Garrett Dickerson already was, Northwestern stacked the far side of the field and ran Jackson behind that portion of the line. But again, the Wildcats give their running back even more help to the play side. Frazier (57) pulls from right guard, and brilliantly takes on a linebacker in the hole. Left tackle Blake Hance (No. 72) also makes a key block, and, along with Jackson's burst through an arm tackle at the line of scrimmage, the guys up front completely neutralize Purdue's eight-man box.
Later in the game, the Wildcats employ a similar blocking scheme, but introduce a nice wrinkle that likely throws off Purdue. It's something offensive coordinator Mick McCall hasn't used much this year, but something that can be used to mitigate and combat the predictability of shotgun runs.
The vast majority of shotguns runs go to the side off the formation opposite of where the running back lines up. When Jackson lines up to Thorson's left, oftentimes the play will be designed to go to the formation's right or middle. There are other ways to deviate from this tendency — read option, quarterback runs, reverses (see below) — but here, Northwestern does so via a normal handoff.
At the snap, Jackson actually takes two small steps backwards, and pivots towards the near side of the field. Thorson, upon receiving the ball, takes a big step left with his right foot to stick the ball in Jackson's belly facing that near side. Then, the Wildcats use a similar blocking scheme up front. Connor Mahoney (No. 68), in at left guard, blocks right to take on Purdue's tackle, while the rest of the line flows left. Center Brad North (No. 69) and Frazier (57), get out in front of Jackson and give the sophomore loads of space to maneuver.
Normally, Justin Jackson has to make split-second decisions on how to attack his potential running lanes, which can be narrow and fleeting. However, on Saturday, his offensive line opened up space for him — and for Long — with ease, making his job that much easier.
With the running game clicking, McCall was able to take advantage of Purdue's increasing focus on Jackson. In the second half, the Wildcats appeared to be setting up outside zone — at least from Purdue's perspective — once again to the left of the formation. But instead, the Wildcats run Miles Shuler, originally lined up wide left, back across the formation. Eric Olson slips out into space to block for Shuler, and the speedster has a ton of room to run.
Northwestern isn't going to be turning to Shuler on reverses week in and week out. But the success of this play exemplifies how success in the running game overall doesn't just help NU move the ball, it also opens up the playbook and gives the Wildcats more opportunities on offense.
Now, this was against Purdue. Wisconsin will present a far stiffer challenge this upcoming Saturday. But for a second week in a row, Northwestern re-found its running attack, and that's encouraging. If it is to beat the Badgers, it must continue to pick up chunks of yards on the ground.