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Inside the Play: Play Action Jumpstarts the Offense (again)

Northwestern's offense was running on all cylinders in the first half against Illinois. What allowed them to beat the Illini through the air?

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

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.

After taking a week off following Northwestern's huge win against Wisconsin, we're back to close out the regular season after a weird win against Illinois and the reclamation of the Hat. What made Saturday's game so weird was that for the first 20 minutes or so, it looked like Northwestern was on the verge of absolutely blowing out their instate rivals. Then 30 minutes later it would wind up taking another great effort from the defense to get the win. However, today we're going to focus on the good, and more importantly how Northwestern can replicate that good in the bowl game. Today we're looking at Northwestern's two biggest pass plays, Austin Carr's 48 yard reception and Miles Shuler's 39 yard catch and run.

(All video via ESPN)

Well it's sure been one strange ride this year hasn't it? All the way from Stanford to Michigan to whatever happened up in Madison last week, Northwestern has played one of the weirdest regular seasons in recent memory.

Saturday's game against Illinois wasn't the Wisconsin game, but it was its own special kind of strange. There was talk of a possible Wildcat rout after the first quarter and then Northwestern was hanging on for dear life heading into the fourth. Northwestern got the win, which at the end of the day is what matters, and secured its first 10-win regular season since 1995.

The second half was ugly, but the first 20 minutes of the game was Northwestern's best offensive stretch of the season. This stretch of course featured a lot of Justin Jackson, but it also included two of Clayton Thorson's longest completions of the season. A 48-yarder to Austin Carr and a 39 yard catch and run to Miles Shuler.

These two plays have one very blatant thing in common: play action. In fact, this was Northwestern's best offensive half through the air since the second half against Ball State, a half where the Wildcats used a ton of play action and Dan Vitale.

Let's go ahead and take a closer look. We'll start with Austin Carr's catch.

The Breakdown

Pre-snap alignments

Carr 1

Northwestern is in a pretty ambiguous formation here, three wide receivers, six players on the line and Thorson and Jackson back in the shotgun. They've definitely run out of this set before, but there's also the option of passing. It gives them flexibility in Mick McCall's play calling, theoretically. Illinois is playing a base nickel package: four linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. The only problem for the Illini is that they appear to be playing some sort of hybrid scheme, the two outside cornerbacks are playing press man while the slot corner is playing off of Austin Carr. This will be very important in a second.

Carr 2

This is the development of the play at the moment of the play action fake. Both Mike McHugh and Garrett Kidd are covered man to man, but Austin Carr is allowed a free release off the line and isn't even picked up by his man. As for the effectiveness of the play action, it gets both linebackers and the strong safety to cheat forward. More importantly, it momentarily freezes Illinois free safety Taylor Barton.

Barton recovers fairly nicely but winds up getting caught flat footed and seems to move towards the sideline a moment before Carr cuts inside. Barton doesn't appear ready for Carr to run a go route, and Carr runs right by him (we can assume).

Back to the point about scheme from earlier though. It's unclear as to what the goal of this play was for Illinois. Why play man to man on the outside but not in the slot? We can assume that they are playing a type of de-facto man coverage just by the fact that defensive back Eric Finney (14), who was lined up in front of Carr, picks up Dan Vitale off the line and Barton picks up Carr. Those were the assignments to begin with given the fact that Hinney doesn't even make a move towards Carr. But why?

The only real explanation here is that Illinois wasn't expecting Northwestern to try and go deep, especially not on second down. There was the assumption that this was more than likely a run play or at least a short pass play and they weren't prepared for a deep shot.

But man do they have Garrett Kidd locked down though.

Carr 3

The best part, or at least the funniest part, is the slow pan of the camera to reveal a wide open Carr just as he catches the ball. Also the fact that defensive back V'Angelo Bentley realizes something is wrong right before Thorson throws the ball and begins to sprint down the field.

Anyway, Carr roasts Barton on the go route and Thorson makes a great throw to complete the play. This was a really good play call given the situation.

As for Miles Shuler's catch, it's very similar in almost every way.

Pre-snap alignments:

Shuler 1

This is the exact same formation from the Carr play above, the exact same. Nothing has been changed by either side, which is strange. At least this time Illinois is actually playing man to man. However this time the play action is much more effective:

Play action works sometimes

The two linebackers and the free safety bite hard on the play fake, and that allows Shuler to get behind the safety and make it one on one over the middle.

Shuler 2

Before we move on, let's just take a minute to appreciate the fact that Northwestern's offense is so run oriented that a play action fake was highly successful on 2nd-and-14. That type of dedication to an offensive tendency is impressive.

Once Shuler is behind the safety all he has to do is beat his man over the middle, which he does with relative ease by using his speed, and Thorson hits him with another crisp pass.

Shuler 3

To make matters worse for the Illini, cornerback Davontay Kwaaning (23) goes for the pass breakup instead of the tackle and misses. This gives Shuler running room and the ability to juke out about half of the Illini secondary.


Upon further review, both these plays have two main components: play action and wide receivers getting open. Wide receiver play hasn't been great this year and is something that probably needs play action to get better.

As for the play calling, it's really good on both of these plays. They're both situations in which Northwestern would typically run the ball so it's the perfect time to use the play action and something Mick mcCall ought to keep in mind moving forward. Play action on first down would almost certainly work given the team's deeply-entrenched run-first tendencies.

Northwestern only has one more game left this year, but it's a pretty important one. Play action passes in rush situations have to be added to the playbook and must be used in whatever bowl game the Wildcats play in. It won't completely fix the passing game-- at this point that's near impossible-- but it will keep the defense honest and give the team the opportunity for big plays, something they've lacked all season long.