Quarterback Matt Alviti is an enigma. A top dual-threat recruit out of high school, he arrived at Northwestern and redshirted his freshman year. His second year was uneventful as well; he played in just four games, and finished with a meager nine carries for one yard. He threw four passes. He completed two, for a grand total of zero yards.
But now as camp kicks into gear, the quarterback who's only thrown four passes as a Wildcat is firmly caught up in the battle for the starting job. But can we glean anything from his brief appearances last year? Were his struggles troubling? And if he doesn't win the starting job, should he still have a role in the offense, similar to that of last November?
Let's head into the film* room:
*GIFs/Vines/cellphone videos of computer screens
Nov. 8 vs. Michigan
Stats: 0-0 | 3 rushes, -2 yards
Alviti, the third QB on the depth chart, didn't see the field until week eight in the infamous Michigan game — also known as M00N. That week, Northwestern began installing a situational package with Alviti replacing Trevor Siemian and lining up in the shotgun.
Alviti hadn't seen a single college snap up to this point, and presumably Michigan was unprepared for it. But chances are the Wolverines at least had some sort of scouting report on the four-star dual-threat QB from Main South — probably along the lines of, "He can run, and that's how Northwestern could use him."
Here's the first play Alviti ran in an NU uniform:
I hope everybody enjoyed that... because that is the longest rush of Alviti's college career to date.
In all seriousness though, this is a pretty well executed play. Every Michigan player is accounted for by a blocker (at least at first) and Northwestern even gets a push into the second level. In fact, if Alviti follows his lead blocker (Jackson) and cuts outside of his right tackle, this had a chance to be a big play.
The biggest thing to look at here though is how Michigan lines up. There are only seven players in the box, four defensive linemen and three linebackers playing five yards off the line. On the back end, the safeties are playing 10 or more yards off the line. Basically the Wolverines are in a base defense. As we work our way through the rest of these plays, notice how that changes.
Here's Alviti's second play:
If you feel like you've seen this play before... well, it's because you have. About one paragraph above.
Michigan had also seen it about a minute earlier. The formation is nearly identical. The defensive alignment is slightly different though, as the Wolverines now have eight players in the box (four linebackers). That allows the left outside linebacker to easily set the edge and force the play back inside. It appears as though Michigan made this adjustment after seeing the Alviti package earlier on the drive.
Later in the game, Northwestern, rather strangely, used Alviti again on a 3rd-and-20. Michigan countered with what looked like a standard nickel package, and sacked Alviti with a four-man rush.
Nov. 15 at Notre Dame
Stats: 0-0 | 2 rushes, -2 yards, 1 TD
After debuting against Michigan, Alviti was once again using very sparingly in the upset win against Notre Dame. He did get in the end zone though:
The success of this play is all about the interior of the offensive line. It's a goal line situation, so obviously Notre Dame stacks the box. But Brandon Vitable (66) and Matt Frazier (57) get a huge push up front, and Alviti does a nice job of taking on the Notre Dame linebacker in the hole and fighting his way to the end zone.
Later in the game, Alviti was again called upon, this time on a crucial 3rd-and-2:
This looks like speed option. That's not the important point though. This provides us with some pretty damning evidence prior to the play. Look at how Notre Dame is lined up: six players on the line, nine players in the box, no deep safety.
This wouldn't be too unusual if the Wildcats were in a tight formation. But they still have two receivers to the wide side of the field. Notre Dame is so convinced that Alviti will run though that the Fighting Irish don't even hint at giving their corners safety help.
The play is doomed from the start. The blocking at the point of attack is poor, sure, but Northwestern has tasked its seven offensive linemen and superbacks with blocking nine defenders. That's not a formula for success. Of course, we don't know whether or not Alviti could've checked out of the play to a pass, in which case the fault would probably lie on his shoulders. But either way, something is wrong.
And now for something completely different:
Okay, back to Alviti.
Nov. 22 at Purdue
Stats: 1-1, 3 yards | 4 rushes, 5 yards
Alviti played more in this game then in the two prior, possibly due to the injury to Trevor Siemian. But it was Oliver who replaced Siemian, and Alviti's role was still a situational one.
Interestingly, Purdue didn't really stack the box against Alviti early on, probably because #Purdue. But eventually, the Boilermakers caught on.
Northwestern actually did call a pass play for Alviti, which resulted in the first attempt of his career. But it was a short one, with superback Jayme Taylor coming across the formation for a 3-yard reception. He was tackled immediately after the catch, and the play failed to stretch the field and take advantage of the space Alviti's run threat opened up down the field:
The play actually has potential if Alviti has time to get the ball downfield. But it gets blown up by a well-timed blitz. Many of the defenders did bite on the play-action fake.
Later in the game though, on 4th-and-1... we're back to an eight- or nine-man box, and a straight QB run:
Purdue is a bit confused pre-snap — again, #Purdue — but they are able to clog all the holes at the line. Alviti gets the first down, but only barely.
If you listen to the commentary on the second Vine, the ESPN color guy is talking about Alviti having vision and patience as a runner. But it's impossible to either disagree or agree with him. We just don't know. Alviti wasn't given enough of a chance to try and do his own thing and utilize his skill set.
Nov. 29 vs. Illinois
Stats: 1-3, -3 yards | 0 rushes
Despite Oliver's struggles on the day, Alviti never got a real chance to lead the offense. He was given one second-quarter series, a three-and-out, and then didn't see the field the rest of the game. It's unclear why that was.
Even stranger, he didn't have a rush attempt all game. Although the coaching staff did give him one series, perhaps they scrapped the situational package that they had shown in the previous three games.
Now, before drawing any conclusions, let's look at a bit of Alviti's high school tape. Of course, a lot of it appears to be against inferior opponents, but it's still nice to see what Alviti can do when he has total control over the situation. Consider this the Alviti optimism section.
Those three clips represent what Alviti was coming out of high school: A tremendous athlete who could make plays with both his feet and arm — a true dual-threat.
Last year's Alviti package didn't allow him to showcase those abilities for a few reasons. Alviti was less a true quarterback and more a wildcat quarterback, a running back who would take a direct snap. Even when defenses adjusted and stacked the box, that didn't change.
The other point pertains to Northwestern's offense as a whole as well. In high school, Alviti ran a high-powered spread offense. Northwestern's offense last year wasn't just not high-powered, it also seemed to trend away from the spread. Even some stats back that up. Alviti was used in a power formation, and behind an offensive line that was mediocre at best, he was put in a really tough situation.
What does all this analysis mean for the 2015? With regards to the three-man quarterback competition, not too much. Alviti's lack of success in limited action in 2014 wasn't as a true quarterback, and thus his ability to play quarterback in Northwestern's system shouldn't be judged based off of it.
If Alviti doesn't win the job though, one major question that Pat Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Mick McCall will have to answer is how to use Alviti, if at all. The above analysis presents two options: open up the offense for Alviti, and allow him to actually be a dual-threat; or do away with the package altogether.