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Inside the Play: Northwestern uses run to set up pass

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Northwestern can use both its run-heavy tendency and the threat of Clayton Thorson's legs to open up the passing game.

Caylor Arnold-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.

This week's Inside the Play will be a little different, since there wasn't really any particular turning point in the game. Northwestern controlled both sides of the ball from start to finish and won easily. So instead, we're going to take a look at two plays that exemplify one of Northwestern's biggest offensive weapons: using the threat of the run to open up the downfield passing game.

The two plays we'll focus on are both passes from Clayton Thorson to Austin Carr. The first was a 17-yarder on 3rd-and-7. The second was the 44-yard touchdown.

(All videos via ESPN)

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Last week, the main point of emphasis of Inside The Play was Clayton Thorson and his speed. Unsurprisingly we're going to talk about him (and, in a way, that speed) again this week.

After the upset of Stanford, we knew that Thorson could run, but we didn't really know a lot about his throwing ability. In fact, he even looked shaky at times, making a couple of bad decisions that very easily could have been interceptions.

It figured that a game against an FCS opponent would be the perfect opportunity for NU to at least experiment with opening the offense up a bit. But that wasn't the case. The run-pass ratio for the Wildcats on Saturday was 69-16. They ran the ball 69 times! That's astounding!

Because of this, we still don't really know too much about Thorson's arm. However, arguably two of the most successful throws of those 16 show how Northwestern can get the most out of his arm.

The Breakdown

The first of the two plays we'll look at is a second-quarter completion to Carr which gave NU a first down on 3rd-and-7:

As soon as the play begins, it immediately breaks down. Right tackle Blake Hance can barely lay a hand on EIU outside linebacker Fedney Delphonse, who comes right around the edge and straight for the quarterback.

Carr 2

Thorson has enough presence of mind though to take off and roll out to his left before the edge rusher meets him. He also has enough athleticism to maintain enough distance between himself and Delphonse. Then, just as he's about to get tackled, he opens up his hips and whips the ball to a wide open Austin Carr.

Why is Carr wide open though? Because of the threat of Thorson's legs. As he hits the hash marks, it appears that Thorson's best shot at picking up the first down on 3rd-and-7 is by keeping the ball himself.

If you watch the play again though, pretty soon after Thorson hits the hash mark, you'll see an EIU cornerback come sprinting into frame. He recognizes Thorson's running ability, and disregards his coverage responsibilities to honor that running ability.

However, EIU appears to be playing a zone, meaning the cornerback's decision leaves his designated spot in the zone vacated. As soon as he commits, there's a soft spot in the zone, which just happens to be right where Austin Carr is positioned:

Thorson's legs helped him out twofold on this play. First, he used them to avoid the rush and buy time. Second, the threat of his speed opened up a throwing lane downfield.

In this case, Northwestern doesn't script the play to use the threat of the run to set up the pass. But Thorson's ability naturally creates that dynamic within the play, and that's why the Wildcats are able to pick up a first down.

Now let's look at the second play, the touchdown throw to Carr:

First, a look at pre-snap alignment, which is very similar to the one Northwestern showed on the Miles Shuler catch from last week. It's three wide receivers, Thorson in the shotgun, Solomon Vault behind him, and Dan Vitale to his left.

Carr TD 1

Then, right before the snap Vitale motions up closer to the line, and to the right of Thorson. EIU is in its nickel defense, with three down linemen, three upright linebackers, three cornerbacks and two safeties.

Vitale's motion brings Northwestern into a formation out of which they had run the ball earlier in the game, and EIU's defense reacts accordingly. It also reacts to the overarching theme of the game: Northwestern had run the ball more than twice as much as it had thrown it. The two wide linebackers approach the line of scrimmage, and more importantly, the strong safety moves up anticipating the run:

Carr TD 2

What makes this play is the play action, plain and simple. In a way, it's actually very similar to the play the Denver Broncos used to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs with Tim Tebow as quarterback.

Once the play begins and Thorson executes the play action fake, the defense bites. And it bites hard. It's actually quite beautiful from an execution stand point. Just look at EIU middle linebacker Seth McDonald. He immediately realizes his mistake, taking off in a sprint back down the field. Safety Bradley Dewberry makes a similar mistake, and as he cheats towards the ball, he opens up space for Carr behind him:

If Northwestern is going to have success throwing the ball this year, it's plays like these that it needs to structure its passing game around. The result of this specific play also has a lot to do with FCS incompetence, but it's the theme that's important. With subpar receivers and a redshirt freshman quarterback, offensive coordinator Mick McCall needs to use scheme to open up space down the field — space that his receivers simply aren't capable of creating on their own. That's exactly what he did here.