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.
In a stark contrast to last week's Inside the Play, Northwestern's matchup against Duke featured not one but two pivotal plays that led the Wildcats to victory. Interestingly enough, both plays featured running backs not named Justin Jackson.
This week we'll focus on the two biggest non-defensive plays of the game, Solomon Vault's 98-yard kickoff return touchdown and Warren Long's 55-yard rushing touchdown. These two long touchdowns accounted for 13 of Northwestern's 19 points and were the difference in a close game.
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For the first time all season, Inside the Play will not prominently feature Clayton Thorson. The Northwestern quarterback had his worst game yet as a Wildcat on Saturday, but avoided his first collegiate loss thanks to some superb defense and two huge touchdowns.
The first touchdown came from an unexpected source: Northwestern's special teams. A lot was made about how great Duke's special teams were leading up to the game, but aside from a blocked extra point, Northwestern's special teams controlled the day. That much became clear as soon as the second half kicked off.
We knew Solomon Vault had this in him. He's done it before. But this touchdown could not have come at a better time. Northwestern was down, and at risk of wasting an incredible defensive performance. Vault's touchdown allowed the sideline to breathe a sigh of relief, and more importantly, gave the defense a lead to protect, and one they would not relinquish.
Warren Long's touchdown was even more unexpected than Vault's. On a third-and-1 play designed to just get enough for the first down, Long burst through the line and put the final nail in Duke's proverbial coffin.
Let's see how Long and Vault won Northwestern the game in Durham:
The Breakdown: Vault's return
We'll go in chronological order here and start with Solomon Vault's return.
Most kickoff return touchdowns combine at least two of three things: Impressive speed/agility from the return man, good play design/blocking schemes, and poor coverage. Vault's return had at least two of those things. It might have had three.
One the surface, this play is the perfect combination of pure speed and bad kickoff coverage. The first tipoff we have that the coverage is less than stellar comes only a few seconds into the play. As soon as Vault catches the ball he takes two steps and takes off at an angle to his left. You can see why just a few seconds later:
Here's another angle:
It's a little hard to see, but there are eight Duke players on the near side of the hash marks. EIGHT. That's not bad kickoff coverage... it's horrendous. One of the simplest concepts of kickoff coverage is "staying in your lane." Apparently Duke decided to ignore that advice, and commit full force to Vault taking the return up the middle. Take Duke defensive end Kyler Brown (56) for example. He comes crashing in and bursts through Northwestern's blocking untouched, the only problem is that Vault is already 10 yards upfield at that point, and all eight of those Duke players are out of the play.
However, part of this could be due to play design. The majority of Northwestern's blockers are also to the near side of the hash marks, perhaps baiting Duke into leaving the wide side of the field vacant. One of the clues that this may have been by design is that Auston Anderson, Vault's lead blocker, seems to take off to his left at the same time as, or even slightly before Vault does. There's also a really nice seal block or two.
That doesn't excuse the kick coverage though. When Vault gets into the open field with remarkable ease, he really only has to make one man miss, and he's got a lot of room to do so with pure speed.
The last line of defense here is kicker Ross Martin and cornerback Breon Borders. They are the only two Duke players who even had a shot at tackling Vault on this play.
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, Martin takes a bad angle and Vault runs right by him because, well, he's a kicker. Borders gets taken out of the play by a subtle move by Vault. He stumbles, and then has to back pedal wildly. Borders actually put himself in position to make a play, but couldn't make it, and ended up looking like this:
Another amazing part of this play is Anderson. He literally doesn't block anybody. His presence perhaps helps Vault beat Borders, but it's rare that a lead blocker doesn't need to even make a key block on a return touchdown.
The final hint that Duke covered this kick poorly is in the final thirty yards. Vault has a platoon of blockers escorting him to the endzone, something that doesn't happen if they're engaged in blocks elsewhere.
So Vaults touchdown certainly was a product of the returner's ability and Duke's coverage breakdown. It also may have been some really good play design by Pat Fitzgerald and Matt MacPherson.
The Breakdown: Long's Run
Let's move on to our second play today, Warren Long's 55-yard touchdown:
Northwestern's offensive line has taken a lot of flak so far this season, and usually with good reason. But the line play here is downright clinical. First, look at how Duke is lined up defensively before the play:
Looks like they should have all the holes in the line covered, right? It's third-and-short, so everybody is committed to stopping the run. All 11 players are in or nearly in the box. And at the snap, they all sell out to stop the run:
Because all 11 are so close to the line though, more than half of them are taken out of the equation by the simple fact that the run play is designed to go over right tackle. Players like Alonzo Saxton (21) and DeVon Edwards (27) have no chance to make an impact on the play.
Have so many players close to the line, in a way, is an all-or-nothing gamble. Northwestern's line makes sure it's nothing for Duke instead of all. The left side of the line does its job, taking defenders out of the play by going low. But the job done by the two Northwestern linemen on the right is phenomenal. They take care of the middle of Duke's defense, and essentially trap nine Duke players on the near side of the field.
At this point, the play becomes a game of two-on-two. As seen above, it's Long and his lead blocker (it looks like Dan Vitale) versus safety Deondre Singleton and our old friend Breon Borders, and the success of the play comes down to Vitale and Long being on the same page. Vitale can't possibly block both players. But if he blocks the outside one, Long can take the inside defender out of the play but cutting to the edge. If Vitale blocks the inside one, Long can hit the hole, provided there is one, thus taking the outside defender out of the play.
Vitale picks the second option, Long reads the block and hits the hole... and the rest is as simple as it gets for a running back:
The difficult thing with these two plays is there's not really anything Northwestern can take and apply to its next game. Yes, they are explosive plays, something for which the Wildcats have been searching for a while now. But they are more fluky than repeatable. They are not necessarily signs of things to come.
The biggest takeaway though? Northwestern has not one, not two, but three playmakers in its backfield. Look for offensive coordinator Mick McCall to take advantage of that depth and versatility moving forward.