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Inside the Play: Northwestern exposes Ball State with play action

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Clayton Thorson played remarkably better in the second half on Saturday. How did the play calling allow him to find his rhythm?

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.

We went a little off book yesterday in hopes of clearing up a confusing play and to highlight some of Clayton Thorson's struggles. Today we're actually going to address the "crucial" plays from Saturday's games. Obviously the first thing that comes to mind is the sudden offense shift that occurred in the third quarter, but that shift actually started late in the second quarter with Dan Vitale's first touchdown. Thorson then used that to find a rhythm and come out firing in the third quarter.

(All video via BTN)

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As we went over yesterday, Saturday was a tale of two halves for Clayton Thorson. A disastrous first half full of turnovers and an enlightening second half that showed some of Thorson's true potential.

Although Thorson played well in the third quarter, it took some better play calling from offensive coordinator Mick McCall, particularly using play action to trick Ball State, to finally get the young quarterback going.

It started with 6:30 left in the second quarter, and Northwestern down 3-0. After a four yard run from Justin Jackson, Northwestern ran a play out of the shotgun, and Clayton Thorson completed a strike to Dan Vitale down the seam for a long touchdown, breathing life into an anxious Ryan Field. Then, on the first drive of the third quarter, after Ball State took the lead late in the second, the Wildcats marched right down the field and took the lead on a 21-yard touchdown to Vitale again. These are the two plays we'll focus on today:

The one thing that both these plays have in common (other than Vitale) is play action. After running the ball 21 times in the first half, Northwestern finally decided to make use of that run tendency, and the deception worked to perfection. Let's dive in and see just how well it worked.

The Breakdown

We'll start with Vitale's first touchdown, the 66-yarder.

PRE-SNAP ALIGNMENT TIME:

Vitale 1

This is, more or less, Northwestern's base personnel: Three wide receivers, a superback and a running back, with Thorson in the shotgun. This isn't the same as the formation on Austin Carr's touchdown vs. EIU, which was a run-heavy set. Northwestern has run out of this formation before, which is the most important point, but it's not exactly something that screams running play.

As we roll the tape, pay close attention to the star of the show, Ball State safety Dedrick Cromartie.

Vitale 2a

Ball State bites on the play fake, and man do they bite hard. Let's focus on the three defenders that would have had a chance to cover Vitale. Linebacker Avery Bailey (26), linebacker Zack Ryan (2) and of course Cromartie (43). All three have their eyes in the backfield right after Thorson executes the play fake and Vitale is by both linebackers before anybody even realizes what happened. It also helps that Ball State appears to be playing a zone scheme here. There's press-man coverage to the near side of the field, but inside, Vitale is allowed to get a free release off the line.

Bailey gets a pass here because the zone he was supposed to cover was out in the flat and Vitale wasn't his job. Ryan was probably at least somewhat assigned to Vitale assuming he was going to run a crossing route, but again, the play runs away from his designated zone. That leaves Cromartie.

Poor Dedrick Cromartie. He gets fooled so bad here, and really this touchdown is his fault. He blows the coverage. On most zone coverage plays, the safeties have the most important job: to play, well, safety.  Their zones are designed to be down the field in order to defend against getting beat deep. This looks like a form of cover 3, with the safeties shading to their lefts (Cromartie in centerfield) and the right cornerbacktaking care of the deep right portion of the field. Just look at Ball State's other safety Martez Hester (21). Unlike Cromatie, he plays this coverage perfectly, picking up and covering Mike McHugh as he streaks down the sideline.

Cromartie makes one crucial mistake here. He not only takes a step forward on the play fake, he moves forward four yards... FOUR YARDS. This can't be stated enough, he blows his coverage half a second into the play. He basically commits to stopping the run, and only realizes what's happening when he sees Vitale run by him. To make matters worse, he slips:

Vitale 3

At this point, the play is over, because Hester isn't aware of Cromartie's mistake (or perhaps he blew the coverage as well). As long as Thorson puts the ball on the money, Vitale is scoring a touchdown. Vitale passed the last line of defense six yards away from the line of scrimmage. Credit Thorson for not getting too eager here and calmly putting the ball right where it needed to be.

Let's quickly move to Vitale's second touchdown, which, in a way, is startlingly similar:

PRE-SNAP ALLIGNMENTS:

Vitale 4

There's a slight variation here from the last play in that this is a more run-centric formation. Northwestern has run plenty of times out of this formation with Vitale as the lead blocker. That contributes a lot to the believability of the play action fake. And man does Ball State believe it.

Vitale 5

The above still shot is from right after Thorson executes the play action, and, if you'll notice, EVERY SINGLE BALL STATE PLAYER IS LOOKING AT WARREN LONG. Or more specifically, cornerback Darius Conaway (20) lets Vitale run right by him because he's staring at Long, and safety Martez Hester is in a full sprint towards the backfield.

Hester does realize what's happening before Vitale is completely past him, but even at that point it's too late. He isn't able to stop and change direction quick enough to really cover Vitale at all.

Vitale 6

This touchdown is incredibly similar to Vitale's first touchdown. Play action, Vitale downfield route, blown coverage by the safety. There's one more key aspect here though: Vitale's execution. Rather than sprint out of the backfield right away, he chops his steps as if to prepare to block. There's a good chance the Ball State defenders bit on that as much as anything:

Takeaways

Before we talk about scheme or play calling, the first thing to take away here is the accuracy of Thorson's throws. Even if they were both to a wide open receiver, neither of these are easy throws. The first one is a 30-yard strike up the seam, and the second, while it's actually underthrown, is a pass with a sufficient amount of touch. Combine these two with this beauty of a throw...

and Thorson put on an impressive technical display Saturday. He has the tools to be good, folks, calm down.

As for the other aspects of these plays, it really kind of comes down to the fact that Ball State doesn't seem to understand play action. But that doesn't mean it won't work again in the future. The play action is crucial for a Northwestern team with a young quarterback (we say this a lot don't we?) and a run-centric offense. It will allow Thorson more time to throw, and will open up receivers down field.

Just as important is the fact that it allows Thorson to get into a rhythm like he did on Saturday. The difference in Thorson's play after the long touchdown was noticeable, (ignoring the botched snap, of course). This is the sort of easy designed throwing play that Northwestern needs to use more often to ease Thorson in a little better.

Will something like this work against Minnesota? That's a solid maybe. Play action is situational, in that if you're not running the ball well, it's not going to work. Luckily for Northwestern, the Wildcats have one of the best running backs in the country lining up next to Clayton Thorson.

Finally, I just want to reiterate what I said yesterday after we looked at Thorson's interception:

Win or lose, Northwestern needs to stick with its young quarterback to not only help him now, but help him in the future as well.

This is true now, and should be true for the rest of the season. We've seen time and time again that Clayton Thorson is capable of making the plays. Does that mean we should ignore his mistakes? No. But sometimes it's better to let a quarterback develop than to rush for the backup. Thorson was out of sorts at the beginning against Ball State. But with a little help from playcalling, and given a chance to get into a rhythm, he can win games for Northwestern.