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 break down the how and why of those decisive few seconds.
Northwestern is on its first winning streak of 2016 and the offense is currently playing out of mind. For pretty much the first time all year there were a bunch of plays that we could have looked at, but in an attempt to keep with the original spirit of the column, we have to find the play that was a “turning point” of sorts or caused a momentum shift against Michigan St. No play fits this description better than Solomon Vault’s 95 yard kickoff return TD.
(All video via BTN)
So that was unexpected.
I’ve been a Northwestern student since 2014, and the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a competent offensive output is the Notre Dame game. There is a reason why a few of us thought that this year’s Duke game was a pretty good offensive showing. Now, I thought Northwestern was going to beat Michigan St., but I’m not sure I was prepared for the offense to drop 54 points on the reigning Big Ten Champs on the road.
That being said, the biggest play of the game wasn’t actually from the offense, but from the special teams unit.
With 2:08 left in the third quarter, R.J. Shelton caught an 86 yard touchdown pass from Tyler O’Connor. Suddenly, a 16-point Northwestern lead was cut to just 2. The game started to feel like infamous Northwestern defeats of the past. It looked like Northwestern was about to blow a game it had in hand.
Then Michigan State kicked off.
In 15 seconds, the momentum and mood of the game swung back to Northwestern and it would stay with the Wildcats until time expired. With Northwestern emotionally on the ropes at Spartan Stadium, Solomon Vault provided the biggest special teams play of the year and silenced the East Lansing crowd.
Let’s take a look at how he did it.
I’ll be using this camera angle to break down the play:
This angle let’s us see everything that is developing as Vault brings the ball up the field.
Here’s the situation as soon as he gathers the ball off the bounce:
At this point Michigan State’s coverage is fine, as everyone has stayed in his lane for the most part. However, a critical moment occurs near the middle of the photo at the 25 yard line, a Michigan St. player has been decleated by a Northwestern block. That lane is now compromised and...
In this shot, there’s a huge hole up the middle. The player who was originally on the ground, cornerback Drake Martinez, is on his feet, but he is engaged in a block much further up the field than he should be. Simultaneously, the left side of the Spartan coverage team begins to collapse.
T.J. Harrell (31) is covering the near sideline, but he over-pursues Vault and immediately takes himself out of the play, opening up the sideline for Vault. Flynn Nagel and Cameron Green both lay great blocks and suddenly the entire left side of the coverage unit is out of the play.
Vault hits the hole and has to evade the only tackler that even comes close to him during the entire play.
“I only had to make one guy miss, credit to the guys up front,” Vault said. “It really is an 11 man operation, it’s not just me. If one person doesn’t do their job then the play doesn’t work.”
Vault manages to evade the would-be-tackler, and continues up the field. As Joseph Jones continues to block Drake Martinez, Vault has a choice of cutting inside or outside Jones. He feigns inside to draw in kicker Kevin Cronin, and then kicks it outside.
Cronin attempts to keep up and takes a poor angle at Vault. Clearly the kicker was never going to run down Vault, but in attempting to, Cronin stumbles and cuts off three other Michigan St. players pursuing the play. Good job Kevin! At this point, the only player left in front of Vault is linebacker Andrew Dowell who is slightly off screen above.
However, Andrew Scalan comes over and stops Dowell long enough for Vault to glide past him. Also Cronin make a last-ditch attempt to take out Vault, but comes up just a bit short.
The final block comes from Bennett Skowronek as he waits and seals off the last two Michigan St. pursuers. He’s only at midfield, but there is nothing but open space in front of Vault now. He’ll take it the extra 50 yards and right into the endzone.
This touchdown was a huge momentum shift in the game. If you recall, Vault has done this before, providing two arguably game-saving returns against Duke and Penn State last year. Apparently, being able to counter punch is something the special teams unit is specifically taught to do.
“We call it our attack team,” said Vault. “Either starting the game off, starting the half off or when the other team just scored, we got to have a great mindset and great attitude and we go out there and I really try to embrace that.”
Having this kind of weapon on special teams can flip a game at any time, and it just so happens that Solomon Vault was able to do it when Northwestern needed it most on Saturday.