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Inside the Play: Northwestern’s receivers have become unguardable in the slot

Northwestern is hitting big plays by getting mismatches for its wide receivers

NCAA Football: Indiana at Northwestern Jerry Lai-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 break down the how and why of those decisive few seconds.

It wasn’t exceptionally pretty, but Northwestern has now won three straight games and sits at second place in the Big Ten West. After a disastrous start to the season the offense has managed to play great and has looked great over the last month or so. Despite a bad second half against Indiana, the offense still had another solid showing on Saturday. The first half was an offensive clinic from the Wildcats, as they spread out the Hoosiers and managed to get mismatches in the slot. Today we’re going to look at how they were so successful with receivers in the slot and take a look at Clayton Thorson’s three passing touchdowns.

(All Video via BTN)

Northwestern’s offense has finally arrived.... sort of.

Between the start of the Iowa game and halftime of the Indiana game, Northwestern played some of the best offense the team has seen in years, putting up 116 points in just 10 quarters of play. While the second half of the Indiana game raised some doubts about consistency, the offense is still in a great place and it starts with improved playcalling.

The offense has been most successful this season when it spreads out and can take advantage of mismatches in the slot. That’s what it did in the first half on Saturday and is what directly led to all three of Clayton Thorson’s passing touchdowns.

It’s no coincidence that Northwestern’s best wide receiver, Austin Carr, has been playing primarily in the slot. Linebackers simply cannot guard him, yet opposing teams just continue to try and use that strategy. The same can said about a guy like Solomon Vault or Macan Wilson.

Let’s take a look at all three of their touchdowns from Saturday.

The Breakdown

Play One: Solomon Vault 17 Yard TD

Pre-snap Alignments:

This is exactly the type of spread attack that has been so successful for the Wildcats in the last few games. Clayton Thorson is alone in the backfield with five receivers out wide. There are no help blockers on the line so Thorson is going to have to get the ball out quick and he knows this.

Indiana is in a 4-3 nickel look, with three defensive backs, two linebackers and two deep safeties. The man to watch here is Solomon Vault (4) who is on the far hash and being covered by defensive back Marcelino Ball (42).

Even though Northwestern doesn’t exactly get the mismatch it wants for Vault, there is still a major advantage given to the Wildcats by the Indiana blitz. The linebackers both blitz, while outside linebacker Tod Bolstad (45) bumps back into coverage on Justin Jackson. The problem that the blitz creates is that Indiana is essentially only playing with one deep safety. The other safety has to bump down to cover Cam Green (84) and that leaves safety Jonathan Crawford (9) as the only conceivable help deep.

This is the advantage that Northwestern gains by spreading out other teams.

Thorson knew where he was going as soon as the ball was snapped, as he takes a quick three step drop and releases the ball to Solomon Vault. It’s good that he did because he’s about to get crushed by a blitzing linebacker that Tommy Doles completely whiffs on.

When Thorson releases the ball, Vault already has a step on Ball in the open field. Thanks to there being no deep help, Thorson is able to loft the ball up into the endzone and Vault comes down with it uncontested. Vault is fast enough to beat most cornerbacks, so if he’s one-on-one in the slot with no help Thorson is going to go there every time.

Play Two: Austin Carr 34 yard TD

Pre-snap alignments:

A completely different look for Northwestern here as they line up in a trips bunch set. Unlike the last play Thorson has an extra body on the line as well as Jackson in the backfield for extra protection. Austin Carr (80) is the receiver closest to Thorson and obviously the one to watch here.

Indiana is in a 4-3 nickel defense once again, except this time the safety is lined up as if he’s going to cover one of the receivers. The third defensive back remains on the near side of the field to help keep contain if there is a run play, however, the other safety has also bumped down for an unclear purpose at this time.

Indiana drops back everybody into coverage and only rushes four. The offensive line picks up the rush and that gives the play time to develop. On the near side two defensive backs and a linebacker pick up one Northwestern receiver while on the far side two defensive backs and a linebacker are matched up with three receivers. The receiver in the slot is Austin Carr and linebacker Marcus Oliver (44) has the unlucky job of having to cover him. As we’ve all learned, you can’t cover Austin Carr with a linebacker.

More importantly here, the deep help is on the far side of the field, leaving a huge open area over the middle of the field. Which just so happens to be exactly where Carr’s post route is taking him.

Carr roasts Oliver, just running right by him and heads directly for the wide open middle of the field. The safeties respond, but not quickly enough and Carr catches the ball with no one really near him.

He nearly stumbles before making it into the endzone, but still scores nonetheless. Here Northwestern once again got a mismatch inside and was able to exploit it deep.

Play Three: Macan Wilson 32 Yard TD

Pre-snap alignments:

Once again a completely different look than before from Northwestern. This time its trips, but not bunched together. Again there is an extra player on the line and Jackson in the backfield. Indiana has the same defense as last time, once again in its 4-3 nickel package. What’s important here is that no one is remotely near Macan Wilson (the middle of the three receivers) or Austin Carr. This gives them plenty of time and space to work with at the snap.

The action (and result) of this play wind up being very similar to the Carr touchdown. Wilson is picked up by the defensive back in front of him, Zeke Walker, while Carr appears to get picked up by Oliver again, the linebacker actually lets him go, forcing the deep safety to pick him up on his corner route.

So the safety is forced to bump down to cover Carr which leaves no one deep to help Walker. Wilson hits him with a double move right around where the B1G is on the field and sprints by him towards the middle of the field. Resulting in this:

The deep help on the other side of the field, safety Chase Dutra (30), attempts to come over and help, but it’s too late as the ball is already in the air and perfectly thrown. Thorson had the best protection he’s had all year on this throw and he threads it between the two defenders and right into the arms of Wilson for the TD.


Northwestern has wide receivers that can get open!

No but seriously, all three of the receivers who caught touchdowns beat their man deep to get open. Gone are the days of 2015 when no one could get open, suddenly Northwestern has a pretty solid looking receiving corps.

More importantly, the play calling is really good here. Mick McCall is spreading out opposing defenses and creating mismatches in the slot with Austin Carr up against a linebacker or Solomon Vault in one-on-one coverage. These are the types of things that an effective spread offense should be accomplishing when run well. He’s calling plays that isolate certain players or even force defenders to either take away shorter routes and give up a possible big play or give up the short stuff and get nickel and dimed to death.

When Northwestern is spreading it out like this and Thorson is on the mark, the offense is nearly impossible to stop. There are just so many moving pieces that its hard for a defense to cover all of them.

It’s hard to know how successful this strategy will be against Ohio State’s hyper-athletic defense on Saturday, but at the very least spreading it out and creating mismatches gives Northwestern its best shot at the upset.