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.
There have only been a handful of Northwestern games this year in which we can say there was one play that the entire outcome hinged on, and unfortunately Saturday against Ohio State was one of them. Despite a valiant effort against the nation’s sixth best team, Northwestern needed one more defensive stop to get the ball back and couldn’t do it. The play we’ll be looking at today is J.T. Barrett’s 35-yard run late in the fourth quarter.
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Unfortunately, they don’t count moral victories in the standings.
None of us thought Northwestern would only be down four points with under two minutes left on Saturday, but that’s probably what makes the loss harder to swallow. It was an improbable situation through and through, and yet it still ended with the Wildcats on the wrong side of the final score.
There it was right on the scoreboard, 24-20, 1:57 left in the game. Ohio State was facing a 3rd-and-10 at its own 43-yard line. If Northwestern gets the stop, it gets the ball back with a chance to win with a touchdown.
The Buckeyes had already converted a third down earlier on the drive, but this one was basically Northwestern’s last chance to get a stop. J.T. Barrett took the snap and this is what unfolded...
He took off on a delayed quarterback keeper and sprinted 35 yards up field to essentially end the game and Northwestern’s upset hopes along with it. But how did he get so much open space? Let’s take a look.
Right off the bat this is a beautifully designed play. Ohio State comes out in a four wide set with three receivers on the near side. Barrett is in the shotgun with running back/ wide receiver Curtis Samuel (4). Northwestern is in a dime set with four linemen, one linebacker and six defensive backs. This will be important in a minute.
Right before the snap, Samuel motions out into the flat, and it looks like Ohio State is about to run the same swing pass play it had run five or six times previously. Walker, the only player in the middle of the field, reacts by immediately bumping down to cover Samuel. This leaves the entire middle of the field to Godwin Igwebuike.
Barrett take a quick glance at Samuel and waits about half a second before pulling the ball down and getting ready to run. At this point Walker is fully committed to covering Samuel in the flat and the entire middle of the field is vacated. It’s up to either the defensive lineman to plug the holes or Igwebuike to make the tackle.
Quick side note here: It’s easy to say that if Walker had simply stayed home then Northwestern would have made the stop, but I’m not sure that actually is the case. First of all, Walker’s assignment on the play was clearly the running back given how quickly he reacted to the movement. So at a base level, Ohio State just called the better play.
However, if Walker had decided to stay in the middle of the field, then Ohio State would have had Samuel wide open in the flat with three blockers in front of him. From the looks of it, Barrett had the option of throwing it to Samuel depending on what Walker did. So there is still a decent chance that the Buckeyes get the first down anyway, although Northwestern would have been much more equipped to stop the pass than Barrett’s keeper.
Anyway, let’s move on.
The defensive linemen get muscled out of the way and Barrett has a huge hole. He hasn’t even crossed the line of scrimmage yet and the only player left who could make a play is Igwebuike. It’s hard to overstate how perfect the play call is for the situation. It’s a passing situation and Ohio State lines up in a passing formation, only to run a delayed quarterback keeper.
Igwebuike comes down ready to make the play on Barrett. The only problem is that Montre Hartage has fallen down (look at the 50 yard line), which frees up his man to lay a vicious block on Igwebuike. This is the key to the entire play. The playcalling made it so only one player had to be blocked for it to work and Ohio State executed.
Hartage is on the ground, Igwebuike has been taken out and C.J. Robbins is excruciating close to tripping up Barrett, but to no avail. Robbins is the closest any white jersey will get to Barrett until he slides to the ground 30 yards later.
It’s really tough to pin this play on the defense because it didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. Aside from the defensive line not getting enough push (and Hartage falling down), everyone else was more or less in position on the play. They just got caught in a challenging formation against a challenging team on the most important play of the game and, well, J.T. Barrett is pretty darn good.
Ohio State ran the better play and this was the result.
Overall, the defense played pretty well considering how banged up the secondary is. It just fell a little short in the fourth quarter and this was the result. If Northwestern’s offense had been able to score earlier in the game to tie it up at 24, who even knows if the defense would have been able to stop the ensuing Ohio State drive. But enough with the what-ifs, sometimes you just have to tip your cap to the other team and move on. With a crucial game versus Big Ten West rival Wisconsin upcoming, that’s exactly what the Wildcats will do.