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Northwestern needs more explosive run plays. Spreading the field can help.

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Going three- or even four-wide has helped open up holes in the middle.

Northwestern v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

It’s no secret that the Northwestern Wildcats are a better team when Justin Jackson finds success. Despite the impressive improvement of Clayton Thorson and the heroics of Austin Carr, Jackson is the guy who has been the most reliable player for this team and the common factor in its wins. In two of Northwestern’s four wins, he’s gone over 100 yards and in only one of the five losses has he surpassed that mark.

Recently, the rushing game has been severely slowed by two very impressive defenses, but also two poor performances from the offensive line. Northwestern ranks 111th in rushing S&P+; 114th on standard down line yards (which measures per-carry line yardage on standard downs (first down, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, fourth-and-4 or fewer)); and 123rd with just 29 rushes of 10-plus yards.

One way to produce longer gains, as seen over and over this season, is to spread the field horizontally and allow Jackson and even John Moten to win one-on-one battles. Additionally, a struggling offensive line has fewer defenders to deal with. It’s a simple numbers game, and when Jackson can beat one or sometimes two players, the odds are increasingly in Northwestern’s favor. Additionally, this team has a very legitimate passing attack; it’s not like last year’s bunch, which struggled mightily to move the ball downfield. When Northwestern spreads out three or four receivers, the defense has to respect every single one.

The film supports that Jackson can be more effective and explosive when used as the lone back in a three- or four-wide set.

Play 1: A big play versus Wisconsin

This play last weekend against Wisconsin accounted for 28 of Jackson’s 42 yards on the day and inspired this very article.

Northwestern has three receivers to Thorson’s left, and each is single covered. Flynn Nagel at the bottom of the screen also holds a fourth DB accountable. Add in a deep safety to watch for anything over the top (Northwestern can actually do that this year), and five defenders are primarily responsible for Northwestern wide receivers.

This play also perfectly shows that the just the threat of Thorson as a runner helps open up things for this offense. Star linebacker Vince Biegel comes off the right edge of the defensive line but has to be accountable for Thorson in case he keep it on the option. That’s a fifth Badger not assigned to stop a Jackson run. That leaves six Badgers versus five offensive linemen and Jackson. Northwestern will take that every time, and in this case Jackson breaks a tackle and gallops for a big gain. Wisconsin has a fantastic defense; it’s not unbeatable, though, especially with the right scheme and the ability to isolate your best player.

Play 2: To the house

The move Jackson makes on the Iowa defensive back is what garnered highlights, but the formation is what allows him to get there in the first place. Northwestern goes three-wide: One wide receiver is out of the picture at the bottom of the screen. The Wildcats do have Garrett Dickerson on the line, but they actually run it to the opposite side of where he’s positioned.

Watch Thorson right after he hands it off. He fakes like he’s going to throw the ball to Carr on a screen to his right. Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann (44) falls for it, putting himself completely out of position.

Iowa has two cornerbacks and two safeties on this play, but the one at the top of the screen is playing way back (and eventually gets burned) knowing he can’t leave Niemann on an island against Carr, and the one at the bottom of the screen sneaks up expecting a run behind Dickerson, who is a superb blocker. After Tommy Doles (No. 71) gets a free release to the second level, it’s showtime for The Ball Carrier.

Play 3: Trips

Northwestern is in a four-wide set here with a trips package at the bottom of the screen. Iowa has to devote four defenders to this area because Northwestern has been successful running bubble screens in this type of formation. Add in a cornerback and deep safety on the opposite side of the screen and there are just five Hawkeyes left in the box that was so often stacked with eight or nine men last year.

Because he haa to focus on the trio of wide receivers, Jewell has a lot of space to cover versus Jackson. Jewell’s good, but he’s not tackle-Justin-Jackson-in-space good — few in the nation are. That’s certainly true here. Flynn Nagel gets in a great sealing block and Jackson is up the sidelines for a big gain.

Play 4: Moten gets in on the action

One of the most beautiful things about the right formation and scheme is that the parts are interchangeable. John Moten IV has seen an increased role as the season has progressed, and against Ohio State he made good on his opportunities, especially when inserted in this four-wide set.

The Wildcats are spread so wide that one wide receiver isn’t even in the picture by the time the camera finishes zooming in. Add in a second wide receiver to Thorson’s left and Ohio State dedicates two cornerbacks and a safety to the side of the field opposite of where Moten IV ends up going.

This is a brilliant play design. Solomon Vault (No. 4), in the slot to Thorson’s right, runs an out route, bringing Jerome Baker (No. 17) with him. After Eric Olson dominates his man, Moten IV cuts back and has nothing but Ohio Stadium turf ahead of him. Because Northwestern is spread out so widely, there’s no one to cover the off-tackle running lanes.

Overall, it’s clear that even the threat of a passing play in three- and four-wide formations gives Northwestern an advantage, numbers-wise, in the trenches. And when you can win there, good things happen.

“It’s just: ‘Am I able to get up to the second level and am I able to make that guy miss?’” Jackson told Inside NU. “Obviously when we spread out, I have a little bit more space.”

Even just a little bit more space leads to a lot more production for one of the nation’s premier backs. If Northwestern’s offense is to get back on track, it will start on the ground, and hopefully with a lot more space to work with thanks to various spread formations.