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FILM: Northwestern’s run game opens up play-action, puts Purdue to rest

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Once the Wildcats established dominance on the ground, it was over for the Boilermakers.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Purdue Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

It is often said that if you can’t stop the run, you can’t win football games. In the Big Ten, that maxim becomes especially true as teams batter you until the clock hits zero.

But for Northwestern, stopping the run is essential because the Wildcats have a dangerous play-action game led by a dual-threat quarterback and a bevy of players on the outside who can get open, especially in the right scheme.

After a disjointed and disappointing first half, the Wildcats came out and utterly dominated. They scored touchdowns on their first four drives of the half and probably could have scored on every single drive of the half if they had wanted to.

But for the meaningful part of the second half — before Tom Hruby got carries on Veteran’s Day weekend and before Northwestern left West Lafayette with a convincing win — Northwestern pulled away. It all started with the first drive of the second half and from there unfolded to utter dominance.

But how did Northwestern become unstoppable? You can point to Purdue’s ridiculous struggles in the second half — the Boilermakers have been outscored 114-17 in second halves in Gerad Parker’s four games as interim head coach — but you can also analyze the film to attain a better understanding of Mick McCall’s strategy.

The answer was simple: running the ball setting up easy play-action opportunities.

NOTE: All video courtesy of the Big Ten Network.

Drive 1: Establish the run

After a pass-heavy first half, McCall smartly established the run on the opening drive of the second half. The Wildcats went 71 yards in seven plays, with 66 yards coming off five runs. Here are four of them:

Each play is important. Northwestern shows the ability to gain chunks of yardage on both stretch runs — a staple of McCall’s system — but also up the middle. As Northwestern dominates up front up the middle and Purdue’s tackling ability falls apart on the outside, it becomes easier and easier to just pound the dilapidated Boilermaker defense.

But it also sets up the play-action pass, which Clayton Thorson took full advantage on the very next drive.

Drive 2: One play, seven points

Garrett Dickerson is wide open on this play because Purdue had seen this type of play before — on the last drive, in fact — and been gashed by it. It’s the second play in the sequence of runs above. Here’s a look at them side-by-side.

They are two completely different plays, but they have very similar set ups. At half speed, the offensive line movement looks very similar. It’s easy to see how the Purdue defense would be confused.

Notice how in both clips, Northwestern pulls an interior lineman around to the right, acting as a lead blocker for the running back. In one case he gets the ball, in the other, he doesn’t. That puts Purdue linebackers Jimmy Herman (No. 29) and Markus Bailey (No. 21) in big, big trouble.

Expecting run...
Oh no

It’s not as if Dickerson’s the fastest guy on Earth. Here, McCall dials up a great play. But this great play only works if the Moten stretch run works on the previous drive. It did, so Purdue had to expect the run on this similar-looking play. That reaction resulted in one of the easiest pitch-and-catches Thorson and Dickerson will enjoy all year.

The floodgates were opened not by this play, but by the success of a simple stretch run. When Northwestern can execute run plays, it can find success downfield, a key piece of keeping a balanced and successful offense churning out yardage like it did against Iowa, Michigan State and Indiana in October and Purdue in the second week of November.