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.
All of last year we only had to look at a negative play twice, now in 2016 this will be the fifth time we have to look at a play following a loss. It wasn’t a particularly interesting game, and there were only a handful of big plays, but there were two that wound up being incredibly important to the outcome of the game. The first came late in the first half when Jazz Peavy scored on a 46-yard end-around to give Wisconsin a 10-0 lead, the second was a backbreaking fumble by Clayton Thorson at the start of the fourth quarter.
(All video via ESPN)
A loss to a top 10 team is nothing to be ashamed of.
But for some reason this loss just stung a little bit more than it should have. Maybe it was because most of us (incorrectly) thought Northwestern was going to win. Or maybe it’s because there was a brief moment early in the fourth quarter where it looked like Northwestern might have a chance to win.
Whatever the reason, Northwestern lost to Wisconsin and gone are its hope of a Big Ten West title. Northwestern is now fighting for its bowl berth life.
On Saturday the Wildcats played a very sloppy game, but so did Wisconsin. However the Badgers used two huge plays, along with a dominant ground game, to solidly coast to victory.
The first play came with 7:33 left in the second quarter, when Wisconsin ran a simple end-around for wide receiver Jazz Peavy and it ended in a 10-0 Badger lead.
The even bigger play came when Northwestern appeared to be driving with 13:29 left in the fourth quarter, but Clayton Thorson was hit from behind and fumbled the ball.
The Badgers didn’t play the most beautiful game, but they made plays when they had to. How’d it happen?
Jazz Peavy end-around
The end-around to Peavy is a play that Wisconsin calls quite often, but this is still a brilliant play here. Wisconsin lines up in the I formation with a traditional run set. There are only two wide receivers and six players on the line. Northwestern lines up in a 4-3 with five on the line and basically everybody in the box. They’re expecting a run play here.
You can see from the conveniently placed graphic that Wisconsin was destroying Northwestern on the ground up to this point. This causes the deception to be more successful, as Northwestern believes it has to sell out to stop the run.
Here’s what the play looks like right as Peavy is receiving the handoff. First the fullback motions out wide, causing Northwestern to have to only play one deep safety since Godwin Igwebuike is forced to bump down and cover the slot receiver. Alex Hornibrook fakes the handoff to Corey Clement and then turns around to hand it off to Peavy.
Look at the position of the Northwestern line at this point. Everyone has moved left and the players are strung out heading towards the far side of the field. Even C.J. Robbins, who’s supposed to have contain, moves too far inside. There are no Northwestern defenders on the entire near side of the field. At this point the play has worked, and Wisconsin is going to get a big gain. The question is just how big.
This is the moment the play goes from a big gain to a touchdown. Peavy has two options: either continue up the sideline or cutback across the field. Marcus McShepard comes up to the fill the hole on the sideline, so Peavy chooses to cutback. Igwebuike pursues a bit too far upfield, and there is a huge hole for Peavy to run to.
Igwebuike is about as close as anybody gets to Peavy here, and that’s not even that close. As Peavy continues across the field, there is nothing but open space in front of him. Most of the Northwestern defense was up at the line trying to stop the run, and there’s no one left to tackle Peavy. The only one with a shot is safety Kyle Queiro and well...
He takes a bad angle and winds up running straight into Ifeadi Odenigbo. That was the last line of defense, and after that Peavy waltzes into the endzone. The big thing here is the fact that Peavy is not touched by a Northwestern player at any point during this sequence. In fact nobody even really comes near him. It was the perfect playcall for the situation, and it completely fooled the Wildcats for a crucial seven points.
Clayton Thorson Fumble
In the overall flow of the game, this was the bigger play, as it ended any hope of a miracle Northwestern comeback.
This is a third-and-21 on the edge of field goal range, so Northwestern is just trying to pick up a decent chunk of yardage here. The formation starts with four wide, but Garrett DIckerson motions in right before the snap for better pass protection. Wisconsin is in a simple 4-3 nickel package with two safeties. There’s nothing too extraordinary here; the play calling was fine on both sides.
Right after the snap, Wisconsin only rushes four and they’re actually picked up quite nicely. All but one rusher is double teamed and nobody really breaks through to Thorson that quickly. So what went wrong?
Nobody got open.
Thorson had some time and some decent blocking, but no one got enough separation to warrant a throw. Then at this point, Thorson sees a running lane developing in front of him and he gets ready to take off and run.
The only problem is that Wisconsin linebacker Garret Dooley is either the luckiest man alive or has an incredible sixth sense.
Right as Thorson gets ready to run, Dooley puts a spin move on his blockers, only to stop halfway and be surreptitiously positioned right next the Thorson. We don’t know if he saw Thorson coming and turned around or just got lucky, but he’s right there to make the play for the sack.
The only other problem is that Conor Sheehy is there too after breaking free of Brad North and Thorson doesn’t see him. Thorson is being dragged down by Dooley and naturally doesn’t want to get sacked out of field goal range. Since Dooley only has his legs, Thorson decides to throw the ball away. Then as he’s doing so he take a huge hit from Sheehy and the ball ricochets away.
Since all the receivers are out on long routes and there was no receiver in the flat, there is no way Northwestern is recovering the fumble. Wisconsin picks it up and after some bad tackling has the ball deep in Northwestern territory and the game in hand.
As far as the Peavy end-around goes, there’s not a ton to talk about there. Wisconsin called the better play and Northwestern was not only not prepared, but didn’t execute during the play. When no one even touches the ball carrier it’s tough to nitpick on the smaller stuff.
However, the fumble has a bit more nuance to it, as in ‘whose fault was it?’
The fault for the fumble goes on Thorson here two different ways. First he should not have tried to throw the ball away at all, even though it would have knocked his team out of field goal range. A turnover takes away the possibility of even just punting and pinning the other team deep. This was a crippling turnover and in part cost Northwestern the game.
Second, he doesn’t feel the other rusher coming, and refuses to secure the ball. Had Thorson seen Sheehy coming, he most likely would have tucked the ball, but he was looking the other way and attempted to throw it under extreme pressure.
The line gave up a sack, but Thorson has to have better awareness in those types of situations.