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Northwestern’s short-yardage struggles and how to fix them

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The Wildcats haven’t executed up front, but changes in play-calling and formations can help.

Illinois v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

When Northwestern struggles, Pat Fitzgerald often points to “not executing” and “one-man breakdowns” as the primary issues. And especially this season, those phrases have been used for the offensive line, which has struggled to say the least. The raw numbers — 35 sacks allowed is 113th in the nation — are bad, but that’s not always the most complete way to measure offensive line play, because some sacks are on the quarterback or maybe even a missed assignment by a running back or superback. And some teams simply throw the ball more, and that will lead to more sacks (though that’s not necessarily the case for Northwestern).

Rather, one can turn to advanced stats to fully capture the Wildcats’ woes in the trenches. A couple of concerning trends emerge. The Wildcats rank 116th in opportunity rate, a rough measure of how well the line opens lanes for the people carrying the ball, thus helping them get to the second level. Additionally, the team ranks 113th in stuff rate, a stat the measures how often a run is stopped at or before the line of scrimmage. At 22.6 percent, between one-fourth and one-fifth of Northwestern runs go nowhere or backward.

These two stats are especially important in short-yardage situations. The stats there aren’t quite as bad, but over the last two weeks of the regular season, the short-yardage conversion rates were downright awful. The Wildcats went 1 for 8 in third- or fourth- and less than 4 against Minnesota (this number includes two failed two-point conversions). They then followed that with a 2 for 5 outing versus a very bad Illinois team.

Some of these struggles can be attributed to the things Fitzgerald talks about in his post-game press conferences. Perhaps the Wildcats are either underperforming or simply not good enough to get it done consistently in short yardage. Additionally, the play-calling could play a part.

So what’s behind these struggles in short yardage? We look a the film for the major issues and then try to solve them.

What’s gone wrong?

Ian: Way back in September, I broke down some film on the offensive line following the disastrous Illinois St. loss and found multiple plays in that game where Northwestern was just destroyed in the trenches. Big Ten linemen were getting pushed straight back into Clayton Thorson by FCS linemen. It was one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen from an offensive line, with particularly bad tackle play.

It was a horrific day for Northwestern and many thought that Northwestern’s season was basically over. Yet somehow this same offensive line only gave up one sack against Ohio State. It’s borderline inexplicable how that happened. It seemed that suddenly the offensive line was not only fixed, but a strength of the team.

Then the Minnesota game happened.

Pass Blocking

We don’t have time to go through all the plays in the above video, especially considering Thorson was sacked seven times by the Golden Gophers, but lets take a quick look at one of the more egregious ones.

Sack Three

This is one of those rare plays where literally the entire defensive line gets to Thorson.

Here’s where we are at the start of the play, with only the five offensive linemen having to block four Minnesota defensive linemen. This is problem number one as the line wasn’t performing great while keeping Garrett Dickerson in to help. But at worst only one of the linemen will lose their block right?

Well...

Both J.B. Butler and Eric Olson get put in the spin cycle, Brad North just gets thrown aside and Blake Hance gets run past. Minnesota brought a lot of blitzes in this game, and that led to most of the sacks, but this one was just all on the offensive line.

No one holds onto a block, the pocket collapses and Thorson is sacked by all four linemen. It’s a complete breakdown on the offensive line.

Now what does this have to do with short yardage? More than you’d think.

If the offensive can’t pass protect, then it’s pretty hard to even get into short yardage situation, but more importantly it takes away the chance of throwing it in those situations. When this offense can’t throw the ball it’s dead in the water.

So that’s an example of what’s gone wrong in passing game. Now on to Justin Jackson and the running game.

Run Blocking

Here’s where we can talk about some real short yardage situations, and there were some bad ones against Minnesota. As seen above, Northwestern just simply doesn’t have the strength to push other teams straight back, yet against Minnesota the team tried to do this on runs up the middle not once but twice.

On the first play, it’s a fourth-and-1, so not a terrible decision to run here, but the play calling is not great. A run up the middle from the shotgun is a pretty unimaginative play call for such a big moment in the game. It also doesn’t help that Minnesota brings an all out blitz and one of the linebackers is completely unblocked. Here, Garrett Dickerson misses their assignment coming across the formation, and then the floodgates open as three players bring Jackson to the ground.

The problem here is that a run up the middle is the most obvious thing they could do here, which is fine, but it’s not executed well. The blocks are poor, the actual play call is poor and Jackson is left all on his own to try and get a first down.

On this play, the decision to run just isn’t that smart. As we saw earlier, the Wildcats had trouble protecting Thorson, but still a run up the middle when you need 3 yards isn’t great. The other problem here is that I could tell this was a run play as soon as the wide receiver motioned across because that’s a very common occurrence for a run in this offense. If I could tell that from the couch, then it’s pretty safe to say Minnesota roughly knew what was coming here.

Once again the blocking breaks down and kills the play, but I really just don’t understand running it out of the shotgun here. They’ve shown that they have some plays they can run out of the I formation, so why not do that here and on the fourth-and-one? Or at the very least run a stretch play where Jackson has more of a chance to get open field and the linemen don’t have to push forward? Or maybe it’s simply bad execution.

So Zach, I’ve gone over some of the bad, what something this team has done well?

Fixing the struggles

Northwestern is not going to play power football, as Ian mentioned above. The line has shown time and time again that it’s simply not the road grader type. If you doubt that, scroll up to watch some of the Minnesota film. Instead, we can turn to a couple of alternate methods to get the Wildcats on track and extending drives in these situations.

Zach: I don’t think I’ve missed a single down of Northwestern football this year, so I can confidently say this is hands-down the best short-yardage play call Mick McCall had this year. On a do-or-die play, Northwestern moved the chains and then some. First, there are no wide receivers to Thorson’s right, which gives NU a ton of space to work with to that side of the field. Thorson runs what looks like on option with Jackson. T.J. Watt (No. 42) plays this pretty much perfectly, crashing down to stop Jackson and still managing to get to Thorson as soon as he realizes the sophomore quarterback kept it. It’s really a phenomenal play from Watt. The only issue for Wisconsin is that as soon it looks like Watt commits to Jackson, Leo Musso (No. 19) charges toward Thorson — and correctly so — knowing he has to stop the quarterback from running for a yard to get the first down.

Watt nearly makes a superhuman play. Instead, Northwestern picks up the first down and records its longest play of the day.

So what can we make from this? One, Thorson shouldn’t be limited to being a pocket passer on short yardage situations. He’s a good runner — much better than he is a pure pocket passer with an iffy line in front of him — and getting him on the move rather than dropping deep in the pocket puts pressure on the defense. Two, use Garrett Dickerson. He’s a great blocker, but slipping him off the line, especially on a play like this where a run is a legitimate possibility, can lead to easy completions.

Spreading it out

I’ve written about this before. I’ll reiterate: Northwestern isn’t made to play power football. We see that in goal-line situations when Northwestern struggles at the one- or two-yard line. See saw it all over the field against Minnesota. That doesn’t mean the Wildcats can’t run the ball in short-yardage situations. They just have to do it a bit differently: by spreading it out rather than bunching it in. Here’s another example where Northwestern picks up a third down and rips off a big gain.

There are five linemen. There are six Badgers in the box. One has to account for Thorson keeping the ball. Five-on-five football is good when you have Justin Jackson in the backfield. Even with T.J. Edwards (No. 53) beating Blake Hance (No. 72) to the inside, Jackson runs through an arm tackle for a big gain. So when it comes to running up the middle in short-yardage situations, Northwestern can do it, just not necessarily in the conventional manner.

Trips

I love Trips formations. You can do so much with them, and Northwestern ought to take advantage of that, especially in short-yardage situations. It’s very difficult to defend three players packed together all going different directions.

Here’s a play that’s worked twice this season in short yardage:

That’s true freshman Bennett Skowronek converting for first downs. Breaking this play down, it’s actually well-defended both times but still works, which is a sign of both a good play and good execution.

The receiver furthest away from Thorson runs a simple hook route. The person at the top of the trio runs to the right sideline. The person in the middle of the field. In both instances, Skowronek does well to get open, but in the Ohio State example especially, you see the benefits of the trips package. Skowronek actually gets bumped by Damon Webb (No. 7), who is trying to work his way over to Solomon Vault in the flat. If Thorson had looked Vault’s way in this instance, it could have been a big gain (for what it’s worth, this is one of the biggest steps in Thorson’s progression as a top quarterback long-term, but that’s a discussion for another time).

The Wildcats move the chains out of a formation that is extremely difficult to defend, especially in short-yardage situations.

Overall, these down-and-distance situations are very important and especially will be of utmost importance versus Pittsburgh. Converting on these plays will keep the high-powered Pittsburgh offense off the field and will give Northwestern a chance to extend drives into scoring opportunities. On third downs, McCall has to be creative, use a variety of formations and spread the field wide. That’s all that a coordinator can do: put his players in the best possible position for them to execute their assignment on any given play.