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Inside The Play(s): Northwestern’s offensive line struggles

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The offense only scored seven points against Illinois State and much of the blame can be put on the offensive line.

Illinois State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

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.

For the second week in a row, we’re going to have a different version of Inside the Play because Northwestern once again suffered a disastrous loss, and there was no real one play that led to the defeat. The team just played poorly. Last week we were still optimistic, so it was worth breaking down Justin Jackson’s TD, but after a loss to a FCS team, it’s time to actually figure out what’s going on with this team. Today we’re going to look at Northwestern’s weakest positional group, the offensive line.

(All video via BTN)

Well, this is less that ideal.

Northwestern losing to a pretty good MAC team is one thing, but a loss to an FCS team is bad. Very bad. What’s worse is that the offense looked even worse than it did in 2015, only scoring seven points and getting out-muscled up front all day.

I wrote about it after the game on Saturday, but Northwestern’s offensive line has now gotten outplayed in two straight games. It was so bad this past week that there isn’t even one play we can look at to fully understand how poorly the line played. We have to take the buckshot approach and look at a bunch of different plays where the offensive line completely broke down.

I sifted through every Northwestern snap from Saturday and everything that follows are some of the “best” offensive line moments. My apologies for less in-depth analysis than usual; there were more plays with less going on.

The Breakdown

“Our o-line got out-played. Flat out.” - Pat Fitzgerald

There are three plays showcased in the video above, which is a miscellaneous starter of sorts. Plays one and two are incomplete passes due to pressure, and play three is a carbon copy of almost every run play from the game.

Play One

This is a simple five wide pass play on third-and-8 and it falls apart very quickly, basically because both tackles get blasted into the backfield.

They start here:

Two seconds later they’re here:

The culprits on this play are right tackle Eric Olson (76) and left tackle Blake Hance (72). This is frightening from a pure strength standpoint, that two FCS defensive ends can push back Northwestern’s tackles so far. They get bull rushed directly into Clayton Thorson who is then forced to rollout and throw on the run, almost getting picked off.

Play Two

This play is more of the same, just that Northwestern is getting overpowered up the middle instead of on the outside. Tommy Doles gets pushed back a few yards before ultimately losing his man and allowing a hit on Thorson.

He starts here:

And is hanging on for dear life just 1.5 seconds later:

Play Three

This is the bizarro version of last week’s Justin Jackson TD. It’s a stretch run to the outside with multiple offensive lineman pulling at the snap, only this time almost everybody misses their blocks.

Olson, Hance and Connor Mahoney (68) all wind up attempting to block the same Illinois State player, while the only player actually engaged in a block, Brad North, gets pushed back into Justin Jackson. This causes Jackson to cut back and run right into the defense. Copy paste this about eight more times and that was the majority of Northwestern’s running game. As mentioned last week, Northwestern’s line is built to run plays like this, not to really power run the ball up the gut. So when they execute this poorly, the running backs have nowhere to go.

Now let’s move on and take a closer look at Northwestern’s offensive tackles.

Eric Olson

Olson, Northwestern’s most experienced lineman, did not have a great day on Saturday (but amazingly wasn’t the worst lineman). He couldn’t handle the rush from ISU’s pass rushers and was constantly pushed back or just let defenders run by, leading to pressure and hits on Thorson. To make things even worse, he was called for two of Northwestern’s four holding penalties of the day. Below, we have three of Olson’s mistakes that were indicative of his game as a whole.

Play One:

Here is Eric Olson appearing to be in position to block a pass rusher:

Here is less than one second later:

Illinois State linebacker B.J. Bello, who is 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, cuts through Olson, who is 6-foot-6, 305 pounds, like a knife through butter. He doesn’t use his speed to get around him: he takes Olson head on, and blasts through a man who is 75 pounds heavier than him. That’s a problem.

The instant pressure leads to Thorson throwing the ball away and eventually a Jack Mitchell missed field goal.

Play Two

This is one of Olson’s two holds on the day, on a play that gains roughly three yards. Olson is unable to seal the edge and is forced to lock arms with his assignment and take him to the ground.

You’ll see that not many other lineman hit their blocks (Hance doesn’t touch a single opposing player) and the play devolves into nothingness. But because of Olson’s hold, Northwestern loses 10 yards on the play.

Play Three

Nothing to see here, Eric Olson’s just going to easily block a 230 pound linebacker:

Oh.

It’s probably bad that the first thing I thought upon seeing this was, ‘well at least he didn’t completely lose his man.’ Olson just got powered into the backfield and allowed the third sack of Thorson on the day. This sack led to a third and long which then led to a punt.

Olson had a bad game, but it’s nothing compared to the game left tackle Blake Hance had.

Blake Hance

There are very few words that can be used to describe the kind of performance Blake Hance had on Saturday. There were some plays where he just straight up didn’t block his assigned man. He got blown by again and again. We’re not going to go play-by-play because they’re most of the same, but Hance was horrific at left tackle.

Blake Hance vs  ISU 1
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Look at that! Thorson steps back to pass and is almost immediately hit. He was getting pressure from his blind side almost every play, and that’s what forced many of his rollouts and scrambles.

Seriously, Hance looks unprepared to have to block on 75 percent of the plays he takes part in. He’s just giving up consistent pressure and Northwestern’s passing attack is suffering for it.

Blake Hance vs  ISU 2
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Okay that’s enough misery for now. Let’s look at the (very few) positives.

Things to Build Upon

These are some of the plays in the which the offensive line was at least okay, and these were few and far between. The first play is the only well executed run play of the entire day. Everyone hits their assignment and Jackson gains 14 yards.

The next two plays are clean pockets for once, but both of those plays featured help for the tackles. As long as opposing teams only rush four, then having a superback chip or a guard help double may be necessary to give Thorson just a little more time.

The fourth play is the most important one to build upon, not because of the line play, but because it’s line-independent, and it’s what Northwestern needs to start running more of.

Thorson rolls out in the opposite direction the line is moving, and has plenty of open space to work with. This is one of the longest times Thorson had to look downfield all day.

Then the Illinois State players come up to prevent a run, and Thorson calmly checks it down to Garrett Dickerson for a big gain.

It’s simple, it’s fast, and it doesn’t rely too much on the offensive line. This is what Northwestern needs more of in the future.