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Inside the Play: Vault and Carr beat the defense deep

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Northwestern finally got its deep passing game on track against Duke

Duke v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/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.

Finally, after the third try, Northwestern is in the win column in 2016, and that means we get to break down some of the plays that actually led to a win for the first time all year. It wasn’t perfect, but the Northwestern offense played one of its better games under Clayton Thorson against Duke. Today we’re going to take a look at two of the biggest plays from Saturday, Solomon Vault’s 44 yard TD and Austin Carr’s 58 yard TD.

(All videos via BTN)

A win is a win, but Saturday was one of the more purely entertaining Northwestern wins in recent memory.

Winning a game 10-7 is great and all, but flashy offensive plays just make a football game more entertaining, and that’s what Northwestern was able to achieve against Duke.

The offense managed to work through some problems moving the ball in the first half by hitting the deep ball in the second. First, Solomon Vault broke free for a 44-yard score to put Northwestern up 14-7 in what was probably the most important play of the game.

Then Austin Carr put the game away late as he caught a pass over the middle and took it in for a 58 yard score.

These were the two longest Northwestern completions of the game Saturday, and two of the longest Clayton Thorson has ever thrown. Hopefully they are the first of many.

The Breakdown

Solomon Vault 44-yard TD

Pre-snap alignments:

This is a brilliant formation to pass out of for Northwestern. Chances are that if you look at this formation with out any context you’d think this is a run play, and 95 percent of the time it is. Northwestern has seven blockers up front, with Thorson and Justin Jackson in the shotgun. There are only two wide receivers on the far side, Solomon Vault and Austin Carr.

Duke is absolutely expecting a run here, just look at how they’re lined up. They have nine players in the box, NINE! There’s no deep safety or any resemblance of help for either of the defensive backs. Remember that for later.

Here’s the situation right after the snap, Duke is rushing six players while two stay back, and Ben Humphreys (34) moves to cover Jackson in the flat. Up top, Austin Carr cuts in to start his route (which ends up being a post to the sideline) and Breon Borders (31) responds by covering him. That leaves Solomon Vault with a one on one matchup with safety Deondre Singleton (33). Singleton is the only Duke player more than five yards off the ball, and if he gets beat, it’s a surefire TD.

But before we get to that, let’s take a quick look at the pocket presence of Thorson here. We detailed the shortcomings of the offensive line last week, and they don’t do much better here. James Prather (44, he’s a superback) gets beaten easily and there’s a free rusher gunning for Thorson as he gets ready to throw the ball. However, instead of throwing off his back foot, Thorson steps into the throw, delivering a beautiful ball down the field, and taking a big hit in the process.

Meanwhile, down the field, Solomon Vault has already torched Singleton, and he’s not even past him yet. As soon as he has to pick up Vault, Singleton over plays it by a mile, opening his hips up to the sideline. Vault just hits him with a little double move, and well...

...this is not how you successfully cover a receiver. Singleton gets turned around and essentially has to do a complete 360 to be able to turn and run up field after Vault. At that point Thorson has already let go of the ball and it’s a bit too late, he’s been beat.

Touchdown Northwestern. For the first time all year, Vault uses his speed to toast a defender who has no help, and scores easily.

Austin Carr 58 yard TD

Pre-snap alignments:

Unlike the Vault touchdown, this isn’t a pass disguised as a run. Northwestern lines up with four wide receivers, two on each side of the field until Flynn Nagel motions to the far side. At snap they have five linemen, and Thorson is in the shotgun. It’s a pretty standard passing look.

Due to the four receivers, Duke is in a dime look, with six defensive backs, however, at snap they have seven in the box, as they are bringing a blitz yet again. This means that Duke only has four defensive backs to cover four receivers, so if the blitz doesn’t get there and just one player misses their assignment, it’s goodnight.

Like clockwork, this is just a half a second after Thorson snaps the ball. The play is already over.

For some reason, both safeties, Jordan Hayes (13) and Dylan Singleton (16), move to pick up Flynn Nagel out in the flat, and no one covers Carr over the middle. Hayes makes the correct decision here, as Nagel is his assignment, but Singleton inexplicably makes the same decision instead of picking up Carr. Also if that name sounds familar, it is. Dylan Singleton and Deondre Singleton are brothers, and they each gave up deep touchdowns to Northwestern receivers.

Here is the moment where Thorson releases the ball and Duke realizes that it has made a terrible mistake. There’s no one within five yards of Carr and no one in front of him either. As long as Thorson hits him in stride and he holds on, this is a TD.

Interestingly enough, the throw is actually not great, it’s behind Carr and forces him to stop and pull a 180. However, Singleton is not able to recover quickly enough to close the gap with Carr. After hauling in the pass, Carr simply turns around and turns on the jets into the endzone.

He’s gone.

Takeaways

There are a couple important things to take away from Northwestern’s success through the air on Saturday. The first is general and simply that Northwestern finally has glimpses of a passing attack. Receivers are getting opening and Thorson is finding them for big plays. It’s not very consistent, but it’s a good stepping stone towards the rest of the season.

More specifically, Northwestern has found a way to combat opponents blitzing them into the ground and perhaps opened up some more running room for Justin Jackson. If Northwestern can hit a few more of these long plays, suddenly other teams can’t stack the box anymore. This opens up running lanes and puts less pressure on the offensive line.

Northwestern has had good passing games before (see Ball State) so the Wildcats need to make sure that this is not just a one time thing. The offense should continue to take shots deep this week against Nebraska and every game going forward. It’s not always going to work, but when it does, it’s spectacular.