After a 1-3 start for Northwestern, fingers have been pointed in Evanston. But perhaps no unit (other than Jack Mitchell) has received more flack for its effort through the first month of the season than Northwestern’s offensive line. The starting unit, made up of two seniors, a junior and two sophomores, doesn’t necessarily have a lack of experience to blame, and Clayton Thorson has been sacked 15 times through four games, making him the second-most sacked quarterback in America.
But even with Justin Jackson, considered by many a top-tier running back in the Big Ten, Northwestern’s offense ranks 119th out of 128 FBS teams in rushing yards per carry with 3.1. That’s not a good look for Northwestern’s offensive line considering the immense talent it blocks for. Let’s dive into some of the issues related to Northwestern’s ground game.
Inside vs. Outside runs
Certainly, the onus isn’t all on the offensive line. The ball carriers need to make plays and, equally important, Mick McCall needs to make the right playcall. For Jackson and the offensive line, inside runs have worked. Plain and simple.
On this play, a 12-yard run by Jackson, left guard Connor Mahoney (No. 68) and left tackle Blake Hance (No. 72) pave the way. Right off the snap, Mahoney focuses on Nebraska’s right defensive tackle, while Hance quickly moves into the linebacking corps to fend off a would-be tackler. It looks like Mahoney may have committed an un-called hold here, but the blocking scheme was ideal. The strong interior blocking led to a first down, as downhill running is Jackson’s forte.
Here, we see more solid interior blocking and speedy downhill running from Jackson. On this play, watch as Hance pulls from his position to set a nice block on Nebraska’s middle linebacker. This run could have been for a first down, had Tommy Doles (No. 71) been able to hold his block on the outside, but Hance’s block combined with center Brad North (No. 69) sealing the middle led to a nice run from Jackson.
Runs like this are commonplace in Northwestern’s offense, especially in early-down situations. And when McCall decides to run North-South, it often works and looks just like the two runs above. The offensive line issues in the ground game reveal themselves when McCall asks for an outside run.
While the offensive line often lays down good blocks on inside runs, when Jackson runs to the outside first, linemen generally look confused, unaware of their assignments and unable to lay down a clean block. Yes there have been some big runs—see Jackson’s scamper versus Western Michigan—but successful wide runs have been few and far between. On this run, Doles and Garrett Dickerson (No. 9) are in charge of locking down the right side at the line of scrimmage, the direction of the run. Both fail. While right tackle Eric Olson (No. 76) runs downfield to block, Doles lets his man (No. 55 in white) right past him without much effort. Dickerson does the same with his man, and those two in white shirts are the two to make the tackle. As opposed to most inside runs, this was a more complex downfield-based blocking scheme. Doles and Dickerson couldn’t hold their blocks, while Olson and North ran downfield without making any meaningful blocks. That Jackson makes this a positive play is a minor miracle.
This one is even more of a disaster. McCall again calls for an outside run, and safety Aaron Williams (No. 24) bursts through the line without contention. He finds the hole in between Olson and Doles, called the B-gap, and tackles Jackson easily. This time, it’s North’s fault. He snaps the ball to Thorson and looks to block linebacker Josh Banderas (No. 52), while completely oblivious to Williams’ rush. Because of the mistake, Jackson loses a yard on the play.
It’s not just the film above that does the talking. Nebraska senior safety Nathan Gerry admitted that the Cornhuskers were looking to bait Northwestern into running to the outside.
“Anytime we can get the ball to the perimeter, that’s a win for us,” Gerry said. “We don’t want the ball being run up the middle. That’s something [defensive line] coach [John Parrella] always harps on to the defensive line, that we can’t let them run up the middle. So any time we could push [Jackson] to the outside, it was a win for us.”
Northwestern played into Nebraska’s hands. Nebraska’s strength is perimeter defense. Northwestern’s is up-the-middle runs. Yet, somehow, Northwestern repeatedly ran to the outside, and not to much avail.
A lack of discipline
Mahoney also fell into hot water with coach Pat Fitzgerald postgame for his two holds on key third downs that stopped Northwestern drives short. One came early in the second quarter and one in the mid-fourth quarter in a key moment with Northwestern driving near midfield.
“I’ll have to look at the entire tape before we pass judgement,” Fitzgerald said. “The narrative is that we had two third downs that we had bad holding penalties on...The young men in that locker room have got to figure out the discipline that it takes to become a winner.”
I’ve written about Thorson’s ground game potential before, and he showed it off again on Saturday.
This 42-yard score in the second quarter made it a 7-3 ballgame, and the blocking on the play made it such:
On this play, North again whips around, but this time with more conviction (and success). He and Doles seal the edge just enough to set Thorson free. Doles locks down his man effectively, while North gets just enough of a chip on his target to allow Thorson to squeeze past. The rest: daylight.
Now, I see this play as a designed QB run for a few reasons. First of all, on options plays (like you’ll see below), Thorson sells the handoff more and extends the ball into the running back’s chest. Here, Thorson barely motions the ball towards John Moten. Also, the offensive line scheme suggests a designed QB run, as Hance makes a quick break towards the right side (the direction of Thorson’s run) without accounting for the defensive end. On an option, we would expect some blocking to both sides. There is a small, small chance this is just a really poorly-designed option, but it looks strongly like a designed QB run.
And this touchdown run looked eerily similar to another 42-yard touchdown run by Thorson last year against Stanford (again with top-notch blocking).
But the touchdown (and the Stanford touchdown) were both designed quarterback runs. Even when Thorson held t. Mostly in the third quarter, McCall called option plays in which Thorson kept the ball, and with much less success.
This was a decent read by Thorson. He got the first down, but Nebraska kept his run short because its linebacking corps had the play defended well and Northwestern had no outside blocks.
This one was bad. On this option play, Northwestern’s blocking was completely committed to the right side (a would-be Jackson handoff) except for Dickerson, who just aimlessly wandered into the open field in the flat. Thorson was quickly surrounded by three unblocked white jerseys and tackled.
1. Northwestern’s offensive line is definitely the weak point of this year’s team. But it has shown flashes of excellence. On many Jackson inside runs and on the Thorson touchdown, the line executed masterfully.
2. For Northwestern, inside runs are far superior to outside runs. I’m against repeating the same plays, but it’s clear that Northwestern’s line blocks better (and Jackson runs better) on downhill North-South runs. Yet play calls keep pushing Jackson to the perimeter, which is exactly what the defense wants. Keep it inside.
3. Occasional designed QB runs are superior to option QB runs. Thorson’s runs work when the blocking is committed to his direction of running. Against Nebraska, he would at times run in the opposite direction of the blocking scheme on option plays, leading to short gains.