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Inside the Play: Northwestern gets burned by the play-action pass in Madison

Wisconsin beat the Wildcats at their own game.

Northwestern v Wisconsin Photo by Stacy Revere/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 breakdown the how and why of those decisive few seconds.

Well Northwestern made it interesting towards the end, but a loss is still a loss as the Wildcats dropped to 2-2 after losing in Madison. Wisconsin had built a 21-point lead using the play action (and a pick six), with the games defining play coming in the third quarter when Quintez Cephus blew the top off the Northwestern defense on a 61-yard catch. Let’s take a closer look at what went wrong.

(All video via ABC)

What a weird football game.

In the first half, Northwestern’s defense played well enough to bring back memories of the 2014 Joel Stave Turnover Festival at Ryan Field (good times...). Then Wisconsin took complete control for 25 minutes before Northwestern made a furious comeback in the final five minutes, only to lose on a boneheaded safety.

There’s a lot to dig through here, but we’re going to take a look at perhaps the most important play of the game, where Wisconsin firmly took control.

Early in the third quarter, Northwestern was still in the lead and feeling pretty good. The offense had just punted to start the half, but the defense had played quite well, forcing three turnovers and holding the Badgers to just seven points. Wisconsin was facing a third-and-short in its own territory and it looked like Northwestern might get the ball right back.

They did wind up getting the ball back two plays later. Trailing 14-10.

Wisconsin whipped out the play-action pass and Northwestern got burned.

We’ve looked at a lot of plays over the past three years, and it’s pretty safe to say that if it was a deep pass from Northwestern it was probably play-action. The Wildcats use play-action a lot, and Wisconsin beat them at their own game.

Let’s take a closer look.

The Breakdown

Pre-snap alignements:

For possibly the first time ever we have actual All-22 footage!

The look here is fairly simple here for both sides. Wisconsin looks like it’s going to run and Northwestern is committed to stopping them on 3rd and 3. The Badgers don’t bring out the jumbo set however, which is a bit of a tell. They only have five linemen out there, along with two receivers, a tight end and a fullback. They’re all relatively compact and this is still clearly a formation they could run out of.

Here’s the moment of the fake and nearly every single player in white bites here. Hartage lets a receiver run right by him, while Godwin Igwebuike bites harder than anyone, bursting in at full speed to get to the back.

Wisconsin ran it 17 times and attempted 14 passes in the first half. Take away the two drives with under two minutes left and the ratio is 16 runs vs 8 passes. The Badgers were running early and often and finding some success. If Paul Chryst was playing the NCAA video game, he would have seen this play in the playbook lit up as “100% set up.”

By the time it becomes clear that Hornibrook still has the ball, it’s far too late. Cephus is only 10 yards down the field and he’s already behind the defense. Trae Williams is especially fun here because he doesn’t really bite on the fake (he does have his eyes in the backfield) or really move at all, he just kind of watches Cephus run past him.

As the play stands above, it should be an easy touchdown, if Hornibrook hits Cephus in stride he would have walked in.

Igwebuike never recovers and Williams gets going too late, and Kyle Queiro is only back there because he picked up the other Wisconsin receiver. It’s just a complete coverage breakdown, one that was repeatedly characterized by Pat Fitzgerald and Igwebuike as a “miscommunication” after the game.

For some reason Hornibrook waits until right here to throw the ball (and underthrows it a bit) but Cephus is so open it doesn’t matter.

He hauls in the pass for a 61 yard gain. Running back Jonathan Taylor would score just one play later and Northwestern would not lead again in the game.

The defense got shredded by one of the simplest, yet most effective plays in the football.


This one is tough. It’d be easy to say “hey, don’t get beat by play-action” but that’s not really a real takeaway here. Northwestern was just out-coached. The Badgers called the perfect play at the right time. It would be even more brilliant if it was an option, where if the defense is playing the safeties back the ball gets handed off and if they’re cheating down you go play-action.

Anyway, the obvious thing here is that establishing a running game is incredibly important and the team that won on Saturday was the team that did that. When your biggest big play threat is based on the play action, you better make sure you can run the ball. If Northwestern can’t establish the run, they can’t hit big plays and they’re dead in the water. This time not only did they not do that, but they let the other team beat them at their own game.