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.
A week after looking downright terrible, Northwestern put together one of it’s best offensive performances ever against an overmatched Bowling Green team on Saturday. The Wildcats gained a nearly record-breaking 678 yards, with 375 coming through the air. While Garrett Dickerson was the team’s leading receiver with 9 receptions for 150 yards, sophomore receiver Bennett Skowronek scored both of Northwestern’s passing touchdowns in impressive fashion. Let’s take a look at how he did it.
(All video via BTN)
Northwestern’s offense is back.
Well, let’s pump the brakes a little bit, but in its win over Bowling Green, Northwestern routed an inferior opponent for the first time in over two years (Eastern Illinois, ‘15). The defense played well enough to hold the Falcons to a single touchdown, but Northwestern’s offense was the star of the show, scoring 49 points on the night and all but wrapping up the game in the first half.
Justin Jackson ran wild to the tune of 121 yards and 3 touchdowns while averaging 6.7 yards per carry, and superback Garrett Dickerson used his overwhelming athletic advantage to get open at will all night. But the two biggest plays of the first half (and game) belonged to neither of those two veterans, but rather a burgeoning young star. Northwestern was able to pull away roughly 16 minutes into the contest thanks to two straight touchdown receptions by Bennett Skowronek.
First he caught a 58-yard bomb for a score:
Then a couple minutes later, following a Bowling Green turnover, Skowronek caught an impressive 18-yard touchdown:
In the blink of an eye, the game went from worrisome to comfortable, and the Wildcats never looked back. Let’s take a look at the film on both of No. 88’s TDs.
First quarter, 1:58 left, Bennett Skowronek 58-yard touchdown
Here are the pre-snap alignments:
Northwestern is lined up in a basic three-wide receiver set with Dickerson on the near side of the offensive line. Bowling Green is lined up in a base 4-3 scheme, with linebacker Brandon Harris (19) appearing to be in coverage in the slot. The cornerbacks are playing press coverage, and since the ball is being snapped on the right hashmark, there is a ton of room for Skowronek to operate on the left side.
Northwestern runs Jelani Roberts in motion before the snap and then a play action fake to Jackson. The interesting thing here is that I don’t think the play action mattered that much. Bowling Green brings Harris on a blitz, so the near side safety has to come down and cover the slot. The play breaks down for Bowling Green right here:
Northwestern picks up the blitz perfectly. Dickerson, an excellent blocker, stonewalls Harris, and Jackson picks up the inside linebacker. Combine those with great blocking from the o-line, and Thorson has a clean pocket and plenty of time to throw. If you’re going to bring seven, you better get to the quarterback. The other problem here is that Bowlin Green left cornerback Clint Stephens (2) on an island against Skowronek. He needed to play perfect coverage.
He didn’t play perfect coverage.
Stephens gets roasted by Skowronek on the go-route, probably right off the line (there’s no good angle of this unfortunately) and a couple seconds into the play Skowronek has a good three yards on him. The near side safety had to bump down to cover the slot and the far side safety is much too far away to help.
Thorson throws a beautiful arcing ball from the comfort of a clean pocket, Skowronek makes the catch and it’s an easy six points.
Second quarter, 13:58 left, Bennett Skowronek 18-yard touchdown
Thanks to a weird cut from BTN we have no pre-snap alignments, but we can do our best with what we have:
Northwestern is lined up with three receivers once again, but Thorson is in the shotgun this time, and Dickerson releases at the snap. It looks like Bowling Green lined up in its base 4-3, with the near side safety having to pick up the slot receiver once again because of another blitz from Harris.
This time, the play action fake is huge as it freezes far side safety Fred Garth (4), who is staring into the backfield instead of at Skowronek running a go route on his side of the field. For the second straight play, Skowronek has gotten a one-on-one matchup with no safety help.
Other than Harris, one linebacker picks up Dickerson and the other is either a spy on Thorson or in charge of Justin Jackson, who helps protect against some serious interior pressure. At the top of the screen, you can see that Skowronek has position to the sideline, but cornerback Robert Jackson Jr. (22) is with him step for step. It’s actually very good coverage by Jackson — until the ball is in the air.
HE DOESN’T TURN HIS HEAD AROUND.
Jackson does just about everything right. He’s right there on Skowronek, but the problem is he seems to have no idea the ball is coming. Skowronek and Thorson, on the other hand, execute it beautifully. Thorson throws a perfect back shoulder ball and Skowronek waits until the last moment, slowing down to meet the ball and catching the touchdown before Jackson even knew what happened.
It’s a textbook back-shoulder play and according to Thorson, one they run all the time in practice. Skowronek, at 6-foot-4, is a perfect target for that type of throw.
Look what having a good rushing attack does for this passing offense. A week after not being able to do anything in the air and having only 22 rushing yards, Northwestern ran for 303 against Bowling Green. The play action remains this team’s biggest weapon for creating explosive plays, and it’s only dangerous when the run game is a real threat.
The biggest takeaway from these plays, though, has to be that Skowronek is a real scoring threat for the Wildcats. He has the speed to stretch the field and the size and strength to go up and score a closely contested TD.
Even though Dickerson was the star of the show, look for more and more balls to go Skowronek’s way as the season progresses. It’s a pretty safe bet that this won’t be the last time we see him in the end zone.