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.
Welcome to Season Three of Inside the Play because for some reason they still let me write these. Northwestern got off to a very Northwestern start on Saturday, but turned things around in the second half. Northwestern couldn’t have done that without fantastic quarterback play from Clayton Thorson and his ability to stretch the field in the passing game. It’s early, but one of Thorson’s favorite targets down the field was senior Macan Wilson. Wilson opened the scoring with a 33 yard TD in the first quarter and sealed the victory with his 41 yard reception late in the game. Let’s take a look at both of those huge plays.
(All video via BTN)
NORTHWESTERN FOOTBALL IS BACK!
More importantly, Northwestern managed to start the season 1-0 despite a bit of a scare against a below average Nevada team.
There are plenty of identifiable problems, most notably a lack of push up front on defense and basically one healthy cornerback. But lets look at the positives: the offense looked pretty good! Clayton Thorson looked even better than he did last year, and other than one bad interception, was great the whole game.
Austin Carr is going to be difficult to replace, but on Saturday Northwestern solved that problem in a way none of us saw coming. Eight different receivers caught passes on the day and while Bennett Skowronek has the most impressive stat line (8 rec, 123 yards), Macan Wilson impressed as a real deep threat for the Wildcats.
First he opened the scoring with a 33 yard TD:
Then late in the game, when many thought Northwestern would try to run out the clock, he beat his man for a beautiful 41 yard reception on third down:
These were two of the biggest plays of the day for Northwestern and more importantly showed that they now have a real ability to stretch the field on offense.
First Quarter, 7:13 Left, Macan Wilson 33 yard Touchdown
We’ll start with the pre-snap alignments on the first quarter touchdown:
Northwestern is lined up in trips bunch with five offensive linemen and Garrett Dickerson on the line and Thorson and Jackson in the shotgun. Nevada is in a 3-3-5 scheme with three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs, but it basically has eight in the box.
The biggest thing here is the fact that Nevada is playing man-to-man on all three receivers. There’s no deep safety help here; Dameon Baber (5, the guy furthest to the left on the screen) will have to pick up one of the three receivers. Nevada was probably thinking one of two things here. Either Northwestern is going to run the ball or DB Elijah Moody (18) will be able to get back quickly enough to provide deep help. The threat of a run is also huge here because it stops DB Asauni Rufus (2) from being able to shift over and provide coverage help; he has to be on the near side keeping contain on a possible Jackson run.
Long story short, Nevada was in trouble from the start.
To make the coverage mismatch worse here, Nevada brings a blitz off the weak side, meaning it is now truly three one-on-one matchups up top. Also, Northwestern runs play action, which freezes both Nevada linebackers and not only freezes Moody but causes him to take a few steps forward. He’s no longer a factor in this play.
Jaden Sawyer (8) picks up Wilson off the line, but will later let him go to pick up Flynn Nagel in the flat, as you can see below. The blitz is picked up perfectly by freshman Rashawn Slater and the other three rushers are blocked, at least initially. Thorson will have time to let the play develop.
The routes here are absolutely brilliant. Nagel’s out route clears out Sawyer while Jalen Brown runs a dig and forces Baber to step up and cover him. This leaves Wilson with only DB Vosean Crumble (1) to beat and his post route roasts him. Crumble thinks Wilson is running a corner or go route towards the sideline, but when he cuts inside it’s all over.
Crumble gets turned around and Wilson runs right by him. Moody is too far away to help and at this point as long as the throw is on target it’s a TD.
Spoiler alert: the throw was on target.
Thorson puts the ball right where he needed to even with a rusher in his face, hitting Wilson in stride.
Wilson jumps up and makes a great catch.
Fourth quarter, 2:51 left, Macan Wilson 41 yard reception
Now let’s look at the probably the most surprising play of the entire game.
Everyone in Ryan Field thought Northwestern was going to run here. It’s the easy, conservative play call here. It’s third-and-7 so you probably wont get the first down, but Nevada has no timeouts left so they’d get the ball back with roughly two minutes left on the clock.
That’s almost certainly what Nevada thought was going to happen here and Northwestern certainly feinted it well. The Wildcats lined up with seven blockers (five O-linemen, Dickerson and Green) and only two wide receivers with Thorson in the shotgun. Nevada has seven, basically eight, in the box and the two safeties are playing up. Also bump man coverage on the outside.
This is fun.
Northwestern goes play action and the near side safety, Baber, just freezes for a good two seconds. He just doesn’t move until it’s far too late. Wilson beats Moody off the line and just runs a go route, it’s all about foot speed now.
Baber finally comes to his senses and begins to go back in coverage, but at this point not only is Wilson past him, but he has a step on Moody as well and Thorson sees this.
At this point the analysis is over, Wilson has the edge on his defender and there’s no one over the top. Thorson just has to make the throw.
He makes a perfect throw.
This might be the best throw Thorson has had in his three years at Northwestern. It’s a bullet 40 yards down the field into a tiny window. He hits Wilson right where he needs to and Wilson hauls it in. It’s truly incredible.
Game. Set. Match.
Clayton Thorson looked really good. There are plenty of play-calling and design things here that I’ll get back to in a second, but those were two nearly perfect throws that he made to complete both plays. Freshman year Thorson doesn’t make those and I’m not sure sophomore year Thorson would have either. He’s improved and we’ll just have to see where he goes from here.
As far as play-calling goes, it does sometimes pay to hand the ball off to your running backs 39 times, even if that’s a questionable strategy for other reasons. The play action is a key factor in both plays and allows Wilson to only have one man to beat. Also the play-calling is just good here; Nevada was out-coached on both plays. Credit to Mick McCall.
Wilson himself has proven to be a deep threat that Northwestern has sorely missed. The play action helps, but he still had to straight up beat a defender on both of these plays and he did it both times.
It’s only one game and not against a great defense, but the Northwestern deep attack looked promising against Nevada. Hopefully they build on this and we see a couple more sensational plays from Macan Wilson (or Brown, or Nagel, or Skowronek) this weekend against Duke.