EVANSTON, Ill. — The slants that hit in the first half were falling incomplete. The few clean dropbacks Clayton Thorson had in the opening 30 minutes evaporated. The running game, which had found a few creases in the first half, ground to a screeching halt.
For the fourth consecutive game to start the season, Northwestern’s second-half offense looked outmatched after halftime, totaling just 56 total yards in the game’s final 30 minutes. The offense has now failed to score in three of four second halves this season, and has amassed just 13 points in eight second halves.
“I think we had really discussions at half-time and made really good adjustments,” Pat Fitzgerald said after Saturday’s 20-17 loss to Michigan. “Quite frankly, it just didn’t work. You look at some of those plays that we have right there in our hands and we don’t make them. It’s frustrating. We just have to find a way to help our guys make plays. That’s the bottom line.”
In the first half, the offense was clicking, albeit in part because of Michigan penalties. But there was a rhythm, and Northwestern’s uptempo, no-huddle approach caused problems.
Obviously, the one play that encapsulates that success was JJ Jefferson’s 36-yard catch-and-run. This is a great example of Northwestern using the aggressiveness of Michigan’s pass-rush to its advantage, allowing the defensive linemen to get up the field and sending offensive linemen forward to block for Jefferson.
All video courtesy of BTN2go.com
For the most part, the offensive line held up in the first half, giving Thorson time to survey the defense, and pick out a receiver down the field. When given time, Thorson generally makes the correct read and delivers an accurate ball, as he does on the plays below.
And, early on, Northwestern neutralized the pass-rush by giving Thorson a hot read on plays where Michigan was likely to send pressure. On the third down play below, there’s a blitzing linebacker unblocked, which isn’t ideal, but John Moten IV comes open quickly, allowing Thorson to get the ball out and move the chains.
And on slant routes, a staple of the NU spread offense, Thorson was in sync with his receivers in the first half. These routes typically aren’t going to generate explosive plays all that often, but they keep the offense on schedule — and on the field.
Altogether, Michigan penalties, just enough big plays and a heavy helping of solid gains on shorter pass plays kept Northwestern’s offense moving in the first half against an elite defense.
But then the second half rolled around, and things completely changed.
For starters, the Northwestern offensive line wore down. On many of the dropbacks where Thorson had time in the first half, he did not in the second.
On the play below, J.B. Butler, who gave up some key pressures in the Akron game, just gets blown by. Fitzgerald mentioned one-on-one breakdowns like this in his postgame press conference.
But, the thing is, the problems on the O-line weren’t just Michigan out-athleting Northwestern. There were mental errors, players with free paths to Thorson and many instances of the Michigan defense just outsmarting NU.
There was the previously mentioned quick pass to Moten after a linebacker ran free, and there was this play, where Chase Winovich goes totally unblocked. This is one of the best pass-rushers in the country, and he’s allowed to run untouched into the backfield.
Here’s the standard shot of that play:
As a result of Michigan’s pass-rush routinely getting to Thorson, the NU passing game shriveled into almost exclusively shorter routes — the only deeper throws were prayers.
And, with a lead, NU may have been able to scrape by without hitting deeper passes if it was executing on shorter routes as it had in the first half. But, like good teams do, Michigan made adjustments. After repeatedly giving up slants and quick-hitting passes early in the game, the Wolverine corners pressed a bit more on the line of scrimmage, and there was usually a safety in the box. Essentially, Michigan was daring Northwestern to protect long enough to expose the secondary at the back end.
Here’s a typical pre-snap alignment from Michigan, with seven players positioned on the line of scrimmage.
Now, just because Michigan pressed the line of scrimmage doesn’t mean the NU offense should’ve abandon shorter, quicker routes. There were a decent amount of drops that could’ve been caught, and that would’ve changed the down and distance in a favorable way on several series.
But, many of these throws are short of the first down yardage anyway. Unable to protect Thorson long enough to have much of a downfield passing game on standard drops, Northwestern basically elected to shrink the field and try shorter throws in the middle of the field.
What seemed missing were screen passes on the outside to get the ball into the hands of Solomon Vault, JJ Jefferson, or John Moten IV, among others. Rather than changing up what wasn’t working, it looked like NU decided to stay the course and keep trying what had worked early in the game. There was no attempt to get Thorson outside the pocket on a bootleg to try to cut the field in half, and it felt like Northwestern was playing to avoid a big mistake.
As has become clear this season, when you play not to lose, you often do.