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Film room: Northwestern’s rushing problems sans Jeremy Larkin

Yards have been tough to come by since Larkin retired.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been over three weeks since Jeremy Larkin medically retired from football, and it’s hard to imagine a time when Northwestern’s running game has been so ineffective.

The Wildcats, led largely by John Moten IV and Solomon Vault, have rushed for just 68 yards on 77 carries in the three games since Larkin’s departure from the team. Northwestern hasn’t broken a run longer than 11 yards in that time frame.

Larkin, the heir apparent to the Wildcats’ best running back of all time Justin Jackson, is seemingly the obvious answer as to why the NU rushing attack has been so dreadful. In the three games he started before his retirement, Larkin was the focal point of the offense, carrying the ball 72 times for 346 yards (4.8 yards per carry) and five touchdowns.

Before Larkin, of course, was Jackson. The Ball Carrier set Northwestern records in rushing yards, attempts, yards from scrimmage and rushing touchdowns and was undoubtedly the identity of the program.

Averaging 4.8 yards per carry over the course of his career, Jackson gave head coach Pat Fitzgerald every reason to feed him the ball and establish the Wildcats as a run-first football team. With Larkin picking up six yards a touch in his limited action as a freshman, Northwestern seemed poised to stick with its ground-and-pound identity for years to come.

Yet, we saw Clayton Thorson throwing the ball 64 times (64!) in last Saturday’s overtime victory over Nebraska. For a quarterback who has never attempted more than 52 passes in a game in his four-year career, and for a team that was facing the No. 109 ranked rushing defense in the country, merely attempting to throw the ball 64 times is a sign that the the Wildcats have lost faith in their rushing attack and transitioned to a pass-first mindset.

As fans, we’re used to dominant ground games staying, well, dominant. Wisconsin and Alabama come to mind; year after year they churn out NFL-caliber lineman and running backs set the tone and control games.

Northwestern isn’t near the level of either of those programs, of course, but an astronomical drop off in success on the ground after over four years of consistent five-yard rushes and big plays on the ground seems peculiar.

Were Jackson and Larkin masking the deficiencies of a sub-par line with their own superior talent and ability to make defenders miss? Are Moten, Vault and the rest of Northwestern’s post-Larkin rushing attack simply not hitting the holes that the offensive line is providing them? Or are the holes just not there? It’s a little of each, but let’s take a look:

Poor blocking

Too often is blame or credit given to the running back for a play in which the success of the run is largely determined by the offensive line.

In other words, a lot of Moten and Vault’s inefficiencies running the ball over the past three weeks are simply a result of the big men up front losing the battle at the line of scrimmage.

Take for example this 2nd and 25 draw play against Michigan in the first half:

Moten ends the play with a four-yard loss, but he’s hit in the backfield nearly as soon as Thorson hands him the ball. Right tackle Rashawn Slater barely makes contact with Michigan defensive end Chase Winovich, effectively allowing Winovich to blow up the play unblocked.

Later in the half — now with Vault carrying the ball — Winovich ends a play before it even really gets started, this time abusing left tackle Blake Hance:

Hance fails to even remotely prevent Winovich from getting into the backfield, and once again a Northwestern running back gets tackled for a loss on a play where he never even had a chance to turn it into positive yards.

Trying to get a first down to take a lead into the half, Moten takes the handoff out of the shotgun and is hit at or before the line of scrimmage yet another time:

Hance, once again, is responsible for the short gain. Winovich rips by him and is able to make contact with Moten before he’s even able to cross the line of scrimmage.

Winovich, rushing off the edge, shouldn’t even be involved in a run up the middle; instead, he abuses Hance and wraps the back up before he can even attempt to hit the hole.

A lot of the Wildcats’ failure to block up front in this game can be explained away by acknowledging that Northwestern was facing one of the top run defenses in the country, and one of the best defensive linemen in Winovich. Still, far too often Moten and Vault are hit in the backfield before they can even attempt to make a man miss.

Two games later against Nebraska, the the line was still struggling to give the backs room to run:

On a toss to the right side of the field, Vault is never really given a chance to get the edge as Slater whiffs on both of his blocking assignments on the play. Slater barely gets a touch on the defensive end before failing to open up a lane for Vault by blocking the linebacker.

Both defenders that Slater lets by end up hitting the running back behind the line and stopping the rush for a one-yard gain. Not much Vault can do about that.

Poor running

Certainly, the offensive line isn’t entirely to blame. Larkin had already found success behind the same group during his only three appearances of the year, and Northwestern returned three of five starting lineman from last year’s team that blocked for Jackson.

Moten and Vault are hit in the backfield a lot, but they aren’t hitting holes as decisively or making the first tackler miss as often as either Jackson or Larkin did.

Here, with the Wildcats up four in the final quarter, Moten runs straight up the gut and picks up the first down:

Sure, Moten accomplishes his primary objective on the play — extending the drive with a first down — but he misses out on a potential big gain in the process.

If you pause the video as Moten approaches the line of scrimmage, you’ll see that a hole opens up in between the right guard and right tackle. Instead of accelerating through the opening and trying to get to the second level, Moten chooses to slam the ball up the middle, limiting the rush to a minimal gain.

Does Moten run for a touchdown if he hits the correct hole? Probably not. But its the type of decisive cut we’re used to seeing Larkin (or Jackson) make and then turn into a big gain on the ground.

This cut probably isn’t the difference between a win and a loss, but it’s certainly an example of how Moten or Vault could turn a two-yard gain into one of their longest of the season (which isn’t saying much).

Earlier in the second half, Vault fails to hit the hole for another potential big run:

This one is subtle, but watch as Vault takes the handoff Thorson. He chooses to bounce the run to the outside right away and then, seeing that he won’t be able to get the edge, cuts back up field into the heart of the Michigan defense.

Instead, Vault should have cut upfield immediately and taken the open space given right in front of him. If you pause the video as soon as Vault takes his first step, you’ll see a big hole open up between the center and right guard. Both Michigan linebackers are on the opposite side of field, so should Vault have taken what was given to him rather than try to bounce it outside immediately, the first tackler wouldn’t have gotten to him until near the line to gain.

This one’s on the running back. Hitting the open hole rather than trying to get the edge is the difference between 3rd & short (or more if he makes a safety miss) and 3rd & long.

On a play in the second half against Nebraska, it’s Vault’s indecision that costs him:

The run is well blocked, and Vault still manages to churn out a decent gain, but he’s still leaving yards on the field here.

The offensive line gets a good push and locks up the defensive line as well as some linebackers, yet Vault dances around with several cuts and jukes, allowing defenders to get off their blocks and make the stop before too much damage could been done.

Had Vault been more decisive and exploded through one of the several holes his line opened up on this play, the run very well could have been a long one.

Poor play-calling

Sometimes, a running play is simply doomed from the start. If a defensive unit stacks the box with seven or eight defenders, there simply may be too many tacklers for the offensive line to block and the running back to make miss. Or, there are situations in which the down and distance makes running the ball with a unit that’s averaging .9 yards per carry in its last three contests ineffective.

In these cases, either Thorson should audible out of the run (and especially not check into one) or the offensive coordinator shouldn’t call one.

Take a look at this 1st and 10 play early in the first quarter:

Thorson should see seven Wolverines in the box with man coverage on the outside and a single-high safety. Northwestern has three receivers lined up in this formation, and the safety can only provide help over the top for one of them if the right route combinations are run.

This gives Thorson one-on-one coverage with at least two of his receivers, and both could have been potential end zone shots.

Instead, he hands the ball off to the back for an uninspiring two-yard gain.

Later in the game, the Wildcats gave the ball to Moten on a run play that seemed destined to fail:

The right end is virtually unblocked on this play, and it doesn’t look like anyone was even assigned to him. Cameron Green leaks out immediately, and Moten is hit right away.

This just looks like a poor play call in which neither the line nor the running back was given a chance to do its job.

This final example from the Nebraska game speaks for itself:

Completely unblocked, the left end is in the backfield so quickly that you can see Vault brace for contact as soon as Thorson hands him the ball.

It’s hard to tell whether the right tackle Hance was supposed to pick up the would-be tackler, but it sure looks like the play was designed for Hance to block a linebacker rather than the end that makes the stop.

In that case, it’s another example of a play call that was practically guaranteed to end up as a loss before the ball was snapped.

As in any game, there isn’t just one player or one unit to blame when things go wrong. In the case of Northwestern’s running game, it’s been both individual breakdowns and an inability to hit the right holes or make defenders miss, and Fitzgerald has said as much.

Right now, though, the blocking seems to be more of an issue. We’ve seen Vault and Moten have success before, albeit maybe not in featured roles or against top competition, but both are capable players. With Vault injured, we’ll see Drake Anderson and Isaiah Bowser get chances to make an impact too. At this point, there’s nowhere to go but up.