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Thorson’s Throws: Recapping HAT and looking ahead to the Buckeyes

An efficient game against Illinois for Thorson, and big test ahead.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Clayton Thorson didn’t exactly end his Ryan Field career with a bang, but the Northwestern signal-caller was efficient for a second week in a row. He accounted for three touchdowns and Northwestern scored on four of the six drives that Thorson quarterbacked.

He’ll make his 52nd consecutive start on Saturday while vying for his 27th Big Ten win in 37 tries. That’s a remarkable achievement, regardless of what happens in Indianapolis.

This week, I’m not going to spend much time on the Illinois game, instead choosing to look ahead to Ohio State to break down what the Buckeyes may try to do defensively and how NU can find some success through the air.

Here’s the play-by-play, and the full breakdown:

Clayton Thorson vs. Illinois

40+ 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
30-39 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
20-29 1 1 25 25 25 0 0
10-19 0 1 0 0 0 0 0
0-9 11 15 85 5.67 7.73 2 0
Totals 12 17 110 6.47 9.17 2 0

Northwestern wanted to run the ball down Illinois’ throat, and they did that for most of the game. The offensive game plan was very conservative, and you can see that in Thorson’s pass distribution. Still, the Wildcats clicked in the red zone when Thorson was on the field, as they have all year. Here’s a closer look.

Red zone excellence, and good play-calling

Thorson has been lights-out in the red zone, completing nearly 70 percent of his attempts to go with a 4:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio inside the opponent’s 20. He was 3-for-5 for two touchdowns on Saturday as NU scored on all four possessions inside the red zone. Mick McCall helped Thorson out with a couple good play calls deep in Illini territory.

Illinois looks to be playing Cover One (single high safety, man under) using its nickel package on second and goal from the eight.

Pre-snap alignments

Northwestern attacks Illinois’s man coverage with a classic spread concept: the mesh-corner. Trey Pugh and Riley Lees run drag routes underneath intended to “mesh” in the middle of the field and form a pick to create room for yards after the catch. We saw Ohio State kill Michigan with plays like these on Saturday. On the perimeter, Bennett Skowronek and an unnamed receiver (maybe Charlie Fessler?) create space underneath by running short corner routes to the end zone barrier.

I am not a professional.

Thorson usually throws the ball to one of the guys running the mesh route; in fact, a well-timed pass to Lees probably would have resulted in a touchdown, too. Thorson instead delivers a pass to Skowronek, who has a huge size advantage, on the short corner (almost an out) route.

Skowronek has good body position and a well-executed pass results in a touchdown. You’ll notice that the lone safety on the field is out of the play because both “deep” routes break away from the middle of the field. Northwestern’s receivers aren’t vaunted one-on-one players, but Skowronek is going to win that matchup most of the time. Credit McCall for dialing up a good play to beat Cover One coverage.

For the second week in a row, Northwestern executed its two-minute offense well to score before the half. A good chunk of NU’s 80-yard drive came on the longest pass play of the day, a 25-yard shot to Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman where Thorson split the Cover Two defense perfectly.

The Wildcats had to get a little creative inside the 10, however. On second and goal, McCall opted for an RPO.

Thorson misses Trey Pugh pretty badly, but the play sets up what would ensue nicely. Illinois went with man coverage on the RPO. On third down, NU trots out the exact same formation.

What results is utter confusion for the Illini defense. The call was clearly a zone coverage, as five of the six defenders dropping back fall into zone. However, defensive back Kendall Smith (17), is clearly confused. Smith follows Cameron Green across the formation, leaving his zone wide open.

Lees floats right into the hole Smith vacated, and Thorson does an excellent job of hanging in there against pressure and lofting a pass to his wide-open receiver. I’m sure McCall didn’t anticipate Smith’s brain fart when he dialed up this play, but you can see how the RPO set up the touchdown throw nicely.

I can’t say I’ve watched a ton of Ohio State football this year, so feel free to challenge me on some of these points in the comments. With that said, I reviewed about 10 drives of tOSU defense against Michigan, Maryland, and Michigan State, focusing mainly on how the Buckeyes defend the pass.

The not-so-well kept secret is that Ohio State isn’t particularly good at pass defense. They’ve proven to be very susceptible to the big play, as Purdue and Maryland showed national audiences. Unfortunately, the Northwestern pass attack isn’t potent, either. Here are some handy-dandy stats that help bear that out.

NU pass offense vs. OSU pass defense

Stat NU offense OSU defense
Stat NU offense OSU defense
Passing S&P+ 80 (nat'l rank) 79 (nat'l rank)
Passing marginal efficiency 87 (nat'l rank) 63 (nat'l rank)
Passing marginal explosiveness 124 (nat'l rank) 89 (nat'l rank)
Completion rate 65 (nat'l rank) 16 (nat'l rank)
Sack rate 52 (nat'l rank) 5 (nat'l rank)
Yards per attempt 6.3 7.3
Interceptions 13 9
Via Bill Connelly’s stat profiles and the Big Ten

Anyway, onto the film.

Aggressive linebacker play

Ohio State uses a 4-3 base that is heavily reliant on the versatility of its linebackers. Malik Harrison, Tuf Borland and Pete Werner are almost always on the field. Their primary responsibility is to make tackles and cause general havoc, but all three linebackers are charged with a lot of coverage duty, too. And these guys are good. Not Michigan good, but all three linebackers played really well against Michigan in all aspects of the game. In the tape I watched, Ohio State was very hesitant to go to nickel or dime packages, instead dropping linebackers into coverage on passing downs.

But of course, these are Big Ten linebackers. They want to play downhill. Harrison, Borland, and Werner are eminently talented, but they’re also super, super aggressive. That kind of play leads to sacks and turnovers, but it can bite tOSU in the ass in run situations, as Anthony McFarland displayed a couple weeks ago.

But this can also cause problems for Ohio State in pass coverage. Hard play-action fakes and tunnel screens can get linebackers upfield as pass-catchers scoot beneath them. I’m expecting NU to rely heavily on the run on Saturday, so Mick McCall would do well to pull out the pro-style play-action game on say, 2nd-and-7 when OSU loads the box. A play design like this beautiful concept against Minnesota would be well-served, in my opinion.

Minnesota has nine dudes in the box on 1st-and-10, and Cameron Green is five yards downfield before anyone on the defensive side of the ball thinks to cover him. Explosive play.

Ohio State’s linebackers are still disciplined, and athletic enough to recover if they made a bad read, but I think breaking out a few RPOs could work well for NU as well. I’m not in love with this play design, but you can see how Michigan gets a good matchup on the outside on this play and causes some confusion amongst the OSU linebackers with this RPO.

That play also illustrates how effective Buckeye linebackers like Werner can be in pass coverage. We’ve established what tOSU linebackers can do, and how NU might approach that. Let’s move on to the secondary.

Man press, man press, and more man press

Ohio State has been DBU in recent history, and the current secondary has remarkable pedigree. Kendall Sheffield was the top JC corner last year. Shaun Wade and Jeffrey Okudah were both five stars, and Jordan Fuller was a four star. The Buckeyes have a host of athletic defensive backs with good size and they use that advantage schematically by playing a ton of man press. Greg Schiano is comfortable leaving his guys on an island. Ohio State will often drop Fuller into a free safety role while letting its corners play man and its linebackers form a soft zone or blitz. And as we saw on Saturday, when the OSU pass rush gets home, the defensive backs have a chance to create turnovers on ill-advised passes.

With that being said, press man coverage means the offense can do several things to accumulate yardage. Northwestern employs a few spread concepts, like slants and meshes, that work well against man defenses, chunking off yardage if executed properly. That’s a big if, because NU’s receivers are going to need really good releases at the line of scrimmage to get away from the physical tOSU defenders. Here’s an awesome release from Donovan Peoples-Jones on Saturday.

That quick slant route will be there all day if guys like Flynn Nagel and Riley Lees can get off the line fast.

Ohio State will go with a softer zone at times as well. Against Michigan State, they go with what looks like a Cover Three look with Fuller playing centerfield.

I really like this play-call from Michigan State; the Spartans move the pocket to the right, where the lone OSU CB has dropped into a deep third and the Sparty slot receiver is matched up on a slower linebacker. Lewerke’s pass doesn’t lead Cam Chambers and the Spartans only pick up four, but they have the right idea. I think we could see similar playcalls from NU, especially if the Wildcats force OSU linebackers to stay close to the line with 11 personnel.

The other thing to note about the OSU defense is its propensity to pick up penalties. The Buckeyes picked up five defensive pass interferences or holding calls on Saturday. It’s kind of baked in when you choose to play so physically. You never want to bank on the other team committing penalties, but you would expect a couple calls in NU’s favor on Saturday.

The potential gameplan

As I said before, I’d expect NU to stick with what has been working and run the ball a lot, perhaps 55 to 60 percent of the time. OSU doesn’t defend the run particularly well, either. Of course, circumstance will dictate what NU tries to do, and if the Buckeyes take an early lead, Northwestern is going to have to use the pass to play catch-up. Here are a couple things I’d expect NU to do on Saturday.

  • Lots of slants and mesh concepts. The Wildcats will need man-beating plays against OSU, so expect to see passing plays like the one that led to the Bennett Skowronek touchdown on Saturday. Northwestern should use post-wheel concepts to get guys open down the field because its receivers aren’t likely to run straight by tOSU defenders. Plays like that can lead OSU susceptible to a defensive holding call if executed well, too.
  • Play-action with Thorson under center. I think this is going to be crucial counter for the NU offense when OSU plays too close to the line of scrimmage. The Wildcats need to take advantage of aggressive linebacker play, although there will be plenty of pressure on the offensive line to give Thorson enough time to throw.
  • Selectively moving the pocket. The Ohio State defensive line is at its best when it can pin its ears back and attack the quarterback, so NU needs to get creative to keep Thorson clean. Shea Patterson did a pretty good job of scrambling and ad-libbing, but his lone interception also came when he was dancing around the pocket to avoid pressure. It’s become clear that while Thorson can make accurate throws when a hit is coming, he isn’t particularly good outside of the pocket. Northwestern would be well-served to use some of the wrinkles it debuted against Michigan State to get Thorson moving around without flushing him from the pocket.

Finally, the season totals. Congratulations if you made it this far.

Clayton Thorson season totals, Week 13

40+ 1 4 77 19.25 77 1 1
30-39 5 23 180 7.83 36 2 2
20-29 11 29 318 10.97 28.91 5 0
10-19 30 67 545 8.13 18.17 3 1
0-9 205 294 1557 5.30 7.60 3 8
Totals 252 417 2677 6.42 10.62 14 12