Every week, one of our writers 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. We’ll check the film, and breakdown the how and why of those decisive few seconds.
On Saturday, Duke followed a Northwestern touchdown on the opening drive with 21 unanswered points, en route to comfortable 21-7 win. All of Duke’s 21 points came in the second quarter, in large part thanks to quarterback Daniel Jones and his ability to expose Northwestern’s secondary with play-fakes and RPOs.
No play epitomized that trend more than Jones’s 52-yard touchdown throw to Johnathan Lloyd the first play after a Clayton Thorson interception. Let’s take a look at that touchdown.
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First, here’s the play.
Here are the pre-snap alignments.
Duke quarterback Jones stands in the shotgun with a running back at each hip. There are five offensive lineman, which is normal, and three receivers split wide — two to the left and one to the right.
On defense, Northwestern is playing “Cover 4,” meaning a four-deep zone with man-to-man principles. Greg Newsome II is at the bottom of the screen at corner, Nate Hall is lined up with the slot receiver toward the bottom of the street, conceivably to cover a quick-hitting, in-breaking route, or a screen to the running back to Jones’s left. Safety JR Pace is the deep safety, where he’s probably supposed to help onto a deep route from the slot receiver. Safety Jared McGee is up near the box, probably to deal with the running back to Jones’s right.
When Jones takes the snap, the running back to his right breaks out to the right flat for a screen, and Jared McGee follows him. Jones, with a clean pocket, then fakes a handoff to the running back, which causes Paddy Fisher to attack the line of scrimmage.
Near the bottom of the screen, Hall drops a bit deeper in coverage, has still has his eyes on the backfield, in case the play is a run. You can’t really see it on the screen, but Newsome, at the bottom, get caught flat-footed by the fake, giving up leverage to receiver Johnathan Lloyd.
Fisher then takes the running back, who does not have the ball. Northwestern’s pass-rush doesn’t get a push, and Jones has a spacious pocket to throw from.
In the camera view showing the perspective of the Northwestern defense, you can see that Pace, No. 13, has stepped up to cover the slot receiver, who ran a 10-yard hitch past Nate Hall’s area of responsibility.
After Pace has stepped up and taken himself out deep coverage, it’s one-on-one between Newsome and Lloyd on the post. Newsome’s mistake to bite for just a second on the play-fake gives Lloyd just enough separation to get open, and Jones hits him in stride.
“Yeah, a young pup giving up a post,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. “His eyes are stuck on two, which probably means they were back in the backfield. He knew exactly what happened, and gave up leverage, it’s a Cover 4 beater. Run a ten yard hitch to occupy the safety, throw the post over the top.”
“As I told him when he came over, welcome to college football. This happens to a lot of guys, you have to learn quick and have a short memory. And he did. He almost had a pick that could have changed momentum around. He is going to learn and he’s going to be better because of it. He’s the guy that’s won the job at this point, and I have great confidence in him. I thought his compete level went up after that play, which is the hallmark of a really special football player, especially out there on the edge.”
Here’s the full video again.
This play was critical in continuing the Blue Devils’ surging momentum after tying the game and picking off Thorson and TJ Green on back-to-back defensive series. The easy touchdown, on the first play of the drive, proved to be all Duke needed to ward off Northwestern and start its season 2-0.
The true freshman Newsome actually bounced back well from his miscue and showed off his talent during the rest of the game, but this mistake was a costly one, and emblematic of Northwestern’s larger defensive issue in dealing with Duke’s play-action passing game in the first half.