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.
In case you didn’t hear, NU took a 21-3 lead into the break before allowing 36 points in the second half, including three Akron defensive scores. The first was a 97-yard pick six by Alvin Davis as NU was knocking on the Zips’ door.
After Akron closed the gap to eight with a 80-yard touchdown drive, the Wildcats had a chance to make it a two-possession game. NU went for it on fourth-and-three from the Akron 16. It... did not go well.
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First, the play in full:
We start with the pre-snap alignments.
It’s fourth-and-three for NU and the Wildcats go with 11 (one running back and one superback) personnel. Akron counters with a 3-3-5 nickel package and shows blitz. Linebackers Josh Ward (No. 8) and Ulysees Grant III (No. 5) line up on the weak side, suggesting an overload. In the screen grab, you can see Flynn Nagel pointing at Ward and Grant III and probably saying something to that effect to Clayton Thorson.
No. 18 audibles. Here’s what the new formation looks like.
Superback Cam Green shifts to the other side of the offensive line to pick up the linebacker blitz, while Nagel heads to the slot on the strong side of the field and Jeremy Larkin motions out of the backfield. Akron looks like it’s in a Cover Three defense with cornerback Kyron Brown (No. 4) playing press against RCB.
The Zips bring five at the snap and Thorson has a clean pocket for the first two seconds. Problem is, none of his receivers have made their breaks or turned their heads yet. Moreover, no one has a step on their defender.
Here’s where the play breaks down. The only receiver to the left, RCB, isn’t open so Thorson rolls right. (Side note: Why is RCB running what is effectively a clearout route on fourth-and-short. Wouldn’t this be a perfect time for one of Mick McCall’s patented mesh or crossing concepts?) Skowronek is well covered so Thorson’s two options are Nagel and Larkin.
Trouble is brewing now that Grant has gotten past Cam Green on the weak side and center Jared Thomas couldn’t hold his block against Davon’te Jest (No. 11).
Thorson is running for his life now. Here’s what he sees just before he throws.
You wonder if Thorson could have outrun Jest for the first down (the line to gain was the 13), but the Akron defensive lineman had a good angle and even if he did get by Jest, Thorson probably wouldn’t have made it given the position of two Akron defenders downfield.
Skowronek is covered in the end zone. Larkin is sandwiched by two defenders. Nagel looks to be open, with Alvin Davis sitting seven yards behind him. A good throw will net NU a first and goal. Here’s Thorson just before releasing the pass.
Uh oh. Thorson looks like he slipped on the linoleum tiles in his kitchen before hurling a pass toward Nagel. The pass might sail through a cabinet and break a couple plates, but it’s sure as hell not going to get to Thorson’s receiver.
No. 18 didn’t even get hit here. The sheer awkwardness of this across-the-body throw caused Thorson to fall over.
Needless to say, the throw escapes Nagel’s diving spear, and Davis intercepts the duck of a pass at the three-yard-line. In three steps, he’s past NU’s three fastest players on the field (Larkin, Nagel, and Skowronek), and he’s got a convoy waiting to take him to the endzone. There’s not an NU player in the camera shot for Davis’s last 30 yards to paydirt.
21-19, NU. The Wildcats and the Zips would trade touchdowns to end the third quarter before two more defensive scores sealed the upset for Akron.
A few things to think about here. First, the coaching decision to go for it on fourth-and-three from the 16-yard-line. The normally steady Charlie Kuhbander had missed from 35 yards in the first quarter, and after the game, Fitz disclosed that the sophomore was dealing with some sort of injury.
Apparently, Kuhbander is dealing with a nagging injury, which is why he's been off kickoffs lately.— Inside NU (@insidenu) September 16, 2018
What makes the decision confusing, however, was the fact that Fitz opted for Kuhbander to try from 43 yards on NU’s next possession. Of course, he missed that one too. NU was facing fourth-and-seven in that situation instead of fourth-and-three, but it seems odd not to trust Kuhbander to give NU a two-possession lead from 33 yards, especially because Kuhbander has missed two kicks inside of 40 yards in his NU career: one in his first game as a Wildcat and the 35-yarder in the game against Akron.
If Fitz was more confident in his offense converting a fourth-and-three than Kuhbander making a 33-yarder, I’m perfectly okay with that. I fully support keeping the offense on the field on fourth down. But on fourth-and-short, you have to question the play Thorson audibled to. I’m not sure what the initial play call was, but NU ended up running a play where RCB and Bennett Skowronek effectively cleared out to the end zone when the Wildcats needed three yards for a first down. As I mentioned before, the scenario seemed to call for a quick-hitting passing concept (bunch, mesh, slant), especially because Akron showed a weak-side blitz. I’m not a football coach and I’ve never played a down of organized football, but that play call/audible confused me.
Finally, there’s Thorson’s decision-making on the play. His options were severely limited once RCB and Skowronek cleared out to the end zone and Thorson was flushed out of the pocket. If it were third down, the senior probably would have thrown the ball away. But alas, NU needed Thorson to make a play, so he couldn’t take a sack nor toss the ball safely out of bounds.
“First one, fourth down, trying to make a play, had to get the ball up somewhere, threw it past Flynn, gotta make the throw,” Thorson said after the game.
Thorson found the open receiver, but didn’t set his feet and threw across his body — the two cardinal sins of quarterbacking. It’s a throw Thorson surely regrets, and one that a fourth-year starter should not be making.