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Film study: Why Northwestern won’t repeat last season’s performance against Duke

Duke dismantled NU last year, but the Purdue game is a good indication that it won’t happen again.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

When I asked head coach Pat Fitzgerald about the team’s inability to cover T.J. Rahming last year, he was perturbed.

“Yeah, he’s a hell of a football player. We played like garbage and they played great. And we lost the game. Any questions about this year’s football team, I would love to answer.”

As an NU fan, it was probably what you would want to hear. Fitz is focused on the game ahead and going 1-0 this week, as he always is. But sometimes, in order to look forward, it makes sense to look back. Duke dismantled Northwestern last year, but based on last week against Purdue, there’s good reason to believe last season’s performance won’t happen again. Let’s look at why I think we can all be excited about this week, and the season as a whole, for that matter.

Pressure on Thorson

Last year, Duke recorded four sacks and two quarterback pressures. Fitz was asked about that at Tuesday’s press conference, but he noted that that wasn’t necessarily a fault of the offensive line.

Of those sacks, Thorson could’ve done a much better job of reading the defense, evading pressure and getting rid of the ball.

On a third and 9 in the first quarter, Duke rushed 4 on the right side of the offensive line. Northwestern allotted three in pass protection on that side, including Garrett Dickerson. When the offensive line picked up two players, Dickerson, the superback on the weak side of the play, was left with two players to block. Trapped between two minds, Dickerson blocked neither of the oncoming players, and Alonzo Saxton II was able to get an untouched sack.

Northwestern’s opening drive against Purdue showcased a prime example of Thorson’s ability to read the defense. In this instance, cornerback Tim Cason was coming on a strong side blitz. Thorson saw this, and dumped the ball to Cam Green who was leaking out to the area where Cason had left. Green caught the ball with some space, and picked up an easy first down.

On Duke’s second sack, Thorson just made a poor play. The O-line wasn’t perfect, but three Duke linemen were forced out of the play. Tommy Doles lost Mike Ramsay, but all Thorson needed to do was evade Ramsay, and he wasn’t able to.

In the fourth quarter against Purdue, Thorson again demonstrated smarter mobility. After an ACL surgery, he isn’t likely to be more mobile, but he can be more efficient. Thorson identified the natural progression of the play, and rolled out to the strong side of the play. Keeping his eyes open the whole time, he spotted a wide open Jeremy Larkin on a wheel route. He was unable to make the throw, but the idea was the right one.

Thorson’s continued ability to read defenses and evade pressure will be key to Northwestern avenging last year’s loss.

Pass Defense

In this game, the Northwestern secondary was decimated with injuries. However, Fitz told us on Tuesday that you can’t use that as an excuse, and in the grand scheme of things, he’s right. Northwestern moved Kyle Queiro to slot cornerback, and Trae Williams was forced into action for the first time. Both situations proved costly for NU.

On Duke’s second touchdown, Williams was torched by Chris Taylor, allowing a 52 yard touchdown pass. Taylor utilized a double move to burst past Williams, and Williams couldn’t make up the ground he lost, tumbling to the turf. It was a simple move, and he would probably be able to defend it now as he has much more experience, but at the time he was new to the scene and Duke took advantage of that. The second clip is a better angle for watching this process unfold.

Against Purdue, a bunch of strategies worked in Mike Hankwitz and Fitz’s favor. On multiple occasions, NU was able to rush three players and still put pressure on the QB. If immediate pressure didn’t arrive, the secondary was capable of keeping the play in front of them and limiting the success of Sindelar and Blough. For example, and two third and long situations, NU rushed three players and conceded no throws beyond the first down marker.

This was a trend that continued throughout the entirety of the game, and it could be crucial for the defense. Any time you can drop eight into coverage and be confident that you can hurry the quarterback, you’re in a really good spot. The D-line and linebacking corps are true strengths of this team. As the secondary progresses, being able to rely on the front seven to both attack and drop into coverage will be key for NU.

Defending the RPO (and its many variations)

In my opinion, this is the most lethal part of Duke’s offense. Northwestern learned that last year the hard way. By initiating the run-pass option, or RPO, Duke forze Northwestern’s linebackers and exploited them in multiple ways.

Starting off with a traditional RPO, you can see how Brett Walsh is the free linebacker. The quarterback’s read on this play is Walsh. If Walsh is protecting the edge, the ball will be handed off. If Walsh crashes towards the middle, the QB will keep the ball. He then has the decision of whether he wants to hold it and run, or pass to the receiver at the top of the screen. Walsh crashes the middle, so it is an easy keep for the QB, giving him ample space to run.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. After drawing NU’s focus towards the RPO, Duke makes a slight adjustment that keeps the NU defense on its toes. In this instance, the play is a designed pass. NU plays soft coverage on Chris Taylor, the WR on the bottom of the screen. Giving him about a 10 yard buffer, he has the space to run a quick curl route and pick up a solid gain. Queiro actually made a good read on the play, trying to undercut the route, but he wasn’t able to get there in time.

Duke used a bunch of these variations, including speed options and typical read options to confuse the Northwestern defense to a devastating effect.

Last week, Purdue employed some of the same concepts when David Blough was brought in to play QB. This time, we saw some consistently different results. In the play below, Blough operates a read option, with no pass wrinkle. NU does a great job of containing the edge, while maintaining solid run defense up the middle.

On the very next play, Purdue attempts a play that may be a typical play action, or may be an RPO. Either way, it is probably the same concept that NU will face this week. The defense does a great job of blowing up the play. A hypothetical run up the middle would be stuffed, and Blough would not be able to run to the outside. He chooses to throw the ball, where two NU cornerbacks are ready to converge on the receiver.

If Northwestern’s defense can play the same type of smart football it did against Purdue this week, Saturday’s result should be very different from last season.