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FILM ROOM: What’s going on with Northwestern’s offensive line?

A combination of missed assignments and quarterbacks misidentifying pressures is killing the NU offense.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Each week, Inside NU Film Room allows one of our writers to dive into the highlights from Northwestern’s past games or future opponents in order to give you the quality analysis you need heading into the following week. This time around, we look at the offensive line’s current deficiencies in pass protection.

It seems that the men up front are a topic of discussion almost every season in Evanston. Despite a new offensive line coach in Kurt Anderson, the group has hit a bit of a lull in performance as the team prepares to head into the second third of its season. Let’s examine why that is the case:

Missed assignments

The most basic, yet concerning issue that Kurt Anderson’s line has right now is its inability to make the blocks that any group needs to make to be functional. In the past two weeks, there have been countless occasions where members of the line fail to pick up a base-level block, and it shows in the offense’s overall abysmal numbers.

In the clip below, Northwestern tries to run a screen play on third down. Nik Urban is tasked with getting to the outside and blocking the cornerback, but he simply isn’t able to get there quickly enough, allowing the Wisconsin defensive back to blow up the play instantly.

I’m not sure if Urban has the speed to typically be able to make that play, but it’s one he has to make to in order for the play to have any chance of succeeding. If he can’t, that’s obviously on the coaching staff, not him, but it’s tremendously concerning either way.

Later in the game, an identical screen play occurs.

Urban is barely able to get his hands on the defensive back, who tackles Bowser as he catches the ball. I’m not sure why Mick McCall is opting to rely on the guard to make that block. Especially once Wisconsin has already seen the play, Urban simply doesn’t have the speed to reach a talented defensive back in time, so poor play design results in an inevitable missed assignment.

In the second quarter, Urban again had issues executing. McCall dialed up a play action, but the redshirt junior wasn’t able to identify the linebacker coming up the middle, forcing Hunter Johnson to throw the ball away.

Another issue on the play is Charlie Mangieri’s inability to chip the defensive end to an extent where the play can be extended. Either miscue alone would have negated any potential positive gain, but the real question is why the play is apparently designed to have the quarterback rolling into two rushers with two blockers, one of whom is supposed to be running a route.

Finally, in a play that would ultimately put Northwestern in a hole too great to come back from, Rashawn Slater fails to engage the defensive end on the weak side. Aidan Smith rolls out to his throwing side due to the design of the play, but Slater, despite getting flagged for holding, allows his assignment to cruise by him and get to the quarterback, ultimately resulting in a pick six.

Mistakes like these, in both scheme and performance, will continue to doom the Northwestern offense if something doesn’t change up front.

Inability to identify pressure

Another problem that has put the offensive line in an impossible position is the failure from Northwestern’s quarterbacks to correctly identify pressure and adjust blocking schemes to accommodate. On both of Wisconsin’s strip sacks, the quarterback wasn’t able to diagnose a blitz, resulting in unblocked rushers.

On the first occasion late in the third quarter, Johnson doesn’t notice the safety inching forward and getting ready to bring the heat. For Wisconsin, it becomes easy pickings from there. The safety has a free path to Johnson, resulting in one of the easiest defensive touchdowns you will see.

What is fascinating to me here is that the play action is geared towards the unblocked blitzer. When Johnson sticks the ball out to fake the run, he should have a clear look at Eric Burrell coming at him. Instead of tucking the ball and going down, though, Johnson tries to execute the pass.

The issue seems to be that Johnson has his eyes on the receiver during the entire process of the play. While I’ll be the first to admit I don’t understand the minute intricacies of the quarterback position, it seems as though Johnson had the chance to identify the blitz mid-play and avoid a disaster. Take a look at the screenshot below. Instead of selling the fake or momentarily surveying the ground in front of him, HJ is already staring his target down.

On the strip-sack of Smith, Wisconsin runs a cleverly disguised blitz in which the defensive end drops into coverage and the linebacker rushes. Neither Smith nor right tackle Gunnar Vogel is able to identify the pressure, and Wisconsin forced another easy fumble.

Getting outmatched

There are times when a defensive line just does a better job during a play than an offensive line does. Whether it be due to a talent disparity, effort, or being worn down physically and mentally, there were plenty of those moments on Saturday. In the instance below, Jared Thomas and the line’s interior are forced back into the quarterback, collapsing the pocket quickly.

In the third quarter, Drake Anderson attempts to block an incoming linebacker on a third down pass, but is unable to slow down his man. This is more of an example of a pure mismatch than anything else, though, and probably more of a mistake brought on by the guys on the sideline.

When all of these errors and flaws come together, the result is not pretty for first-year offensive line coach Kurt Anderson. If Northwestern is going to get a result in Lincoln, even against a much less accomplished front without their most talented member, they’ll have to heavily limit these mistakes in the trenches.

This unit’s response to Saturday’s disappointing, frustrating performance, regardless of who you blame the miscues on, is the first step towards getting the team’s second win.