Northwestern’s offense, and especially its passing game, made some significant strides on Saturday in a tight loss to Purdue. Behind an improved performance from quarterback Aidan Smith and an incredible game from Kyric McGowan, the Wildcats doubled their passing touchdown total for the year, earned 150 more yards than their per game average to that point, and had a play longer than 25 yards/broke 20 points, each for the first time since Week 3 against UNLV.
But still, continuing a season-long theme, NU, as Pat Fitzgerald said on Monday, “missed a lot of opportunities out there.” Some of those misfires came thanks to Smith staring down a receiver, or a running back missing a hole.
The much more glaring mistakes, though, came from a couple of noteworthy play calls/personnel groupings, and each, especially the final miscue, ended up being game-changers. First, on a third and one during Northwestern’s first drive of the second half, Mick McCall tried to mix things up a little.
The Wildcats had Smith motion out wide, with McGowan replacing him in the backfield. So far, so good: there’s nothing wrong with a direct snap/keeper on third and short, especially with Northwestern having had consistent success on the ground to that point in the game. From there, though, things got weird.
Did you catch that? If not, don’t worry: the announcers didn’t realize at the time what was wrong with this play either, perhaps because it was so nonsensical.
That’s backup linebacker Peter McIntyre lined up at fullback and acting as the lead blocker. Northwestern, with two (normal) superbacks and their best wide receiver already lined up on the left side of the ball, brought out a defensive player who does not appear to have seen a snap on the offensive side of the field all year long (though he does see time relatively consistently on special teams) instead of another superback, like Charlie Schmidt* (who appeared as #45 later in the game as an extra blocker) to throw a block at the point of attack on a pivotal third and short.
McIntyre slipped, missed the block, and his man, combining with pressure up the middle from linebacker Ben Holt, forced the Wildcats to punt from near midfield. Immediately, Purdue drove all the way to the end zone to make it a two point game, taking away whatever momentum Northwestern may have felt going into halftime from the Joe Gaziano-forced safety.
But that isn’t even the play we are here to talk about.
Later in the second half, in an even more pivotal moment, the Wildcats were ready to potentially go up three points after a massive early-fourth quarter touchdown drive turned the game around, thanks to two near-perfect plays from Aidan Smith. In an obvious two-point conversion situation, the Wildcats, after a bit of deliberation, lined up like this:
With Northwestern having asked for the ball on the right hash mark, Ramaud Chiakohiao-Bowman is in front of Riley Lees in a stack on the near side of the field, Drake Anderson is the lone tailback to the right of Aidan Smith (who is in the shotgun), and Trey Pugh and Charlie Mangieri are each on the right side of the line, with Pugh a few steps back and ready to go in motion.
From there, the Wildcats do motion Pugh across the formation, before immediately snapping the ball and running the play: a modified reverse to Riley Lees.
Northwestern has already run two variations on this play so far today, with one coming out of virtually this exact set. Here’s the first, which involved Kyric McGowan motioning from receiver to catch a pop pass and toss it to Lees, resulting in a six yard gain:
And here’s the second, which features a more balanced formation and Lees starting from the slot:
Each play, while not exactly the same design, revolves around the same idea: Lees starts on the long side of the formation, and takes the reverse towards the short side, working off of an initial outside zone/end-around concept.
In the first play, once McGowan goes in motion, the only differences in Northwestern’s alignment from the two point conversion try are that he is replacing one of the superbacks and that Anderson is lined up on the other side of Smith to block.
So Purdue was ready for the reverse. But then, Mick McCall and Northwestern seemed to be counting on that. They ran a variation on the famed “Philly Special,” with Lees taking on the role of tight end Trey Burton and looking to throw to his QB (with Mangieri across the field as an unlikely second option).
Again, though, the Boilermakers managed to foil the Wildcats. How? As James Laurinaitis, the former Ohio State linebacker and Saturday’s BTN color commentator, helpfully explained after the ensuing kickoff, “Philly Special” only works against a man defense. In a man concept, nobody accounts for the quarterback, allowing him to sneak into the end zone without coverage.
In fairness to Mick McCall and co., it was fair to assume that Purdue would be playing man. Though they had shown plenty of zone to that point, the Boilermakers had man coverage on the previous play and hadn’t faced a short-yardage passing situation. Also, despite nobody specifically tracking Pugh across the formation, the safety could have picked him up from either point on the line (though the lack of action did seemingly make zone a bit more likely, giving Northwestern a chance to call a timeout or check out of the play).
The bigger problem here was the play design itself. In the initial “Philly Special,” the ball is snapped directly to the running back, helping the defense forget about the QB entirely. Even in iterations when it is snapped to the quarterback, the crucial inside handoff to the tight end helps the play move quicker.
Not only did the Wildcats avoid both of those helpful shortcuts to success, but they also had a significant problem with the actual route. Watch again: Aidan Smith hangs around in the backfield until well after Mangieri has attempted to clear out the underneath defenders with his route, not moving until Lees has the ball and is heading back to his side of the field.
Even if this was necessary for timing, given that Purdue defenders already suspected that Lees would come back the other way (thanks to the earlier reverses), the waiting period would have helped a man defense significantly as well.
The part of the play that makes the least sense, though, is Smith curling his route back towards the middle of the field. Obviously, being a quarterback, he doesn’t have experience running routes, but coming back towards the defense is either a fault in the play or a mistake by the coaches in not telling him to go towards the corner more clearly.
When you take all of the minor mistakes together, it’s clear that this play would have had a very difficult time succeeding even if executed perfectly against a man defense. Against (somewhat recognizable) zone coverage, it was doomed before the snap.
They could have had a three-point lead with 11 minutes to play. Instead, the Wildcats were forced to cling to a 22-21 advantage and possibly ended up costing themselves a chance at overtime down the stretch, all thanks to another extremely questionable play design and call.