Well, conference play is back in full swing and the game between the Wildcats and the Nittany Lions was nothing short of another gritty, smashmouth football game synonymous with the Big Ten. In the middle of a massive rain storm, muddy field conditions and a soaking wet football, the Wildcat offense looked to shake off a stagnant performance against Miami (OH) by upsetting the No. 11 ranked team in the country — home of a terrific defense led by former Miami head coach Manny Diaz and projected highly rated corner Joey Porter Jr.
In a game only summed up as pure chaos, the ‘Cats had many chances to pull off the upset. The defense forced five turnovers, including three inside Penn State territory. However, the offense turned those five turnovers into zero points. Comparatively, Penn State scored 14 of their 17 points off turnovers.
The ‘Cats struggled to move the football all game, gaining only 31 total rushing yards on 28 attempts. A single carry by Evan Hull accounted for 29 of those yards, leaving the Wildcats with just two yards on the other 27 carries, a near-zero yards per carry. With the heavy rain and Northwestern’s strong running game, the Nittany Lions loaded the box with defenders and played man coverage behind it, daring Northwestern to put the game in the hands of one man, quarterback Ryan Hilinski. Let’s take a look at how the junior QB fared:
It was another slog of a day for the junior, as he completed 15-of-37 passes for a 40.5 % completion rate for just 210 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He also had two fumbles, losing one. It was Hilinski’s third week in a row where he averaged under six yards per passing attempt, a number way below the 8.3 yards per attempt he had Week Zero in Ireland. Hilinski’s PFF grade, which should be taken with a grain of salt, was a below-average 49.8. He had one PFF big-time throw (a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window), and his adjusted completion percentage (completions + drops/aimed) did increase to 54.3%. But, his ranks amongst Big Ten quarterbacks in these metrics is not what he nor the ‘Cats are hoping for:
PFF grade: 53.2 (14/14 qualified Big Ten QBs)
BTT% (the % of attempts that are Big Time throws): 1.3% (14/14 qualified Big Ten QBs)
Adjusted competition percentage: 66.0% (13/14 qualified Big Ten QBs)
Hilinski did face more pressure in this game than he had seen before, as he was pressured about 28% of the time. But the lack of big-chunk plays has been a consistent theme throughout this season. Hilinski has only 21 attempts of passes greater than 20 yards this whole season, including seven attempts in this game alone.
Here is the PFF breakdown of all of his passes in Happy Valley.
Despite all of his general numbers showing a slow start to the season, the tape from this weekend shows he clearly has the talent to be a top quarterback in the Big Ten and lead the Cats in a wide-open Big Ten West. Numbers lie, but film doesn't, so let’s look at the tape.
I feel like being positive right now, because there was actually some pretty good stuff to come out of that game, contrary to what everyone on Twitter said. So let's go through some of the good from the game.
Vertical passing game
I know what you’re thinking, didn’t I just say that the ‘Cats have not had many passes over 20 yards and have struggled to create chunk plays? The answer is they have, but after watching the tape, I think this ‘Cats offense has the potential to explode, and we’re gonna look at a few plays that show it.
One of the few bright spots on Saturday was Hilinski’s long touchdown pass to Jacob Gill for NU’s lone score of the game. It was a beautifully designed play as the ‘Cats got into an empty formation with Hull as the outside receiver to the weak side of the formation (in empty, the three-receiver side is called the strong side and the two-receiver side is known as the weak side). The Nittany Lions decided to turn their attention to Hull, having a corner match him in man-to-man. The Nittany Lions had two high safeties in the middle of the field, indicating either cover two or cover four. As the corner ran with Hull dragging across the middle of the field, the outside backer took the responsibility of the corner and took the quarter of the field, showing cover four. However, the backer never got his eyes off the quarterback as he dropped into his zone, allowing Gill to run right by him on a fade route from the slot. With the safety playing his middle of the field quarter, there was no one near Gill and Hilinski noticed it and threw a ball 32 yards, which was a little short but got there nonetheless, for a walk-in touchdown.
For everyone saying, “Great, but it was just one ball,” there were multiple big-time plays by Hilinski to move the chains. The ‘Cats had not gotten a first down the entire first quarter and were pinned inside their own five early in the second quarter. The two runs before had gone absolutely nowhere, and the ‘Cats were facing a third-and-10 inside the five. Not pretty. Penn State played straight-up cover one, meaning man-to-man with the free safety playing center field to get over the top of any deep balls. With a clean pocket to work with, Hilinksi stepped into one and rocketed a 25-yard back-shoulder ball to Donny Navarro for a massive first down to get them out of their own endzone. The corner was draped all over Navarro, and Hilinski put it in one of the few spots where only Navarro could go and get it. We’re going to get to one more deep ball, but that one is for later.
Throwing on the move
One of the things Hilinski has done effectively this season has been play-action rollout passes. He simply does not get enough credit for what he is capable of with his legs, but it also doesn’t hurt that teams sell out to stop Hull. Once again, this is a really good play call by the Wildcats. Penn State has seven in the box with a corner about three yards back and one yard outside the end man on the line of scrimmage: they are in a run-stuffing defense with eight near the line of scrimmage. They are playing cover two behind it, keeping those safeties about 12 yards off the football. Hilinski carries out a ball fake and the Wildcats high low the corner, with Hull going in the flat and tight end Marshall Lang running a 10-yard sail route to the first down mark. With the corner taking Hull in the flat and the safety staying over the top, Lang is wide open. Hilinski does a fantastic job gaining depth on his rollout, flipping his hips and finishing downhill to fire a bullet to Lang for a first down.
Throwing under pressure
While this Northwestern offensive line is very good, it is bound to give up a pressure here and there. As the Wildcats faced another third-and-long (story of the game) as they drove into Penn State territory looking to make it a one-score game, Hull shifted from the backfield to the outside to get the Cats in an empty formation. The middle linebacker followed Hull out there, indicating man coverage. Soon after the ball was snapped, a Nittany Lion beat the right tackle and had a clean shot at Hilinski. Hilinski did not flinch though. Instead, he stayed in the pocket and threw a dime over the shoulder to Malik Washington to put the Cats inside the Penn State 10. Hilinski put this ball over the corner and under the safety to where only Washington could grab it, all while taking a massive shot. It was his best ball of the day and maybe one of his best balls of the season so far.
Inevitably, though, Northwestern’s offense shot itself in the foot in the end. The ‘Cats had so many chances to pull off the upset, but their own self-inflicted wounds killed their chances. While it may be coach speak to say that “the opponent did not beat us, we beat ourselves,” nothing could be more true for this game. So let's look at what went wrong.
When your defense forces five turnovers, it should be a recipe for success. However, when you score zero points off those turnovers, you might as well hand it to any college student learning to cook, cause that recipe is toast. There are two key turnovers to look at, both likely costing the ‘Cats points.
After the defense had picked off Sean Clifford and handed the offense the ball inside Penn State territory, it should have been a massive early tone-setter in a hostile environment. Instead of grabbing the momentum, the ‘Cats handed it straight back to the Nittany Lions. After two rushes went nowhere, Hilinski and his guys were looking at one of many third-and-longs of the game. They came out in empty, to which the Nittany Lions decided to defend using a combo coverage. To the three-receiver side they played man, and to the two-receiver side, they played cover two. In a really good job by the outside linebacker, Hilinski’s intended target had to release outside to work all the way back inside, making the route take way longer to develop.
In a really not-good job by the quarterback, Hilinski fully fails to look at the one safety in the middle of the field. The safety read Hilinski’s eyes the entire way and was breaking on the ball before he even threw it. With the combination of the re-route and the stare-down of the receiver, the pass sailed over the receiver’s head and right into the safety’s hands for one of the easiest interceptions of his life, probably. That interception brought a stunned Beaver Stadium back to life and handed the momentum right back to the Nittany Lions, who would march right down the field and score on their ensuing drive.
The ‘Cats had a chance to take the momentum going into the locker room at halftime after the defense forced another fumble deep in Penn State territory. However, they once again gave the ball away. On a second-and-12, Hilinski dropped back to pass, but the pressure from his right side got back to him quickly. Hilinski never felt the pressure and did not step up in the pocket to avoid it. Instead, he is hit as he threw and fumbled, losing the ball and the chance to put up points. The pressure did not come from his blindside, and his internal clock has to go off a little quicker, as those lost points definitely hurt the ‘Cats chance to win the game
There is probably one throw that Hilinski wants back more than any other throw. This one is this miss to Navarro. With nine Nittany Lions in or around the box, Navarro was left one on one with a corner on the outside in man coverage. Navarro beats the corner cleanly, and Hilinski has all day to throw inside the pocket. However, he just overthrows him. If he hits Navarro that is likely a walk-in touchdown to tie the game. Plays like that are the differences between wins and losses in the Big Ten, and Hilinski needs to make that play.
This one play irked me so much I had to put it in this review. Hull is the best player on this offense — get him the football any way you can. They run a tear motion to their three-man side, and all Penn State has over there is a linebacker inside the box, a corner and a safety at eight yards. They ask the Mike linebacker to run with Hull and match him. Give me Hull against a linebacker in a footrace any day of the week. If this is blocked correctly, it’s a big gain play, but even if it’s not it’s an easy four or five yards to be ahead of the chains at second and five. Hilinski even looks Hull’s way first before flipping his head and trying to fire a slant into Washington, who is smothered by the corner at the line. If you have even numbers, or a numerical advantage with the safety so far off the line of scrimmage, take advantage of it. Get the ball to your playmakers in space and let them go do the rest. If the ‘Cats want to jump-start this stagnant offense, they have to start taking what is given to them. It starts with Hilinski trusting what he sees.
For a team that looked like it was going to have to score 30 every game to be competitive, scoring more than single digits against a Wisconsin defense that has struggled recently has to be goals 1a, 1b, and 1c. The tape clearly shows a more talented team than what the record shows. Now, they need to go put it together and walk out of Ryan Field on Saturday with a win. Thanks for joining me in the film room, and as my favorite head coach Rex Ryan said at the end of his team meetings, “Now let’s go get a snack.”