Panic Level: Guarded
The Big Picture
I hear 4 interceptions is a pretty good day. Beyond that, Northwestern broke up 7 more passes and picked up a sack; that was the good from the defense. The bad was Melvin Gordon ripping off a 61, a 58, and a 31 yard run; the rest of his day was hardly unproductive, of course, but those accounted for most of the damage. With Minnesota and Nebraska up in the next two games, cracks in the run defense are not ideal.
The run game was the story on offense: not only was it Northwestern's best game of the year in both yards (203) and average (4.4), it was the best game anyone has had against Wisconsin in those statistics. With Justin Jackson's breakout, I expect the running back rotation is settled: Jackson will get the bulk of the carries, with Treyvon Green spelling him and taking over in passing situations, while Warren Long manages short yardage. Jackson and the line owe each other a lot; the line is giving up less penetration than earlier in the season, while Jackson has shown good vision for how blocks will develop. Together, they have me newly optimistic about Northwestern's ability on the ground.
In addition to the running backs, Miles Shuler has taken a few carries as a receiver; none have been more important than his reverse for a touchdown against Wisconsin.
The reverse began with Northwestern's success on the outside zone; most of Jackson's big runs came on the outside. When Northwestern got the ball on Wisconsin's 16 following a Jimmy Hall interception, the offense set up in one of Northwestern's preferred running formations, with Dan Vitale as an h-back opposite Justin Jackson's position in the backfield. Further outside, Miles Shuler is lined up ahead of Kyle Prater in a two-man stack on the hashmark.
Wisconsin brings a safety down over Vitale; this gives them 7 in the box against 6 Northwestern blockers. Moreover, the safety is on the offense's right, where both Vitale and Jackson's position suggest a run will go, and the lone deep safety is also shifted to that side of the formation. Wisconsin is cheating hard against a run to the right, and Siemian responds by stepping up to change the call, after which Vitale moves closer to the line and the Wisconsin safety cheats further to the offensive right.
When Siemian hands off to Jackson heading right, Wisconsin looks ready to make a stop, as the cornerback over the stacked receivers also heads into the backfield.
But Shuler is coming back the other way, and Jackson pitches to him on the reverse.
The reverse primarily relies on positioning and misdirection to clear the way, and Shuler has only four blockers in front of him: Tony Jones, the lone receiver to the left, Geoff Mogus and Paul Jorgensen, who make a show of blocking right before releasing into the open field, and Trevor Siemian, who picks up a key block to seal the corner.
Note that I don't normally endorse quarterbacks taking linebackers one-on-one, but it works here. Downfield, Wisconsin is in disarray, and Northwestern's blockers need only interfere with their paths to Shuler to secure the touchdown.
Jorgensen gives a particularly notable effort, getting down to the goalline to block the cornerback.
The reverse takes advantage of overly aggressive defense, in both positioning and reaction to the initial run action; in this case, Wisconsin's outside linebacker stays home but allows the quarterback to block him. The rest of the defense can't do much, as they have to play the threat of Jackson running honestly until they see Shuler coming back the other way. Against a fast receiver on a short field, this is a tough task; credit goes to Mick McCall for having the reverse ready to go when he saw Wisconsin cheating against perimeter runs.
Minnesota is another team that relies on running and defense; fortunately, they're worse at both of those than Wisconsin. Just like against Wisconsin, taking an early lead will be important; without Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin line to lean on, Minnesota will be even more reliant on their limited passing game to fuel a comeback.
Panic will increase if: Minnesota keeps things close or wins
Panic will remain the same if: Northwestern wins by at least two scores
Panic will decrease if: Northwestern wins by four or more scores