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Northwestern Film Room: Splitting the Difference Against Michigan State

How the Spartans ran through Northwestern, and what can be done to improve on both sides of the ball.

As I was watching Northwestern's 38-21 dismantling at the hands of Michigan State, a quote from a former MSU coach came to mind. You might know him as Nick Saban. In 2015, when Saban was discussing defending option teams such as his upcoming opponent Charleston Southern, he called back memory to a 2011 Crimson Tide victory where Georgia Southern ran for 302 yards, at a 7.7 yard clip. Saban described it like this:

This snippet specifically spoke to me as Spartans RB Kenneth Walker III ran for 264 yards and four touchdowns: "They ran through our a** like s*** through a tin horn man," Saban said.

Michigan State ran for 326 yards on offense at an 8.8 yard clip in the season opener against Northwestern on Friday. That almost doubles the yards per rush the 2020 unit allowed, likewise for the total rushing yards. However, when looking back through the opener, I saw Northwestern play a style of defense that can be quickly adjusted going into Week Two against Indiana State. So, let's open up the film room!

In its Week 1 loss, Northwestern didn't play two specific run concepts very well: the split zone run, and the windback. Before seeing how the Wildcats played it, let's examine the plays themselves and what they're designed to do.

The split zone is a run concept where the offensive line will block towards the strength, but the backside tackle will leave the backside end unblocked. This is for the tight end (normally lined up off the line of scrimmage, or as an H-back) to come back across the flow of the play and block the backside end. The play is designed to take advantage of linebackers who are too aggressive, or don't trust their eyes to make the play. The back can choose to follow the flow of the line, or cutback and follow the tight end back across the line of scrimmage (LOS). 

The play will look like this (courtesy of Twitter user Syed Schemes):

Michigan State ran this play often against Northwestern, taking advantage of the inexperience in the middle of the Wildcat defense. On Walker's second TD of the night, the Spartans ran a split zone, and Walker cut it back into the endzone due to over-aggressive play by the linebackers on the goal line. 

Another play that hurt the Wildcats is a relatively new one, modernized by Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay: the Windback. This play looks like a traditional outside zone play, but the receiver (normally lined up close to the LOS) will wrap back around the line and be the lead blocker for the running back. This also takes advantage of overzealous linebackers and creates a wide cutback lane. Michigan State actually ran this with a "Jet" motion (a receiver running across the LOS as if he were getting a Jet Sweep call), to create more eye candy for the linebackers. The Spartans run this play twice on the same drive, actually, getting a first down, then a touchdown (2:07 and 2:36 mark of the video below).

To solve the problems against these type of run plays, the Northwestern linebackers have to play with more patience. Often they were too aggressive in filling their run gaps, other times they were too hesitant. This left them exposed to cutbacks and play action. This happens often with young linebackers, who are either too aggressive or not aggressive enough. 

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In addition, Northwestern has to be stronger against the run along the defensive line. On most of Walker's long runs, the Wildcat defensive line got pushed around, creating large gaps that left Walker one-on-one with the Wildcat defensive backs. This will have to be fixed before going into Week Two.

On offense, the Wildcats weren't terrible, but a problem could be along the offensive line. Michigan State was able to stymie the Wildcat run game, holding Northwestern to 3.1 yards per carry. Often, Michigan State "reset" the LOS; meaning they pushed the Wildcat offensive line a yard back, forcing the backs to make their cuts earlier. QB Hunter Johnson played well when he wasn't under pressure, he fired a lot of passes with anticipation and read out concepts well, including on this touchdown pass:

However, when under pressure Johnson seems to drift away from the blitz, a natural response for any QB to have. This causes him to miss on pressured passes. I also don't think having a 6.6 yard per attempt rate is going to cut it if the run game isn't working. Johnson showed the ability to stretch the field, hitting Wildcat receivers Bryce Kirtz and Stephon Robinson on beautiful deep passes. In order to unlock that potentially lethal part of the Northwestern offense, however, Johnson will have to get time up front to complete passes.

Overall, Week 1 included a very flat performance from the Wildcats, one that showed a lot of inexperience. However, the problems are fixable, and could be adjusted going into this upcoming Saturday's tilt with the Sycamores.

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