Football: Wildcats’ offense a work in progress at midseason


Jacob Swan/ Daily Senior Staffer

Justin Jackson looks to the sideline for a play call. The sophomore running back believes running the ball effectively will continue to be essential to Northwestern’s offense.

Huzaifa Patel, Reporter

Midterm season is in full swing for Northwestern students, and No. 20 Northwestern (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten) has reached the technical midpoint of the regular season, passing five tests and dropping one on the road against Michigan.

With six games in the books, the strengths and weaknesses of the team are starting to take shape. While NU still boasts the fourth best scoring defense in the country, the offense has been below average, ranking 93rd in the nation in Football Outsiders’ S&P+ Rating.

A lot of the offense’s success hinges on the success of the running game, which has flashed for the Cats but has also been inconsistent. With a redshirt freshman quarterback in Clayton Thorson at the helm, there have been growing pains, putting extra pressure on sophomore running back Justin Jackson and company.

“We know we can perform well,” Jackson said after practice Tuesday. “It just comes down to doing it. We know we can run for over 200-something yards, we’ve done it before, so it really just comes down to execution.”

Jackson conceded that some teams have been keying in on him and noted that Thorson’s continuing growth will help the ground game as the season progresses. But he’s not fazed.

“If they want to try and stop the run, they can,” Jackson said. “We’re still going to try and run the ball, we’re still going to have play action fakes and all that type of stuff, it really just comes down to execution.”

Offensive coordinator Mick McCall echoed the focus on execution, focusing specifically on early downs.

Third-and-longs in particular plagued the Wildcats against Michigan’s stellar run defense last week, stalling drives before they could pick up any momentum. The Cats ran the ball 11 out of 12 times on first half first downs, gaining minimal or negative yardage. Does that mean NU needs to mix it up on first down?

“We’ve got to have more balance there, there’s no doubt about that,” Fitzgerald said in his Monday press conference. “We felt like we needed to get successful plays on first down, and we felt like some of our run schemes would give us our best opportunity for that.”

McCall echoed those sentiments.

“There’s a lot of things that go into what you call on first and second down to get to that third down: who you’ve got in the game, who your playmakers are, what our matchups are, what our matchups aren’t,” he said.

It’s clear the Cats didn’t think they had the matchups in the passing game to take chances on first down. But they simply couldn’t run the ball against Michigan’s overloaded front and sustain drives like they did against Stanford, Ball State and Minnesota.

NU will be facing another great run defense this week in Iowa, (6th in Rushing S&P+) and will be facing more in the Big Ten in Penn State (32nd) and Nebraska (25th). One thing is clear: The coaching staff will have to trust Thorson with the ball and take advantage of his skillset as a thrower and a runner.

This does not come without its drawbacks, of course, as Thorson is a young quarterback still adjusting to the complexity of Division I defenses. The Wolverines blitzed frequently against the NU offense Saturday, and among other factors like receiver separation and blitz pickup, better play recognition from Thorson could have been the difference in exploiting one-on-one matchups at key moments. Take this play for example.

After Vitale’s pre-snap motion, Michigan’s linebacker who is initially across from Vitale signals to the secondary, suggesting he will blitz, as the right outside linebacker will cover Vitale. This created an overload blitz that left the offensive line outmatched, forcing Thorson to get rid of the ball before any routes could develop.

A more advanced Thorson would have been able to first recognize the blitz and either bring Vitale back to his initial position or throw a hot read to one of his receivers.

This might not be a completely realistic possibility for Thorson this season, who is entering just his seventh game as a starter, but it is reasonable to expect that he will get better with more experience. On Tuesday, he acknowledged the challenge he has faced in breaking down complex college defenses but is confident in his ability to grow.

“One thing I have done well is getting in the film room and being a student of the game,” Thorson said Tuesday. “That’s something I grew up really, really stressing.”

As a runner, Thorson presents great value for NU in moving the chains, slowing down the pass rush and lightening the load on the running backs. The Cats have utilized Thorson’s mobility well at times this season, but they still haven’t realized its full potential.

“I think he needs to believe in his feet a little bit (more), that he can make some plays with them,” McCall said.

This could be in reference to scrambling, but it could also mean keeping the ball more on options and designed running plays. The Cats have run both read and speed option, the former proving to be a lot more successful than the latter.

“It’s execution on a lot of different things,” McCall said regarding the failure of the speed option. “Blocking on the perimeter, running the ball inside and not being able to do that..there’s a lot of different things…We’re trying to correct those as much as we can. You guys be the film-watchers and watch it. Do you see how much he can get downhill to the defensive end or not? I don’t know. You guys know a lot of different things, so go look at it and see it, and when you get that magic thing, I’d love to hear that.”

After heeding McCall’s advice and watching multiple speed-option plays from the Cats, it’s clear that Thorson simply has to sell the run better than he has. In this play against Duke, for example, Thorson pitches the ball way too early, allowing the Duke defense time to square up Warren Long, take away his cutback lane, and make the tackle. Another play from the Duke game shows more of the same.

Thorson has been effective on the read option, particularly against Stanford and Duke. This next clip shows a run against Stanford, followed by a run from Jackson, is a great example of how the Cats have used the option to move the ball and open space up for the running backs. It will be interesting to see if McCall dials up more runs for Thorson in the coming weeks.

Youthful inexperience as well as injuries along the offensive line have held back the Cats so far. Their midterm grade is a C-. But the quarter isn’t over; the offensive line is healthy again and Thorson and the skilled players have the tools to turn it around.

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