Commentary: Northwestern Being Out-Coached
by Jonathan Hodges

Given the results of this past week's loss to Duke, it is obvious that something is going wrong for Northwestern this year - and given the generally good statistics put up by the 'Cats on the field it points to one place: the sideline.  Note that I'm not calling for the head of any coach on NU's staff - it is obvious that some of them (particularly HC Fitz and OC McGee) were put in precarious situations at the start of last season with the loss of Coach Walker (who was also the offensive mastermind of the program and was most likely going to be the mentor for McGee moving forward after Dunbar left for Cal).  While the defensive side is lacking as well (see last week's commentary for further discussion on NU's constant defensive struggles), the fact is that both the offense and defense were responsible for the loss to Duke, despite the fact that both of them put NU in a position to pull off a close win.  As a Wildcat fan that bleeds purple, I hope more than anything that the coaching staff can turn it around and put together a great game plan to take down its Big Ten foes this season, but I am also trying to make realistic observations on the status of the team.


Under Walker, offense was the least of NU's worries as it could typically count on piling up the yards and points, especially with Kustok and Basanez under center.  Last year there were obvious deficiencies - explainable by the loss of the 'Cats' head coach, offensive coordinator, and experienced quarterback, and eventually CJ Bacher emerged as a passing threat and it looked like the spread attack would be back in business.  The first 2 games of this season showed a solid offense as well with 27 points and 36 points, respectively, including a final game-winning 80 yard drive to clinch NU's second win of the season.  Against Duke, NU's offense raked in over 500 yards of total offense, including 368 through the air, but also revealed some major issues with the 'Cats only able to muster 14 points.

In 2007 NU has seemingly abandoned the run, and although Sutton has been sidelined with an injury for a game and a half (or so), Roberson has shown he is a viable backup.  And then there is how NU has utilized Conteh - which is basically as a pass blocker/receiver - he has only run the ball 9 times for 21 yards this year, so if the opposing defense sees him in the game they know that there is virtually no chance of an NU run (they already know the chances are low thanks to NU's pass-happy offense).

In the past, NU utilized a solid running game to sustain drives and keep the time of possession on its side as well as to finish off drives.  This year, while CJ has found a way to use the passing game to keep the ball moving, and NU has managed to be successful at holding onto the ball, the inability to punch the ball in from the red zone finally reared its ugly head against Duke.  Northwestern failed to score any points on 3 trips to the red zone (2 late in the 4th quarter with the potential go-ahead score less than 15 yards away both trips - 7 yards away in one of them).  With no threat of a run, Duke sent a bull-rush blitz down the middle and made sure its secondary could cover up the receivers for at least a couple seconds while Bacher was pressured into getting the ball off.  The poor decision on the part of the NU coaches was not putting in a play with a quick pass to take advantage of the out-of-position blitzers by using an RB swing pass or quick slant to a slot receiver.  In the past NU had run the option (most notably with Basanez/Herron) in this position.  Unfortunately NU decided to go with longer-developing pass plays which left plenty of time for the unblocked blitzers to get to the QB before someone was open.  It was especially frustrating when NU got to that point 2 times and yielded no points.

Also during the Duke game, NU seemed to throw the entire playbook onto the field, with reverses, end-arounds, a Peterman pass attempt, off-center offensive line sets, and more to get into a position to score - yet could only muster 14 points.  The most successful play of the game was the pass to FB/TE Dunsmore down the middle, utilized a couple of times.  Also, pass rushers were in Bacher's face all night long with 2 sacks and 8 hurries, plus a couple of amazing scrambles to avoid the sack (including the 35 yard run to set up NU's final opportunity to win the game).  While the offensive line's blocking has some to do with the problems with pressure on the QB and lack of a running threat, I believe that most of it has to do with play selection and the run/pass mix.  Right now everyone sees that NU is in a pass-first strategy, so to combat that they are blitzing to force bad throws by Bacher or sacks if the coverage holds up.  NU must re-establish the run in order to keep the rushers on their heels.


I won't delve too deep into the defense's shortcomings as one needs to only go back a week to my commentary entirely dedicated to NU's defense (or lack thereof).  I will comment on a new pattern that is emerging, though, featuring an ill-prepared defense starting off the game and a rejuvenated squad with a better game plan following halftime.  This is what we've seen all season long: NU giving up rather long drives and lots of yards (and points) in the first half but clamping down in the second.  Against Northeastern, NU was lucky that their FG kicker was ineffective as they made it into legitimate FG range (inside the 30) 3 times before the half (missed 2 FGs and lost the ball on downs once).  Both Nevada and Duke put up 20 or more points in the first half of their games.  Here are some stats to show the point:

Stat - First Half - Second Half
Points - 14.7 - 2.3
Yards - 248.7 - 123.0
Avg. Drive Length - 44.1 - 20.4
No. Drives 50+ yds - 8 - 2
No. Drives in Red Zone - 7 - 2

It's great that the NU defense is clamping down in the second half and the coaching staff is making whatever adjustments necessary to do so.  BUT it leaves us 'Cats fans wanting NU to turn up the heat in the first half so that Northwestern doesn't have to mount a huge comeback in the second half of the game.  These stats point to game planning and the fact that NU's strategy seems ineffective in the first half but then makes the necessary changes to turn it around later in the game.

Northwestern still hasn't been overly aggressive in its defensive play - NU has only 3 takeaways on the year - and Duke's contribution was more of a gift with QB Lewis dropping the ball untouched in the backfield on their first play from scrimmage (immediately after CJ's first interception of the year).  Northwestern must win the turnover battle and be a ball-hawking defense in order to stand a chance once Big Ten play begins, especially if it continues to give up a plethora of yards.

Finally, NU still has absolutely NO pass rush.  Once again, NU made a QB look like a Heisman contender - Duke's QB Lewis at one time completed 15 consecutive passes - and was never really at risk of an interception.  The closest NU came to a sack was when LB Malleo came on an unblocked blitz but was juked by Lewis as he scrambled further outside.  Also, Battle was constantly picked on against Duke.  The fact is that even with solid coverage in the secondary if a QB has all day to throw someone will get open sometime.  And the "Colby cushion" of 10 yards between the receiver and coverage man ensures a high chance of receptions.  If NU has an effective pass rush that cushion can shrink significantly because there just won't be enough time for the QB to get the ball off deeper down the field.

Special Teams

The one bright point that has been consistent thus far this year - kicking.  Kickoffs for NU have been great with Demos showing off his various kicking styles - the long kickoff and the pooch kick, which have both been effective this season - and nobody has had a significant runback against the 'Cats this year.  The same goes for punting where Demos has shown he can consistently pin opponents inside the 20 and the coverage unit can get down the field and tackle the return man - against Duke he showed off his rugby-style directional punt which stuck Duke inside the 20 for both of his punts in the game (a 47 yard/punt average for the game).  Villareal has also been outstanding, converting 9/9 XPs and 4/4 FGs (would have been one more converted FG if Fitz had not decided to go for it late in the 2nd quarter against Duke), giving NU a reliable kicking threat.

The only thing lacking is on punt returns.  While there hasn't been a huge kick return, McManis has had a few solid returns on kickoffs and NU seems to be faring well in that aspect.  On punt returns, though, NU's longest return since Fitz took over last year was 21 yards by Smith against OSU (after the game outcome had been all but decided), with no returns of note thus far this season.  NU seemed to gain success by putting 2 men on the gunners late last year but seems to have veered away from that strategy this season.  While some of the punts have been non-returnable (2 of Duke's punts were short wobbly kicks - not great for returns), the fact is that NU needs a boost in field position and a good punt return would definitely give the 'Cats a swing of momentum in their favor.

Final Note

In Northwestern's past 3 Big Ten championship seasons, the 'Cats have faced a tough non-conference loss before achieving significant success on the season: TCU in 2000, Wake Forest in 1996, and Miami OH in 1995.  I'm not about to say that this year's Northwestern team will contend for the Big Ten title, but the loss to Duke could definitely serve as a wake-up call and springboard for both the players and coaching staff.  The team has shown that it can put itself in a position to win - the offense, defense, and special teams have either kept NU in the game or put them ahead for good in all 3 games this year.  Now the strategy has to be aligned to take advantage of NU's strong points from the start of the game.

I believe that many of NU's errors thus far are correctable and that the players have the ability to go out there and challenge any team on the 'Cats' schedule and the coaches can improve in their game planning to give NU a shot at a victory every time out.  The college game is all about learning and developing and now is the time to do just that - channel the drive and intensity into a solid strategy and NU can still succeed this year.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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