Sept. 8, 2018

"If a Team Has Two Starting Quarterbacks...

That Team Has No Starting Quarterback.”
The phrase above is a highly regarded, widely quoted adage among many football experts, especially collegiate coaching staffs and other “knowledgeable commentators.”  IMHO, there’s more than a modicum of truth to it.  In fact, there are scores of examples throughout the history of the college football game which serve as unambiguous verification of the message to be taken from this principle.  Unfortunately for Northwestern’s football program, the current coaching regime has not heeded the red-flag warnings imbedded in this maxim, especially at the start of the current 2018 pigskin season.

Mind you, HC Pat Fitzgerald and OC Mick McCall have one very good reason to employ the unorthodox 2 QB system at the start of the Wildcats’ fall campaign.  NU’s offensive brain trust, on strong recommendation from NU’s medical staff, fully embraced this advice meant to protect their potential 1st round NFL draft prospect QB from becoming yet another regrettable college football footnote that chronicles the consequences faced when a highly talented, universally recognized pigskin prodigy (read: Senior Clayton Thorson) who wasn’t proffered the necessary time to recover adequately from a truly gruesome ACL injury sustained in his last game of the previous season (in CT’s case, against Kentucky in the 2017 Music City Bowl).  As is often the case in an early-return scenario by a full contact sport athlete following post-season ACL surgery, that valued player, all too often, endures the unthinkable – reinjuring his torn ACL in his first or second game after that shortened rehab stint, ostensibly ending his football career.

To this writer, when NU’s offensive brain trust announced that they intended “to heed” the attending medical staff’s sound advice to protect Thorson from such a potential career-ending scenario in his first game following his knee reconstruction surgery, I felt relief that common sense had prevailed.  However, nothing prepared me for the unexpected protocol employed by Fitz & McCall “to shelter” NU’s primary playmaker over its last 2 seasons from a similar disastrous ending due to a premature return to the gridiron: the resurrection of the 2 QB platoon system.

When I witnessed its use on the ‘Cats’ 3rd offensive series of last Saturday’s grapple with the Broiler Chickens, I was both aghast and dismayed.  To be sure, in past gridiron campaigns, Fitz & his OC successfully exercised this riverboat gambler’s approach towards minimizing the threat of further injury to a currently rehabilitating quarterbacking commodity by splitting the QB duties between 2 qualified primary ball handlers – the most recent/notable example being the Kain Colter/Trevor Siemian starting QB tandem experiment in 2012.  Despite a myriad of impending negatives, that 2012 QB platooning paradigm produced relative success, as the ‘Cats opened that season with 4 consecutive wins – a start which, in retrospect, proved to be more an aberration from the norm, especially since this Colter-Siemian collaboration displayed more disturbing field play flaws than consistent playmaking by either QB over those opening 4 W’s.  But the fact remains that the dynamic duo of Colter, as rush-oriented QB, & Siemian, as pass-first QB, rotating as the ‘Cats’ preferred QB whenever or  wherever their individual playmaking talents matched-up against particular foes and specific game situations, worked well enough to deliver admirable win-loss records of 5-3 in the B1G and 10-3 overall by the end of 2012.

But that was then; and this was now.  As his 2018 Wildcats girded themselves throughout their slate of pre-season practices to face the new and improved Perdue Broiler Chickens under 2nd year HC Jeff Brohm, in the B1G’s season opening game in West Laughable, Indiana, HC Fitz unveiled his the executive decision to share the ‘Cats’ quarterbacking responsibilities between his All Everything, returning-from-ACL-surgery 1A QB option, Clayton Thorson, and a newbie 2nd string QB option in redshirt Junior walk-on T.J. Green, who earned the 1B counterpart to Thorson by beating-out talent-laden underclassmen QBs, Aiden Smith and Andrew Marty.

As this drama unfolded before me, I thought to myself, “Is Fitz and McCall off their rockers, or are they both crazy like foxes in rolling-out another 2 starting QB model once again and positioning them front & center stage under the glaring spotlight of the BTN’s Thursday night, prime-time college football broadcast extravaganza.

This totally unexpected move was either gonna be a work of genius (delivering B1G dividends) or a blueprint for disaster (becoming a QB train wreck).

How the ‘Cats Plucked the Broiler-Chickens

Return On Investment  
Several interesting characteristics highlighted Clayton Thorson’s personal journey over the months that passed between his ACL surgery and subsequent rehab endeavors:
  • Everyone involved in CT’s surgical procedure – from NU’s orthopedic surgeons, to the Wildcat coaching staff, to NU’s sports information offices, to CT’s team mates, to his family members – played their part in keeping whatever pertinent information regarding Thorson’s recovery status, that might have been made available for consumption to an inquisitive public, in a virtual informational lockdown.  By design, NU’s entire athletic department infrastructure was directed to keep their individual and collective pie holes shut regarding this subject matter.  When fielding any and all inquiries on Thorson’s current health, positive spin replies were maintained with steadfast discipline on any information which might have exposed any number of newsworthy indicators regarding CT’s rehabilitation progress.  Essentially, NU pumped bright sunshine up the moons of anyone asking – which only added fuel to the truthful or fictitious speculation fires among those posing such questions in their effort to scoop whatever news was available on whether or not Thorson would be field play ready by August 30th.
To quote poet Thomas Gray’s musing… “Where ignorance is bliss; ‘Tis folly to be wise.”
  • The opinions of most college football pundits & prognosticators regarding the projected success or failure in the Wildcats’ upcoming 2018 football season hung heavily on CT’s rehabilitation status, so since they were fed a steady diet of blue skies, blooming flowers and singing songbirds, Thorson’s eventual return as the ‘Cats’ starting QB for Perdue game week was never in very clear to anyone outside the NU football family.  Consequently, the ‘Cats were never any more than soft 3 point dogs in the days leading up to their opening tilt against the Broiler Chickens.  If the ultimate goal of Fitz & NU’s athletic department was to keep the Sin City odds makers and Perdue’s defensive brain trust guessing right up to game time, then mission accomplished.
  • CT never felt sorry for himself in respect to his injury.  Not one bit.  However, while Clayton’s general PMA (positive mental attitude) may be one thing, the reality of his ACL recovery physiology (read: the severity in which his body reacted to an extremely invasive knee reconstruction procedure) is quite another.  What information did leak through the miniscule cracks of NU’s self-imposed news blackout revealed that CT was ahead of the standard 12-month schedule for post-ACL surgery rehabilitation.  Way ahead.  And that accelerated rehab timeframe was due overwhelmingly to the fact that CT simply worked his fanny off to get himself back on the gridiron and in position where he could compete for the starting QB role for NU’s August 30th season opener against the Broiler Chickens.  Expended blood, sweat & tears = ROI.  ‘Nuf said.
Better Than Expected  
With the backdrop of Clayton Thorson’s projected return as NU’s starting QB being the preeminent storyline prior to kick-off, when CT finally did trot out to assume his familiar primary playmaking role on the ‘Cats’ first offensive series, one could almost hear a universal sigh of relief from Wildcat Nation.  Still, what had yet to be determined was the debatable question: “Was CT up to the QB task at hand; or was he going to fall victim to either the physical limitations of his reconstructed right knee or to possible deficiencies regarding his O line’s capacity to keep him upright and his uniform relatively clean from grass stains?”  Those concerns were answered in short order. 

Having been given possession of the bean at the NU 36, following ‘Cat SS J.R. Pace’s INT and 20 yard return of a desperation wounded duck heave by starting Broiler Chicken QB Elijah Sindelar thrown in a vain effort to avoid a sack by the determined pass rush from the Purple DL, Mr. Thorson and his focused OL went right to work.  With Thorson collecting 34 total yards via 4 consecutive pass completions, coupled with 15 more yards via NU’s ground game from the Purple RB tandem of Jeremy Larkin and John Moten IV, plus a giftie 15 additional yards off a boneheaded personal foul penalty by the Perdue D, CT & Co. drove the pill to TD paydirt on their initial offensive drive of the game, giving the ‘Cats a 7-point early lead.
After Doc Hankwitz’ D stoned the Perdue offense into a woeful 3-&-out on their second series and a subsequent change of possession punt, Thorson & Co. began their 2nd possession from virtually the same starting point as NU’s 1st drive, at the ‘Cat 35.  On the second play from scrimmage, Mick McCall’s starting RB Jeremy Larkin rip-off a nifty 46-yard scamper that included a highlighted reel worthy slobber-knocker stiff-arm from Larkin to the noggin’ of Broiler Chicken CB Tim Cason that knocked the Perdue DB 5 full yards off his angle of pursuit. After Larkin’s burst to daylight, the ‘Cat O was in scoring mode once at the PU 13.  3 plays later, Thorson & Co. converted their 2nd TD in as many possessions to take what appeared to be a commanding 14-zip lead. 

Having delivered the bean on target and in stride to his receiver targets on every pass thrown over these first 2 offensive series, CT tallied 6 completions off his first 7 tosses (with that lone incompletion being a drop of a well thrown ball by an open WR).  If anyone sitting either in the coaches’ box or the Ross-Aid Stadium stands had any misgivings regarding Clayton Thorson’s readiness to successfully execute his QB responsibilities at a B1G conference level against the 3-point favored Broiler Chickens, those doubts were summarily put to rest at the 5:34 mark of Q1.  

Indeed, Clayton Thorson was poised and prepared to pilot the Purple Pökelboot much better than anyone might have expected (other than his coaches & team mates, of course) in his first game back as McCall’s #1 QB.  12 month standard ACL recovery time be damned.
Cushing’s OL Version 2.0 
There were many lingering questions whether or not the Wildcat OL would or could carry their reputed reliable field play prowess from the last half of the 2017 campaign into this season’s out-of-conference slate of games.  After all, a bafflingly trend of OL coach Adam Cushing’s squad in recent seasons has been that, over the course of the OOC, the overall blocking competency from the Purple “Big Uglies” was hampered severely by missed assignments on rushing downs and/or “ole’ blocks” on passing downs which exposed Thorson to harassment and/or hits much too frequently.  And given Thorson’s fragility from off-season ACL surgery, preventing any & all harassment or hits on CT wasn’t merely unacceptable, it was this unit’s #1 priority goal.  Nobody wearing an Old Gold-hued Perdue helmet was to lay a hand on Thorson… No Body, No Way, No How.  Period, End of story!  Cushing’s OL delivered the blocking goods in spades with -
  • ZERO SACKS from the Broiler Chickens’ DL
  • One TFL given-up for the entire game
  • Executing textbook blocking technique(s) against Perdue’s defensive front 7 that became the foundational launchpad to RB Jeremy Larkin’s collegiate career single game rushing record of 143 net yards on 26 carries.
Again, ‘Nuf said…
The “Wildcat” Way
To limit all unnecessary hits to Thorson, whenever the ‘Cats moved the bean within 10 yards of the Perdue goal line, OC Mick McCall’s rolled-out a game plan employing several unique, but effective offensive formations coupled with a set of plays designed specifically to maximize the yardage production potential via one-on-one blocking matchups that favored the Wildcat’s red zone offense personnel.  

If the ball was placed 2 yards or closer to the Broiler Chicken goal line, McCall sent-in 2nd teamer T.J. Green as his QB of choice to execute all QB sneaks from that short down/distance LOS.  NU’s standard version of the QB sneak always employed the now-legal “Bush Push” technique executed by a Superback who would shift from his initial slot position to a pre-snap position behind an OG and immediately adjacent Green, who was always set under/behind the center and prepared to receive the snap directly into his hands.  At the snap, the ‘Cat OL would use a collective wedge/phalanx block technique (with the OC as point and each OL to either side setting his helmet on the outside hip of the OL teammate to his inside), driving his feet/legs for all he’s worth to get appropriate push across the LOS.  Meanwhile, the QB (read: T.J. Green), with ball in hand via the center snap, positioned his helmet/pads into the target “A gap” (the point-of-attack seam between the selected OC & OG tandem), driving his feet/legs for all he was worth in his own right.  Simultaneously, the SB would take a sideways step to reposition himself directly behind the QB, literally put both hands on the QB’s butt and push him across the LOS.  At the start of this plow-horse QB sneak, it’s very commonplace that the initial charge of the OL against the opposing DL would be neutralized into a scrum-like mass of humanity on either side of the LOS.  The “Bush Push” gives that extra “oomph” needed to move that mass of humanity and the ball (in the hands of the QB) across the LOS and, if executed correctly, another full 1-2 yards beyond, before the QB would get dog piled-on by the defensive 2nd level (LBs & Safeties) and collapse to the turf under a ton or more of “Big Uglies” from either team. 

Needless to say, using a vulnerable Clayton Thorson with his newly repaired knee is NOT an option when executing this QB sneak as all that “beef on the hoof” wrestled one another.  Subsequently, with T.J. Green having substituted Thorson at the QB position, T.J.’s “Bush Push” QB sneak in Q2 was successful at scoring the 3rd TD of H-1 for the ‘Cats.  

However, the most innovative play calling was the use of the “Wildcat” series once the ‘Cat O drive positioned the LOS deep into the Broiler Chicken red zone.  This Wildcat series employed RB Jeremy Larkin as QB, set 5-yards deep from the LOS in shotgun formation, poised to receive the direct long snap from center then execute the read option with a second tandem RB, usually John Moten IV, positioned to JL’s side as the wide rush option back.  With ball in hand received via the shotgun snap from the OC, all Jeremy had to do was run this option RB tandem straight towards the DE defending the designed/chosen point-of-attack defensive edge; read which of the two option backs the DE eventually committed to cover (either Moten or himself); then allow the uncovered RB (which, against Perdue, was always JL) to tote the bean across the LOS and downfield towards the Broiler Chicken end zone.  On the ‘Cats’ last possession of H-1, Mr. Larkin executed the Wildcat formation read option with surgical precision, keeping the ball in hand and pushing it across the goal line for a TD that expanded NU’s lead to 31-17 just before the halftime intermission.

Again, relegating Thorson to riding pine on the ‘Cat sidelines away from harm, particularly when Big Human Beings with bad attitudes are intent on bludgeoning the other Human Being on the other side of the LOS during these short field red zone downs, was the most prudent thing to do once the scrimmage line was established within the shadow of the Purdue goal posts.  Add the salient point that RB Jeremy Larkin, assuming the role of NU’s primary ball handler out of the Wildcat set, was executing the read option play’s duties with a confidence and decisiveness that kept the Perdue D back on their heels, the personnel switch from Thorson to Larkin whenever McCall exercised his Wildcat series was a no brainer decision. 

Wildcat Nation… Be prepared to witness much more of this critical personnel switch whenever the Wildcat series is called-upon during red zone downs.  It works very well.
Newsome In and Sindelar Out
DC Doc Hankwitz’ defensive front 7 did its best to keep the Perdue O bottled-up; however, there were several field play breakdowns which were exploited by the Broiler Chicken offense that resulted in significant explosion plays which kept the home team within scoreboard striking distance over the entirety of the game.  And most were delivered in H-1 by Perdue’s starting QB Elijah Sindelar, WR Jared Sparks and, most notably, true Frosh WR Rondale Moore.

If RB Jeremy Larkin is NU’s recognized premier fleet of foot athlete (besides, perhaps, Senior Jelani Roberts), Perdue’s “Wunderkind” speedster, Rondale Moore, is the Boiler Chickens’ version of Usain Bolt.  Mr. Moore is lightening swift (he has clocked an honest 4.33 40 yard dash) and eye-blink quick (he can break the ankles of pursuing DBs with regularity via a precision turn-of-foot and an elusive change of direction that defies description).  And both were on full display in the Broiler Chicken’s first two TD scoring drives of H-1. 

After the ‘Cats built their 14-zip lead in Q1, it was Sindelar who kick-started the Broiler Chicken comeback. Having converted on 3 consecutive passes for medium gains, the PU QB threw a 20-yard frozen rope in stride & on target to his Lightning Bolt WR Moore, who snatched the bean at the NU 12, left his cover DB, Wildcat SS Jared McGee, grasping at thin air, then sprinted untouched into Perdue end zone for the home team’s first TD of the game, cutting the ‘Cats’ lead to 14-7.

On the Broiler Chickens’ next possession, Mr. Moore flashed his speed demon quickness once again on a perfectly executed jet sweep in which the Frosh went into motion from his initial slot position, received the handoff from Sindelar immediately behind the Perdue OC at the NU 24 yard line then the attacked NU’s left defensive edge.  With ball in hand, Moore made a cheetah-like cut downfield to his right inside a well-executed inside-out seal block by a pulling LOT against ‘Cat edge defender, Sam LB, Nate Hall.  Then once he gets by Hall, Moore makes a 2nd cut to his left, back out towards the wide-field sideline just as PU WR Terry Wright lays an outside-in block on ‘Cat SS J.R. Pace, sealing the safety to the middle zone and cleanly out of the play.  When Moore sees ‘Cat CB Trae Williams close on him straight upfield and into his grille for a potential takedown tackle, the Perdue WR plants his left foot into the turf, makes a 3rd cut, this time to his right once more, just inside the closing Williams, who had lowered his head and eyes for his expected hit on Moore.  With his face lowered just prior to contact, all Trae accomplished was to lose sight of Moore for a fraction of an instant (read: horrendous tackling technique).  The “heads-up” Moore recognized Trae’s self-induced “blind spot” and took full advantage of the CB’s tackling gaffe with this 3rd cut downfield to the inside of the now stumbling Williams, juking the Purple CB out of his jockstrap and out of the play at the same time.  Now free & clear of all Wildcat DBs, Moore cuts for the 4th time, again to his left and out to the sideline and sees nothing but green grass ahead of him along the sideline.  Moore ignites his afterburners and leaves any remaining ‘Cat defenders in his rear view mirror as he races down the sidelines 72 yards to the NU end zone, scoring the TD that knots the score at 14 apiece. 

Note:    I must admit… I haven’t witnessed a similar combination of vision, elusiveness and outright pure speed in a collegiate football player since I saw Notre Dame WR legend Raghib “Rocket” Ishmail do his thing for TSISB some 30 years ago.  IMHO, Perdue’s Rondale Moore is the second coming of the “Rocket.” 

Upon seeing this overt lack of tackling discipline, along with a couple other missed tackles and a penalty to boot in H-1, Doc concluded that CB Trae Williams was overmatched in his attempts play the CB position, especially when covering Mr. Moore.  A change was due, if only to give another DB the chance to defend Moore with any kind of consistency. 

Enter 2nd string CB Greg Newsome in relief of Williams.  Although Newsome never truly shut down Moore, Greg did show that he was up to the challenge, at least when it came to keeping Moore from delivering further explosion plays for the Broiler Chicken O for the remainder of the game.  One contributing factor that must be mentioned regarding Newsome’s relatively better CB field play, he didn’t have to cover Moore with Elijah Sindelar throwing the bean to the true Frosh WR.  After Sindelar tossed his 3rd INT of H-1, Perdue HC Jeff Brohm benched him and turned Perdue’s QB reins over to his 2nd team QB, David Blough.  And although Blough had his moments, the aerial connection magic between Sindelar and Moore was broken and not to be reprised for the rest of the contest.

Frankly, this victory was not a thing of beauty.  In fact, the NU versus Perdue game was what I’d best describe as a full spaghetti Western – a combination of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. 

The Good:
  • Clayton Thorson’s welcome and successful return to effective, efficient QB field play in his first game back following ACL surgery – after only 8 months of rehab rather than the expected 12.
  • The Wildcat OL’s return to their dominating blocking form that was characteristic throughout the last half of the 2017 season – with 4 TDs scored via the Wildcat ground game in this first contest of 2018. 
  • ‘Cat RB Jeremy Larkin’s career single game rushing day (143 yards on 26 carries) set-up by the bullet point immediately above.
  • Three INTs by NU’s defensive secondary that directly lead to 3 ‘Cat TDs and to the benching of Elijah Sindelar, the Boiler Chicken’s best passing QB who torched the NU secondary throughout most of H-1. 
  • The Wildcat O had ZERO turn overs.

The Bad:
  • The executive decision by Wildcat HC Fitz and OC Mick McCall to reprise the 2 QB platoon system that they’ve turned-to in past seasons, to mixed results.  IMHO, it was the wrong thing to do for the right reason. And although its negative impact on the game’s final outcome was limited, the offensive game plan to swap Thorson with T.J. Green per a pre-determined number of offensive possessions, without regard to the existing positive momentum established by CT in his first 2 offensive series, was counterproductive and just plain wrong.  I guess that’s why Fitz is HC and I’m a fan in the stands. 
  • Doc Hankwitz’ defensive front 7 allowed a whopping 202 yards net rushing by a Boiler Chicken ground game considered mediocre by many pundits and pre-game prognosticators – although 72 yards were accrued via WR Rondale Moore’s highlight reel jet sweep for PU’s game tying TD in Q1 and another 45 yard explosion rush booked by RB D.J. Knox that launched Perdue’s 3rd TD scoring drive in Q3.  Simply stated, this level of ground game yardage production against a strong NU rush D is unacceptable, especially from a 2nd tier B1G rushing team like the Broiler Chickens.

The Ugly:
  • As  predicted, Perdue went pass happy on NU’s defensive secondary, allowing Broiler Chicken QB tandem of Elijah Sindelar (18 completions on 30 attempts) and David Blough (12 completions on 16 attempts) to move the Perdue O downfield via their aerial attack with occasional abandon.  This porous pass defense by the Wildcat secondary will not play-out competitively against the more talented passing offenses that the ‘Cats will face in future 2018 games, like Duke next weekend.
  • The Wildcat D’s frustrating early-season tendency to allow opposing offenses to collect numerous explosion plays (that gain 20-plus yards) which can & will neutralize the results of time-consuming drives by the Wildcat O.  Again, this tendency will scorch the ‘Cats’ behinds badly on any one game’s final scoreboard tally, particularly when facing the stronger, more balanced offenses of future B1G West Division foes, like Wisky and Io_a.
  • Featured offensive playmaker, Frosh WR Rondale Moore, setting an all-time Perdue football program record for accrued yardage for a single player, in a single game: 79 yards rushing; 109 yards receiving and 125 yards on kickoff returns for 313 yards total gained in this game alone.  To be sure, Moore is a very rare difference-making offensive talent; but to allow a true Frosh to run roughshod over a seasoned D like the ‘Cats possess, with returning veterans populating most every position across the defensive 2-deep roster, in his very first game as a collegiate football athlete, is plain unacceptable.

The Wildcats better get better in one hellova hurry before they play that team from Durham, NC that is heading into Dyche’s Ditch this coming Saturday who embarrassingly undressed the ‘Cats in their worst defeat of the season in 2017.

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

The Waterboy is a former football player and a Northwestern alumnus.  Aside from these facts, he has no affiliation with Northwestern University.  The commentary he posts here is his own, and does not necessarily reflect the views of

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