X’s and O’s

As part of a new column, X’s and O’s, WNUR’s Nick Scoliard, breaks down a pair of key plays from Northwestern’s recent victory over Iowa.

It was the best of throws; it was the worst of throws. In the recent Northwestern-Iowa football game, Kain Colter had a fantastic game, throwing 6 for 9 for 80 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The best part of his game really came from his legs, going for 166 yards in 26 carries with 3 touchdowns. Colter only attempted two passes for more than 10 yards. They had very different results. One was an overthrown ball to a very well covered Tony Jones. The other was a perfectly thrown ball to an open Christian Jones. What was the difference in the plays? Let’s take a look.

First the INT: (The black lines represent the defensive assignments, while the purple lines show the offensive routes)

With 4 minutes to play in the 1st quarter, the Wildcats were up 7-3. The play calling in the previous drive: 10 rushes, one incomplete pass. The Wildcats had started their second drive with a 1st down pass to Venric Mark. Here on the second play, the Wildcats are in pistol formation but replace the tight end with an extra runner in the backfield. Mark is to Colter’s right and Tyris Jones to his left. Tony Jones is lined up to the right on the line, and two receivers, one in the slot, are lined up to the left. The defense is in a nickel package with two safeties and 3 corners. The linebacker with the red spy label is meant to spy Colter to make sure he doesn’t run the option, or to jam the line if Mark carries the ball. From this picture, Jones seems to be the best pass. He’s one on one, while the other two receivers will have a safety over them. The reliance on rushing in the previous drive sets this play up beautifully as one of the safeties is taken out of coverage to cover Mark and stop the running game. The Wildcats offense usually works as “pass to set up the run”, and it’s nice to see the offense become multidimensional, especially Colter becoming a passing threat.

Colter fakes the handoff on a designed play-action. Once Colter wheels around, he stares down Jones, not looking at any of his other options. While I will say that on this play, his only option would be a short pass to Tyris Jones that might have gone for a yard if he was lucky, Colter needs to look to his other options. If the linebacker wasn’t spying on Colter, he would follow Colter’s eyes and break up the pass to Jones. It’s something Colter has to work on to become a real threat at QB.

While Jones was one-on-one with his defender, his defender, B. J. Lowery, plays Jones perfectly. Colter can’t throw it too far ahead of Jones because of the safety on the left side of the field, so Lowery plays to Jones’ right. That means that if Jones were to make a move to the right of the field, Lowery would have an extra step to stay with him. Lowery also plays deeper than Jones, so that Colter can’t throw a bomb over their heads. Basically the only pass Colter has is a bullet underneath to Jones before he got too close to the left-side safety, which would require impeccable timing and accuracy. Instead Colter tries to lob it to Jones, but….

An overthrown ball from Colter leads to the interception. So what went wrong here? Well….Colter’s throw only. The play did exactly what it was supposed to do, which was to get Jones in one-on-one coverage: The play action, the short curl for Mark, the flat route from Tyris Jones, the crowding of the left side. All of this is to get Jones in one-on-one coverage, who would then outrun his defender and get open deep. Everything went perfectly except Lowery played Jones absolutely perfectly, and when Colter heaves up a pass and lets Jones get it, Lowery comes away with it. The play design was perfect, but Colter’s throw was not.

OK, let’s stop talking about the bad things. Let’s talk about some of Colter’s best play of the game: his 47 yard pass to Christian Jones:

With around 10 minutes to go in the 3rd quarter, Northwestern had all of the momentum. They had come out of halftime with a blocked punt, and a quick 4 yard Colter-keeper for a touchdown. They caused a 3rd and out for the Hawkeyes, and got the ball at their own 43 yard line. After 2 rushes and a 3rd down pass for a first time, the Wildcats were sitting at midfield.  The Wildcats come out in a “shotgun trips right” formation, with 3 receivers to the right of the line, one super back (Northwestern for some reason can’t call tight ends tight ends of full back fullbacks, they have to call both of them super backs) lined up to the left of the line, and Mark next to Colter in the shotgun. The defense has their nickel package out (it could be the dime package; I can’t tell if the man on Dan Vitale is a defensive back or a linebacker). The weirdest thing about the defense here is that the defender on Jones is not a defensive back-its Christian Kirksey, a linebacker. The defensive back from the interception, B. J. Lowery, is playing on Lawrence. It doesn’t make sense that the Hawkeyes would put a linebacker in coverage against the Wildcats’ biggest deep treat. Colter looks before the snap, and he sees the mismatch on Jones. The mismatch creates a perfect opportunity to throw it to Jones deep.

Even without the mismatch, the play is designed to get Jones in one-on-one coverage when the defense is playing Cover 2. Tony Jones, the slot receiver to the left of Christian Jones, runs a drag route to get the safety playing on that side of the field to follow him to the middle, giving Christian Jones more space. Rashad Lawrence, the receiver to the right of Jones, runs an out route to again give Jones more space downfield. Vitale runs a streak down the left sideline to get the left safety to the left side of the field to give Jones more space downfield. Again, it seems like a designed play to Jones to get him space in one-on-one coverage. Even better, there aren’t any safeties on this play because of the Wildcats’ running game. One corner doubles Mark along with the linebacker, so the right side safety goes into man coverage on Tony Jones. The left side safety spies on Colter in case he runs the option. When the ball is snapped there are 7 players in the box, and only 4 players, one of them a linebacker, to cover 4 receivers.

Colter fakes the handoff to keep the spy and the 2 defenders on Mark close to the line. Colter stares down Jones again, but this time, Jones gets a step on Kirksey, and beats him downfield. With no safeties, the only thing that could go wrong is Colter’s pass.

But Colter lofts it up perfectly, putting it right in Jones’ outstretched arms. Kirksey dives for the ball, leaving his feet, which gives Jones a perfect opportunity to juke away from Kirksey and basically trot into the end zone. Another perfectly designed play, but this time Colter reads the defense well, and puts up a great pass to Jones. This game showed that Colter can be a passing threat; especially when Mark and Colter can run as well as they have, because the defense has to respect the play-action or option. It is great to see Colter exploit that advantage here. Hopefully I’ll be able to break down more plays like this from the Michigan game, instead of breaking down interceptions.

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