Northwestern shut out Minnesota 27-0 on Saturday behind a menacing defense and a competent offense. WNUR’s Amit Mallik breaks down some film from last week’s contest.

The game was fairly even until Miles Shuler’s punt return broke the game open for the ‘Cats in the second quarter. Northwestern gained a slight early edge thanks to their superior third down performance on both sides of the ball.

To the surprise of no one, the Northwestern offensive gameplan was centered around a heavy dose of Justin Jackson and the other tailbacks. Ideally, the runs could create manageable third downs on drives that methodically marched down the field. The success of the offense would hinge on the third down execution of Clayton Thorson in likely throwing situations, and he was up to the task.

Play # 1: Third-Down Pass to Christian Jones

On their first drive of the game, the ‘Cats faced a 3rd and 8 deep in their own territory. Minnesota came out in man coverage on the four receivers and blitzed all three of their linebackers.

christian jones third down Minnesota

The offensive line, with the assistance of Jackson, did a good job of picking up the pass rush, but they survived a six-on-seven numbers disadvantage due to two defensive ends and a tackle dropping off into spy coverage. Thorson sat in the pocket and delivered a precise throw to Christian Jones, who created separation at the top of his out route. A good playcall and good execution by the ‘Cats.

Play # 2: Vitale Shovel Pass

On another third down later in the drive, Thorson made a similar throw on an out route to the opposite side line. As they moved down the field, the key play to put the ‘Cats in field goal position was a 2nd and 5 pass to Dan Vitale.

Vitale shovel pass minnesota

On a traditional running down for the ‘Cats, the offense drew up a tricky superback screen designed to spring Vitale into running room with blockers. Screen passes tend to leak out towards the sidelines, but here, the right guard and the left tackle criss-crossed to set blocks up the middle of the field to give Vitale a one on one with the Minnesota left outside linebacker. After catching the shovel from Thorson, Vitale stiff armed his defender and broke out for a big gain.

Play #3: First Quarter Fourth-Down Stop

The Minnesota offense actually had a fair amount of success running the ball on Northwestern’s front seven on the opening drive, but the defense tightened up in Wildcat territory to force a turnover on downs. They did what they do best, snuffing out any action on the first three downs, then stepping up on a 4th and 6.

Minnesota 4th down stop

Northwestern brought a six man pass rush and left their secondary in Cover One Man. Minnesota QB Mitch Leidner’s first read was a hitch towards the near sideline which Matthew Harris covered. As he turned to his second read, the pressure off the edge arrived and he overthrew a ball to his slot receiver Drew Wolitarsky, who was smothered by Nick VanHoose. Northwestern’s athletic secondary allowed the Wildcats to bring the heat in passing situations and rely on solid man coverage.

Play # 4: Second-Quarter Run-Stuffing

The Northwestern defense stepped up their play in the second quarter to neutralize the Minnesota run and the results were obvious.

Dean Lowry run stuff Minnesota

The ‘Cats have one of the best front sevens in the country, and their penetration into the backfield caused the Gophers problems all game. Left end Dean Lowry shedded his block with ease and swallowed the Minnesota running back for a loss.

Play # 5: Harris Interception

On the very next play facing another 3rd and long, QB Mitch Leidner played right into the hands of Northwestern. By stacking the line to show a blitz, the defense forced Leidner into his ‘hot read,’ which in this case was a ten yard curl towards the far sideline.

Matt Harris Pick Minnesota

Instead of blitzing everyone, the ’Cats dropped into Cover 4, which left Matthew Harris with a play to make. Sitting on top of a curl, he read the QB’s eyes and jumped the route to intercept the pass.

Tomorrow, Amit breaks down the rest of the game, including a game-changing punt return.