WNUR’s Amit Mallik returns, breaking down more film from Northwestern’s shutout win over Minnesota.
Play # 6: Shuler Punt Return
After trading punts, the game seemed a little stale heading towards halftime, with Northwestern slowly trying to engineer an edge in the field position battle. After a big third down stop deep in Minnesota territory, this happened:
While Shuler and the Northwestern special teams deserve full credit, Minnesota punter Peter Mortell was punting with the wind and managed to hit a knuckleball straight to Shuler. The lack of hangtime proved fatal, as Shuler caught the ball with room to run, read his blocks, and raced to the 5 yard line. Thorson ran a simple keeper play when Minnesota expected a Jackson run, and took it in for the score.
Play # 7: Fourth-Down Conversion
While Northwestern was relatively fortunate to have a 10-0 lead after a scrappy first half, the offense took control of the game with two back breaking drives in the third quarter. NU received the ball to start the half, and took 8:47 off the clock with a 19 play drive that ended in a field goal. While the referees disallowed a gorgeous one-handed touchdown grab from Solomon Vault, the key play of the drive was a 4th and 7 conversion that put the offense in field goal position.
In a clear passing situation, the Minnesota defense sat back in cover four and only used a four man rush. The Minnesota left end, however, blew by the right tackle and got a hit on the QB. Thorson showed great poise on this play to get the first down: he released the ball just at the end of his three step drop as receiver Mike McHugh cut inside, and put the ball on the money.
Play # 8: Gophers Stopped on Fourth Down (Again)
On the next series, Minnesota moved into Northwestern territory after a 23-yard catch by wide receiver Eric Carter in triple coverage, but the ‘Cats again tightened up and forced a crucial fourth down.
Both sides played this snap well, but the key player was defensive end Dean Lowry. In short yardage at 4th and 3, Minnesota called a well-designed end-around play-action fake, but the Northwestern defense didn’t bite. Lowry headed towards the handoff, but then pulled away, shedded a blocker and bore down on Leidner. This forced Leidner to severely underthrow tight end Nate Wozniak, who was open and had a considerable size advantage on Nick VanHoose. The turnover on downs set up the ‘Cats with favorable position and a chance to extend the lead.
Play # 9: Justin Jackson’s Big Gainer
On the ensuing drive, the ‘Cats scored a touchdown, thanks to a huge run from Justin Jackson. While Jackson can often get stuck bruising his way to gains of only three or four yards (like against Ball State), he returned to his dominant form on Saturday.
The fake handoff and the excellent work of right guard Ian Park allowed Jackson to get into open space and use his downhill speed and sharp cuts to great effect. The middle and right outside linebacker bit ever so slightly on the fake handoff, and both overcommitted to Jackson in the middle of the field. Jackson cut to his left and turned on the jets, as Park effectively blocked two players at once. The play sparked a drive that ended in a one yard QB sneak from Thorson that effectively put the game away at 20-0.
Play # 10: Anthony Walker Scoop-and-Score
The defense added another touchdown early in the 4th quarter off of a strip sack of Leidner.
The play was not a designed QB draw, but the rush came so fast the pocket collapsed almost instantly. Linebacker Drew Smith flew in unaccounted for and forced Leidner into Tyler Lancaster, who stripped the ball loose for Anthony Walker to waltz into the endzone with. The play summed up the day on defense for the ‘Cats, who were faster, stronger, and first to the ball on almost every occasion. They finished the rest of the fourth quarter strongly to hold on to a well-earned shutout.