Film Study: Northwestern at Michigan

Northwestern fell behind early against Michigan and the Wolverines never looked back, using an outstanding performance in all three phases of the game to rout the Wildcats, 38-0. WNUR’s Amit Mallik broke down the film to detail what wen wrong for the Wildcats.

Michigan dominated Northwestern Saturday with an impressive defensive performance, and the Wolverines picked up points in all three phases of the game.

The game could have gone much differently if the Wolverines didn’t return the opening kickoff for the touchdown. In just one play, they scored as many points as the Northwestern defense was allowing on average this year.


Michigan receiver Jehu Chesson caught the ball at the 5-yard-line, and saw that his three lead blockers were all on the near side of the field. The entire play was a designed kick return to the right, which meant three Wildcats flew in untouched down the far side of the field. The play hinged on Chesson’s speed, and he was able to burn the three free men in coverage and get to his blockers with a numbers advantage. After one key block at the 18-yard-line, he outraced everyone to the sideline and then turned on the afterburners. A few defenders tried to disengage their blocks and cut off Chesson’s route, but he had too much speed.

In the first quarter as Michigan jumped out to a big lead, its offense had its way with the usually stout Wildcat defense. This 2nd-and-9 completion set up the second touchdown of the game and showcased Michigan’s superior gameplan and execution.


The Michigan offense was fairly conservative for the first four games of the season, as they relied on short completions and frequent runs. On 2nd down on long, Michigan came out with two tight ends and two wide receivers to the same side of the field in a traditional running formation. Northwestern utilized a Cover 3, with the two safeties and the far corner in deep coverage.  All four of the men playing intermediate coverage bit hard on the play action, and tight end Jake Butt leaked out past them on a post route. There should have been a hypothetical three-on-three but the overload and vertical-post concept allowed Butt to get wide open. The near safety had nobody to cover on his side of the field, and the two wide receivers ran streaks down the middle of the field and the far sideline. Those routes occupied the far safety and far corner, and Butt ran his post route right into the soft spot of the coverage. Michigan did a great job in the first half of neutralizing the Northwestern pass rush, and QB Jake Rudock had enough time to deliver a back-breaking throw. An excellent play design by Harbaugh and an uncharacteristic lack of discipline from the ‘Cats.

On the next drive down 14-0, the ‘Cats moved down the field well and looked like they were going to get a touchdown back. On a 1st-and-10 in good field position, poor execution doomed the ‘Cats on a drive that would end in a missed field goal.


Northwestern called a wide receiver bubble screen to Mike McHugh, with the three far members of the offensive line supposed to leak out into coverage. With Michigan showing blitz, this play should have been a ‘hot read’ from Clayton Thorson where he got the ball into his playmaker’s hands as soon as possible. The blitz got to Thorson sooner than he expected and he threw the ball high and in front of McHugh, who had no time to beat his man one on one. Despite the slightly misplaced throw, McHugh had no time with the ball because slot receiver Cole Johnson didn’t set a proper pick on the cornerback covering McHugh. Cornerback Jourdan Lewis, however, made an athletic play and a great open field tackle, which symbolized the extra gear the Wolverine defense was in the entire game.

Down 21-0 and pinned deep in Northwestern Territory, Thorson threw a pick-6 that left the Wildcats with an insurmountable hole.


Northwestern ran a streak down the far sideline which was Thorson’s first read, and it wasn’t a bad decision considering he had one on one man coverage. The Wolverines rushed six men and the right outside linebacker created a three on two by blitzing the opposite side from where Justin Jackson was supposed to block. The Northwestern offensive line struggled all game with the Michigan front seven, and on this play, Thorson had no choice but to launch a half-blind throw to McHugh. The throw wasn’t terrible, but McHugh had to slow down enough that Lewis was able to make a play on the ball. Lewis played textbook cornerback coverage, and ripped the ball out of McHugh’s hands before running the pick back for six points. At 28-0, the game was virtually out of reach before halftime.

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