WNUR’s Amit Mallik is back to break down the film from Northwestern’s second straight loss.
Iowa dominated Northwestern on both sides of the ball Saturday, leaving the Wildcats with an identity crisis. For the second straight week, NU had their strengths neutralized by faster and better disciplined units. The Hawkeyes showed that when teams push the Wildcats out of their comfort zone, the results are ugly.
Play #1: Deep Ball to McHugh
Northwestern fell into an early 16-0 hole as Iowa’s offensive line battered the Wildcats’ defensive front, allowing backup running back Akrum Wadley to run wild. In the second quarter, the Wildcats had to abandon their traditional run-heavy game-plan, and started throwing on more downs. Northwestern is not a team built to air it out, but they looked the part on this completion to receiver Mike McHugh.
Northwestern ran a deep post on the left side of the field and a streak on the right side on a 3rd and 15. Iowa probably expected a short throw underneath, the type of playcall Coach Fitzgerald and QB Clayton Thorson have felt most comfortable with in obvious passing situations. In a Cover 3, the left safety stepped up to play an intermediate zone, leaving the right safety exposed as the only help over the top. As soon the safety took his first steps towards the post on the left side of the field, Thorson recognized the one on one matchup McHugh had on the right and pulled the trigger. McHugh easily outran his man for a big gain that set up a touchdown a few plays later to bring the score to 16-7.
While this was an impressive and aggressive play, Thorson and the offense couldn’t make this work the entire game. As the lead grew for the Hawkeyes, Iowa recognized Northwestern would throw more often, and dropped into more conservative schemes with more help over the top.
Play # 2: Third-and-Goal Stuffed
Later in the second quarter, Traveon Henry secured a key interception that left the Wildcats with great field position. Since NU would receive the second half kickoff, a pair of scores could have completely swung the momentum of the game. Down to a third and goal from the one yard line, the Wildcats called a sweep that Iowa stuffed.
The rationale behind a sweep is that the defense is usually expecting a brute force dive up the middle with one yard to go. Jackson should have gotten into the open field and used his speed to race around his outside blocks for an easy score. The Iowa defense showcased great discipline and physicality on this play to force the Wildcats into a field goal. Dan Vitale on the far point of the line had the key block to make, but he was quickly pushed outside, and Jackson had to try and look for an opening on the cutback. Lineman Matt Frazier, #57, also had an important block as he was supposed to disengage and clear a path for Jackson. Frazier got stuck in no man’s land, as he couldn’t get to the edge fast enough or block someone at the line. Instead he ran into another Northwestern player in an attempt to double block, and Jackson ended up not even being able to make it back to the line of scrimmage. The entire Iowa defense read the play impeccably, and flew to the far side of the field before Jackson had a chance.
Play #3: Wadley’s Big Gainer
Down 16-10 at the start of the second half, the Wildcats had a chance to mount a drive, but settled for a punt. On the first play of the ensuing Hawkeyes’ possession, Akrum Wadley broke out for a big gain that exemplified Iowa’s dominance running the ball.
Iowa’s number 65, Jordan Walsh, laid a huge block and gave Wadley a nice hole to run through. The linebackers were a step slow to read the direction of the run and Anthony Walker Jr., who was responsible for Wadley on the play, got caught crashing the line and had to circle around to chase Wadley. The play could have been stopped for for a three or four yard gain, but the playcall fooled the NU secondary. Safety Traveon Henry recognized the run immediately and stepped up, but the near receiver took care of him with an inside block. This meant near corner Nick VanHoose had a one on one with Wadley after Wadley bursted through the hole, but VanHoose missed badly. He dropped into his zone as he was supposed to, but recognized the run a step too slowly, and was forced to guess Wadley’s direction. Wadley made a shifty cut and broke away for a first down on an eventual touchdown drive.
Play # 4: Thorson Sack-Fumble
NU’s linebackers struggled with the run all day, and the Iowa offense ran a bevy of counters and stretches to avoid Northwestern’s front seven and gain favorable matchups with the Wildcat secondary, which wasn’t equipped to stop the run. Iowa raced out to a 30-10 lead in the second half after a sloppy Northwestern turnover, and the Wildcats were forced back into pass mode. While the McHugh play in the first half was nice, this Thorson fumble shows what often happened when the Wildcats had to pass.
The Wildcats lined up in more empty sets with five wide receivers and called more aggressive plays in this game than they had all season, but the formation became problematic because only the five offensive linemen were available to pick up Iowa pass rushers. Even though the Hawkeyes used conservative schemes, they weren’t afraid to send an occasional 5th pass rusher and trust their defense in 6-on-5 coverage. Since Northwestern is not a pass-based team, they have difficulties recognizing the proper blocking assignments out of empty backfield sets, especially since Justin Jackson is a key blocker on some pass plays. Iowa got one-on-one matchups against Northwestern’s right tackle and right guard, and the two defensive linemen steered them in opposite directions to create a wide open pass-rushing lane for #43 Josey Jewell. Center Ian Park, who blocked nobody on the play, should have shifted onto defensive lineman Jaleel Johnson, and left Jewell for guard Matt Frazier. That kind of adjustment has to be made pre-snap, but is a hard change for a team with a freshman quarterback that is used to piloting a speed-run offense to make. This strip sack and fumble recovery iced the game for Iowa and capped the Hawkeyes’ dominant defensive performance.