By Amit Mallik
Northwestern’s trip to Lincoln this weekend saw the Wildcats get to the postseason for the first time since 2012. The ‘Cats started slow, but took a lead into the break and held on to a late lead to beat Nebraska after a back and forth affair. The Wildcats’ offense was boosted by a superb game from Thorson and the defense made two key plays including a two-point conversion stop that sealed the win.
Down 3-0 in the first quarter, Thorson broke a 68-yard-run that set up a touchdown.
The Wildcats struggled all game creating offense, but Thorson took matters into his own hands on this 1st and 10. The ball typically goes to Jackson on first down, but the coaching staff took advantage of their own tendencies by calling a play action pass out of the shotgun. Jackson leaked out into the flat, leaving Thorson with five receivers to throw to. Nebraska came out in a Cover Four and sent a four man rush. The three linebackers didn’t bite on the pump fake, and the two outside linebackers picked, leaving linebacker Josh Banderas in the middle of the field. Nebraska’s coverage held up and the pass rush collapsed the pocket, which would ordinarily be the hallmark of a good defensive play. But Thorson stepped up through the right side of his line, and had a one on one with the middle linebacker. Banderas was a step too slow to react to the scramble, and Thorson used his exceptional speed to blow by him and escape to the sideline. With two key blocks, Thorson sped all the way down to the one yard line, where he scored a touchdown on the next play. This play wasn’t designed. It was an example of Thorson’s athleticism turning a busted play into a huge one. And Nebraska’s middle linebacker taking a bad angle didn’t hurt either.
The defense contributed in a huge way with a Nick VanHoose a pick-6 later.
Nebraska advanced the ball into Northwestern territory, but the Huskers found themselves in a 3rd and four. NU used a standard four man pass rush and dropped into a shallow Cover 4 with most of the coverage in the middle of the field near the chains. The Cornhuskers lined up with a tight end and running back, but they both ran routes leaving a 5 on 4 between the two lines. The play is won by the front four. The defensive ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson had great edge rushes, and quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. had to scramble and throw up a duck off his back foot. In Armstrong’s split second read, running back Terrell Newby seemed open. He wasn’t. Nick VanHoose read the throw and made a huge play. VanHoose was sitting in a deep zone, but he passed on his receiver to the help over the top as soon as he saw Newby leak out. He would have been in position to break up the pass, but Armstrong’s duck allowed VanHoose to snatch the ball and turn on the jets for a pick-6.
The deciding play would come in the fourth quarter when Thorson stepped up to make a long touchdown pass to Dan Vitale that gave the ‘Cats a late lead.
Last week against Iowa, Thorson struggled out of obvious passing sets, and especially with calling out the blitzes. On this first and ten, in a traditional Northwestern running situation, Coach Fitzgerald called for a wheel route for Dan Vitale with Miles Shuler running a pick route underneath. Nebraska blitzed a fifth man with dime back Daniel Davie, but Justin Jackson made a key block on the blind side that gave Thorson enough time to pick out Vitale. Nebraska outside linebacker Dedrick Young didn’t have the speed or physicality to keep up with Vitale, and Thorson delivered a strike on his first read for a touchdown.
Nebraska wouldn’t go away though. Down 30-22 with time ticking out in the fourth quarter, Nebraska engineered an impressive touchdown drive thanks to a crucial fourth and six completion to Brandon Reilley.
On a 4th and 6 with the game on the line, Nebraska used an extremely risky and aggressive playcall. The Huskers dialed up 4 verticals with a running back available for a check down. Northwestern rushed four men and used Cover 1 Man. With Northwestern’s physicality in the secondary, the coverage probably would have had a good chance against a play designed to get just past the chains. The aggressive playcall caught Northwestern by surprise, and the one deep safety had no chance of helping over the top on the streak to the near sideline. Nick VanHoose had the man coverage on Reilly and wasn’t burned, but he was half a step a behind and couldn’t make a play. Armstrong had time to unleash the deep ball, and while he underthrew his man slightly, Reilly made a great catch to set up a Nebraska touchdown.
But the game was won for Northwestern on the ensuing 2-point conversion.
Nebraska lined up in the shotgun and motioned the near receiver to create a trips bunch formation with a lone receiver on the far side of the field. Northwestern rushed four and used a goal line Cover 2. It wasn’t quite man coverage, but each defender had to pick up a receiver immediately in such a short field. Armstrong’s first read was to his running back Newby, and it would have probably been a touchdown if Northwestern was in man coverage. Instead VanHoose fanned out to the flat, and Armstrong went to his second progression over the middle of the field, and then noticed his third progression, Stanley Morgan, on an in route. Morgan ran five yards into the endzone, made contact to get separation on Godwin Igwebuike, and cut hard towards the middle of the field. Igwebuike stayed tight and held Morgan ever so slightly by the hip when he saw the throw coming. He fronted on Morgan’s shoulder and then dove in front of him to tip the pass with an outstretched hand. There was absolutely nowhere for Armstrong to put the ball. The defense completely won the play, and because of it, they won the game.