Tale of the Tape: Northwestern preview

Who are these Wildcats and how did they get to 6-1? We sat down for our weekly film session with a former football coach to figure out what makes Northwestern go.

Due to a glitch, we didn’t get to see much film on the Wildcats defensively but they’re pretty resolute in what they do. Against Minnesota’s spread, they stayed with four down linemen and, as every Nebraska coach will likely say before the week is out, they’re disciplined. Overall, the defensive numbers aren’t eye-popping, but Northwestern is good against the run which always gives you a chance for success.

The more intriguing match-up is on the other side. After watching the Minnesota tape from last week, Northwestern maybe shouldn’t be 6-1. If you look at the box score from that game, it looks like the Gophers dominated it. Minnesota had more yards, first downs, third down conversions and fewer penalties, but they lost the turnover battle 3-0. Still, the Gophers did a good job defensively. The Wildcats final six drives, spanning the last 36 minutes of game clock, covered 54 yards and resulted in zero points.

How did Minnesota do it? Much the same way Penn State did a week earlier. After putting up 704 yards of offense in the conference opener against Indiana, Northwestern has had just 522 yards combined in the past two games. Minnesota stayed mostly in a 4-3 while Penn State used a nickel most of the time against the Wildcats’ spread but the one common link was that both teams attacked.

Northwestern spends a ton of time with either one back or no backs in the backfield. Both Penn State and Minnesota showed blitz frequently with their linebackers. In most cases they rarely sent more than five but showing six had it’s desired effect: Northwestern was a) forced to account for it and b) it shortened the passing game. The Wildcats didn’t have a passing play longer than 16 yards in either of the past two games.

With the possible exception of the UCLA game, Nebraska’s back end has done relatively well defending the passes in front of them, it’s the deep ball that’s hurt. Northwestern doesn’t try to go over the top a ton and when they do, it’s typically out of an empty backfield where they’ll then motion a receiver or back into the backfield for added pass protection. This area of the game sets up pretty well for the Huskers.

Overall, Northwestern is pretty plain about what they’re doing offensively. Yes, they use two quarterbacks and one of them, Kain Colter, is a talented receiver when he’s not taking snaps, but their tendencies are pretty clear with both.

Colter’s the runner. He’s averaging more than 60 yards per game and already has eight rushing touchdowns. When he’s paired up with running back Venric Mark, the Wildcats are plenty dangerous on the ground. They’ll run all of  the en vogue zone read stuff you’ve come to expect but their speed option, surprisingly, has given people problems. Nebraska’s defensive ends should slow play it, shuffling with the quarterback rather than attacking, to avoid having to deal with Mark on the edge. It’s a simple concept, Football 101 really, but both Minnesota and Penn State got burned a couple times by failing to stay assignment sound.

Trevor Siemian is the passer. In conference play, he’s had 85.23 percent of the pass attempts and he’s capable of making some next-level throws. He’s not much of a runner (15 attempts for 14 yards) and, despite the spread formation, the Wildcats become more of a pro-style offense with Siemian in the game. There’s little question which quarterback Nebraska would prefer to see more of on Saturday.

“When you screw up in a pro-style offense, if you miss your execution, it’s a lot easier for somebody to make up for you,” coach Bo Pelini said Monday. “When that happens in a quarterback oriented offense, where you’re spread out all over the field, those mistakes become magnified big time.  It adds another gap, it adds another level of responsibility and some guys have dual responsibilities.”

That hasn’t gone particularly well for Nebraska of late. The bigger concern, however, might be Mark. He’s a home run hitter in a leadoff man’s body. Mark has eight runs of 20 or more yards, more than anyone in the Big Ten other than Braxton Miller or Denard Robinson, and two long punt returns for touchdowns. He trails only Le’Veon Bell, Miller and Robinson in the Big Ten in yards from scrimmage per game. That’s a long way of saying that, while he may not have the name recognition of any of the guys just mentioned, he is a legitimate threat on Saturday.

It’s not very exciting, but in the end this game will likely come down to how Nebraska handles the run. Against BCS conference opponents this year, Nebraska is giving up an average of 257 yards per game (111th nationally). Northwestern doesn’t have the size or overall talent of UCLA, Wisconsin, or Ohio State, but the one thing they don’t typically do is beat themselves.

Nebraska simply has to be better in this area but the combo of Colter and Mark won’t make it easy. This isn’t the Northwestern of old.