Way back in late September of 2014, Northwestern headed to Penn State with a dismal 1-2 record, their only win coming in a close game with 1-AA doormat Western Illinois. The Cats game planned then unbeaten (4-0) PSU’s quarters defense, hit a few timely seam passes to “superback” Dan Vitale, and - with a little help from 36 consecutive John Donovan pass attempts - beat Penn State 29-6 on homecoming. The loss began an oh-fer-October, 4-game PSU slide that ended in a 7-6 season.
The next year, in November 2015, our Penn State Nittany Lions traveled to Evanston with a 7-2 record, on the verge of becoming ranked for the first time in what felt like 800 years, having just dispatched a truly abysmal Illinois squad 39-0. If PSU could stop the run, we wrote lo’ those many moons ago, then PSU would certainly win. Instead, Justin Jackson inexplicably hung 186 on us, despite Northwestern losing its QB in the 1st quarter. PSU lost its final four in a row to finish 7-6.
This year, friends, we’re dumping the 4-game loss thing, and the 7-6 record bit. But we’re keeping the same game plan: stop the Northwestern run. Stop. The. Run. Please. Since 2014, Northwestern is (21-1) when rushing for at least 150 yards. They’re just (2-17) when they don’t rush for 150. This is what the professional big data researchers call “a trend”.
Kill The Lights
What should you look for on Saturday in Evanston? You should look for Pat Fitzgerald pinning his offensive hopes on running the dang ball, despite fielding an overmatched offensive line. You should look for that, because that’s what Pat Fitzgerald does in every game, of every year.
Fielding a bunch of short, slow-footed 3-stars on the offensive line never mattered a lick to Fitzgerald. If the Cats couldn’t blow you off the football - and, they generally couldn’t - then they’d simply move the line of scrimmage left or right, and test your gap discipline.
Below is a gif from two years ago, with Northwestern backed up in its own end of the field, against a stout 2015 Penn State defensive line, all 4 of whom (Carl Nassib, Austin Johnson, Anthony Zettel, and Garrett Sickels) are currently on NFL rosters (which is a heuristic for “good at footballing”).
Northwestern skipped blocking Nassib, Johnson, and Zettel on their right, moved the line of scrimmage 8 yards to their left by pulling both guards, and blocked Troy Reeder, Jason Cabinda, and Marcus Allen instead. It was a wise choice. Along the way that Saturday, they gained 227 yards on the ground, despite allowing 10 tackles for loss to that DL, and losing QB Clayton Thorson to injury in the 1st quarter.
Of course, that 2015 Northwestern squad was ranked 21st nationally at the time, while the 2017 version of these Cats that our Lions will face ran 34 times for 25 yards at Wisconsin just four days ago. So - not quite as good. With Northwestern comparatively “off”, perhaps Fitzgerald changed his “find a way to run the ball” strategy since November 2015?
In short, that’s a big, fat nope. Hasn’t changed a bit - he’s gonna try to run the dang ball. However, these Cats have added an RPO element to that same pulling guards play, in an attempt to keep the MLB honest, as shown in the gif below. Beware the backside slant.
The longer, marginally more intriguing answer is this: while Northwestern rushed for only 25 net yards, QB Clayton Thorson was sacked 8 times, losing (-55) yards in the process - which comes off of the rushing yards total in the college foosball. Thus, instead of a pathetic 25 yards on 34 carries, it was more like a pathetic 80 yards on 34 carries. Still bad, but not as awful as it originally sounds, especially given Wisconsin’s penchant for defending manball.
The matchup to watch deals directly with those 8 sacks. Northwestern’s rotating two different right tackles, and they’re both having a really difficult time out there on the island. One is #65 Jared Thomas, a reserve sophomore guard. The other is #70, true freshman Rashawn Slater - which is a great last name for a right tackle, but it’s still a true freshman playing OT. Shareef Miller, feast your eyes on this soft edge:
That’s a 3-step drop (well, 2-and-a-hitch in shotgun spread parlance). When your QB gets whacked on a 3-step drop, you have pass protection issues. (Granted, this is not breaking news to any PSU fan who watched 2014 - 2015).
Hit The Lights
It doesn’t matter how many of your front seven might someday be playing on Sundays. Muscles and speed never hurts, but it’s not the thing. Rather, stopping the Northwestern run is about discipline, and trusting your teammates to do their jobs. You must read your keys, play your gap(s), and maintain your leverage. That, more than individual heroics, will stop the Cats’ run (which can be tricky).
It requires consistency, too, because Fitzgerald won’t be scared off by giving up a few dozen tackles for loss in the ground game. He’s stubborn. Of course, Fitzgerald has to be stubborn with his ground game, because if he starts slinging the ball on 36 consecutive downs, ala John Donovan, then Clayton Thorson’s gonna get murdered, ala Christian Mackleborg.
Anyhow - stop the run this week, boys, and you’ll take a 6-0 record into your bye.