It was an eventful off-season for Cal: coaching regime change, early draft declarations and a battle of untested quarterbacks. In contrast Northwestern won their first bowl game since the 1949 Rose Bowl (evidently a silent film), returns the head coach with the most wins in Wildcat history (Pat Fitzgerald has as many B1G conference wins at NW as Pappy Waldorf, who knew?), and will play two experienced quarterbacks without controversy.
The team once known as the Mildcats has risen to the upper echelon of the B1G and are ranked #22 in the preseason USA Today poll. I have kept their Gator Bowl victory on my DVR for 8 months in preparation for our first game and my first Breakdown this season (you can watch the game here). When I finally watched the game I found not just a well coached team that does not make mistakes but a team that takes advantage of their opponent's mistakes: breaking big plays or being a ball hawk defense. I was surprised by how individual effort by Wildcat players more than scheme led to the team's success in the bowl game.
Northwestern is no 3 yards and a cloud of dust B1G team, the Wildcats run a fast paced, no huddle offense (though nothing approaching Oregon or Cal this year). Their two quarterbacks senior Kain Colter (#2) and junior Trevor Siemian (#13) have very different skill sets but the offensive scheme does not change much based on who is in the game. Both split time last year and both are dangerous with the ball in their hands. Venric Mark (#5) is the big play threat. The senior brings speed and elusiveness to the running back position as well as special teams. He ran for 1366 yards last year on a 6.0 yards per carry, 12 TDs and averaging over 100 yards per game. Watch for Dan Vitale(#40), listed on the depth chart as SB (Slot Back), he is used in the backfield, split out as a wide receiver or as an H-back. Just a freshman last year, in the passing game he was used as a short yardage target or running seam routs down the hash marks. Look for Vitale to be featured even more against the Bears.
Any look at the Northwestern offense has to start with Kain Colter. Last year he had as many yards on the ground as through the air (872 yards passing, 891 yards rushing). While he can be a high effeciency short yardage passer, he will look to run if his first option is not available. The Wildcats will show an empty backfield with Colter in the game as he is always a running threat on his own.
Lets look at the following play. It is 3rd and 2 on Nowthwestern's first offensive possession. Mississippi State is in a 4-3 defense with a pre-snap blitz look. Northwestern is spread with trips receivers at the top of the screen and a lone receiver at the bottom with Venric Mark as the running back in the backfield.
Vitale (#40) is the primary target on this short yardage play. He goes in motion pre-snap and returns to his original position to expose what coverage Miss State is using; it is zone with a single deep safety. Below we can see the zones Miss State will cover. The outside Wildcat Receivers run Go routes to clear space underneath for a short yardage completion. The second WR at the top of the pic runs a Curl route while #40 heads for the first down marker in the flat. Venric Mark is the outlet receiver, he will sneak out of the backfield.
Miss State has rushed four including one blitzing linebacker and dropped a defensive end into zone coverage. Colter is staring down Vitale.
While the other receivers all look covered, the linebacker responsible for #40 and the flat stops dropping, maybe he is afraid that Colter will run. Vitale and Mark both come open.
Colter pumps and.... Brings the ball down to run. Too much green in front of him to resist. #40 finds a way into the play by throwing a down field block and Kain Colter shows off his moves.
Warning: players in this GIF may appear faster than they really are. (I had to change frame rate to keep the size down). When Colter decides to run, he does not hesitate. Running instead of passing on third down was a theme for Colter in the bowl game, watch to see if it continues against Cal.
Good news: Kain Colter is not Colin Kaepernick and Northwestern is not Nevada. And no one should know how to stop a running quarterback better than Andy Buh who faced Kaepernick in every Nevada practice.
Bad news: Colin Kaepernick was not the QB we know until his senior year and Colter is now a senior. Also, last year Wisconsin did not play Northwestern so Buh has never faced this offense before.
Trevor Siemian is sure to see time on Saturday night. He is a strong armed passer but don't be surprised to see him used in the option game and scrambling with a pass first attitude. Here is an example:
Siemian threw for over 1300 yards and only 3 interceptions and 6 touchdowns in limited time last year. He is a gunslinger who may, in his quest for more playing time, attempt to do too much. His bowl performance reflected this when he threw a bad interception.
This play, another 3rd and 2, with Siemian (#13) at quarterback and Venric Mark (#5) at running back shows how explosive the Northwestern running game can be. The Wildcats have two receivers up top, an H-back and Mark in the backfield and #40 lined up as a tight end. Miss State is in a 4-3 look with a deep safety.
Northwestern is running a read-option. Siemian will read the defensive end (in red) who will be unblocked and the player the QB will "read". If the End stays wide (to keep contain) then the QB will hand the ball off, if the DE crashes on the running back then the QB will keep and run to his left. Below are the blocking assignments, the H-back is responsible for contain on the right side of the line, #40 will block the only defender outside of the DE on the left. Whatever the Defensive End decides to do, there is little chance for Miss State to prevent a 2 yard gain.
At the mesh (the time that both quarterback and running back have their hands on the ball) the DE is being read. The quarterback makes the decision, to hand off or to keep.
The Defensive End stays wide and Siemian hands the ball of to Mark who heads to his right where the edge is being sealed for him. The linebackers take angles that make them easy to block and the safety (#30 the only unblocked defender on the right) underestimates Venric Mark's speed and as a result also takes a bad angle. The deep safety, #5 white, prevents a touchdown.
The key to Saturday's game is going to be execution. Northwestern won their bowl game because they forced 4 interceptions and committed just 2 penalties. Cal must avoid big mistakes: turnovers, penalties and blown assignments. Northwestern is an experienced team with a very successful year in their pocket. Cal is young, completely unknown and only has 2 weeks of spring ball and a month of training camp with the new system. After Saturday we will know a lot more and as Coach Dykes said, the goal is to be better each game of the season. I can't wait to see where we start.