clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Know Your Enemy: Previewing the Northwestern Wildcats Offense

New, comments

This is an experienced offense featuring a dual-threat quarterback, a passing quarterback, and one of the nation's best running backs. Oh yeah, they run zone read, pistol, AND triple option. Terrified yet?

These two combined to run the ball thirty times per game last season.
These two combined to run the ball thirty times per game last season.

[Disclaimer: Past performance does not predict future results. Last week's patsy may become this week's juggernaut, and vice versa. The quarterback is liable to go Masoli on us, the running back may do his best Chauncey Washington impression, the receivers will channel their inner Paul Richardson, and, of course, the tight end will almost certainly turn into Ed Dickson. Prepare for surprises--both good and bad--each game.]

It's a fine, fine day, Cal fans. Today marks the beginning of those glorious four and a half months that we call football season. We're days away from the debut of the Bear Raid as we take on one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Our first opponent is no. 22 Northwestern, led by 8th year coach Pat Fitzgerald. His Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State made him the winningest coach in Northwestern football history, and for good reason. He has a tough, disciplined team. I've been mighty impressed with what I've seen from NU while putting together this preview. This is a doozy of an offense. Before we get into the preview, I'll first say a few words about how we will run these previews this season.

The previews on offense will be broken down into three sections: scheme, personnel, and statistics. We will start off by looking at what the opponent does on offense: is it a run-heavy offense? a pass-happy offense? what formations and plays do they like? do they have any quirks? Then we will see who is running this offense. Are they experienced? How did they perform last season? Finally, we will look at some statistics. We'll start off looking at last year's stats, but as our opponents start playing more games in 2013, we'll begin to incorporate those stats as well. Like I said, this Northwestern offense is a doozy. Strap in, because we're starting off at full speed.

(Note: if you haven't read LiffeyBear's scouting report on Northwestern, you certainly should)


"When Kain Colter lines up as quarterback, ten thousand safeties dare not budge" -Sun Tzu

At Pac-12 Media Day in 2011, Jeff Tedford said his ideal offense was "multiple." He wanted a system that runs enough plays to keep the opponent guessing. Zone read, option, playaction, power running, screens, four verticals--he wanted the opponent to prepare for anything. While we never saw Tedford's post-2011 offense fulfill his grand vision, we will see something similar on Saturday. This Northwestern offense epitomizes what Tedford said he wanted to achieve. This is a fast, versatile, and extremely disciplined team--everything we hoped the Cal offense would look like the past couple years.

Northwestern is a run-first offense; 61.7% of their plays last season were run plays. They have many styles of running: inside zone, outside zone, zone read, speed option, and even the triple option. Let's break 'em down.

Northwestern's base running scheme relies on inside zone blocking. This sets them up nicely for the zone read. That's right, we're going to face plenty of zone read on Saturday night. Fortunately Northwestern mostly runs a vanilla zone read: the offense leaves a defensive end unblocked. While the QB meshes with the RB, the QB reads that DE. If the DE looks like he's going after the RB, the QB will keep the ball and run with it. If the DE goes after the QB, the RB gets the handoff.

The Wildcats occasionally use outside zone blocking, primarily for their speed option. Unlike inside zone blocking, where the ball carrier runs between the offensive tackles, outside zone runs typically feature the carrier running wide, outside the tackles. Like this:



The principle is similar to the zone read. The QB will read the unblocked defender (either a DE or an outside linebacker) on the edge. If he crashes down for the QB, the QB pitches to the RB. If the defender moves towards the RB, the QB keeps the ball and scampers around the edge.

Northwestern also uses some traditional, downhill power running. Like the Tedford offense of old, this relies typically on a pulling guard (the guard leaves his position and moves over to plow through the hole where the ball carrier will run) as a lead blocker. They may also use an H-back as an extra lead blocker. While the Wildcats don't often use their power running, they will rely on it during short-yardage and goal-line situations.

In case that's not enough for you, the Wildcats also run a triple option (you see what I mean when I describe this offense as "multiple"?). The triple option is a combination of the zone read and speed option (we'll see an example below).

Now that we have some background on the NW running game, let's see what it looks like in action.

This is their base look (albeit with an H-back to the right of the QB). They like to run the inside zone read from this formation.



They'll line up in a standard pistol.Nuvuimarkpitchpresnap_medium


And sometimes they'll even line up in this abomination. Nuvmichpreplayschmidtdive_medium


After three years of Pendergast, this formation horrifies me. This is the pistol formation from which they run a triple option. The QB can keep the ball, hand off to the back to his right, or pitch it to the back behind him. They like to read the circled DE to determine who gets the ball. Of course, the QB can also opt to pass from this formation, either to one of the receivers downfield or to a back in a screen. This is an exceptionally versatile formation, a worthy adversary to Cal's equally versatile diamond formation.

Despite all this information about their running game, they do pass the ball. QB Kain Colter handles the run-heavy offense while QB Trevor Siemian operates the pass offense. Of course, Colter is also an adept passer.

Northwestern usually lines up 4 receivers, although they occasionally empty the backfield and line up 5 receivers. Their passing concepts seem pretty simple. When lining up 4 receivers, the routes on the right side of the field often mirror the routes on the left. Like Cal, they have both inside receivers (tight end types) and outside receivers (typical receivers). Commonly the inside receivers run one type of route while the outside receivers run another type. Usually they have one set of receivers run a deep route while the other set runs a shallow route (hitch, curl, etc.). Sometimes the outside receivers run the deep routes, sometimes the inside receivers run the deep routes.

The Wildcats also utilize bubble screens, crossing routes, and an occasional play-action.

They are fond of baiting the defense into biting on a pass play. Let's see how they do this.

Even when they line up in an obvious passing formation (perhaps, on an obvious passing down), they will run the ball. When Kain Colter is the QB, he is always a running threat. Here's an example of their empty backfield look.Tamublitzpresnap_medium


To see a similar 5 WR look in action, check out the clip below (start it around 40 seconds in). Northwestern lines up five receivers. One of the inside receivers moves over to expose the defense's man coverage. Now that he knows the defense is in man, QB Kain Colter drops back as if he's going to pass. The receivers run vertical routes to open up the field for Colter, who scampers 20 years for an easy third down conversion.

Iowa Football Film Review - Man Defense vs. Kain Colter (via Nicholas Moffitt)

We've examined their schemes in considerable depth. Now let's get to know the players running these schemes.


* denotes returning starter


*Kain Colter: 6' 0", 195 lbs, Senior

*Trevor Siemian: 6' 3", 210 lbs, Junior

Kain Colter does it all. He's a solid passer, he's a great runner, and he even lines up as receiver. He will be the primary quarterback for the Wildcats. He's fast and elusive when carrying the ball; I would not be surprised to see Cal assign a safety to spy him for most of the game. While Colter excels in the running game and with short passes, he does not have a strong downfield passing game. Fortunately the 'Cats have Siemian as their pass-happy quarterback. While Colter is the dual-threat QB, Siemian mostly passes. He can't run as well as Colter, but he can make some plays with his feet.


  • Passing, running, receiving...these QBs combine to make a tenacious, three-headed monster on offense
  • Northwestern has not figured out how to synthesize the two into some kind of super-quarterback

Running backs

*Venric Mark: 5' 8", 175 lbs, Senior

*Mike Trumpy: 6' 1", 210 lbs, Senior

Former wide receiver Venric Mark is an extremely versatile athlete. He will run the ball (obviously), catch passes, return, punts, and return kicks. He tallied over 2,000 all-purpose yards last season, including 1,366 rushing yards and 12 rushing TDs. He broke the 100-yard mark 8 times last season and was named to the all B1G second-team. He will not always outrun the defense, but he is quick, elusive, and durable. He reminds me of Shane Vereen.

Backup RB Mike Trumpy used to have the starting role until Mark proved to be too valuable to keep off the field. At 210 lbs, Trumpy is a great complement to the smaller Mark in goal-line and short yardage situations (that is, when they don't have Cain run the ball). He has had durability issues in the past, however.


  • Mark is arguably the best RB in the Big Ten conference
  • Exceptionally versatile


  • May be held back by the inexperienced offensive line

Outside Receivers

*Tony Jones (X-receiver): 6' 0", 195 lbs, Junior

Rashad Lawrence (Z-receiver): 6' 2", 190 lbs, Senior

None of the Northwestern receivers were especially productive last season. The passing game spread the wealth around rather than focusing on any one or two receivers. Tony Jones led the team with 4 TDs and was second with 335 yards. With explosive speed, Jones is Northwestern's deep threat. Fortunately for us, the downfield passing game isn't a big part of the Northwestern offense. Fellow outside receiver Rashad Lawrence was a serviceable backup last season as he caught 34 passes for 321 yards. Backup X-receiver and USC transfer Kyle Prater is exceptionally talented, but he has not been very productive so far at NU. At 6' 5", 215, he will be a handful whenever he is on the field. Backup Z-receiver Cameron Dickerson has good size (6' 2", 200 lbs) and athleticism, but was minimally involved with the passing game last year.


  • They have all the tools to be productive receivers


  • No one had more than 412 yards or 4 TDs last season

Tight Ends





  • While you were celebrating, Ed Dickson scored another touchdown.

Inside Receivers

Mike Jensen (Y-receiver): 6' 0", 190 lbs, Senior

*Christian Jones (H-receiver): 6' 3", 225 lbs, Junior

While the NU offense does not use tight ends, it does have inside receivers (much like our Bear Raid offense). Christian Jones led all NU receivers with 35 receptions and 412 yards last season. He's a big, physical target but he lacks gamebreaking speed. Mike Jensen only tallied 2 receptions last season. He has never been a productive player and does not seem primed to have a big senior season. Their backups Andrew Scanlan and Cermak Bland (that's an unfortunate name) have no receptions in their careers.


  • Christian Jones is arguably the team's best receiver


  • After Jones, there is almost no returning productivity.

Super Back

*Dan Vitale: 6' 2", 225 lbs, Sophomore

Ah, the super back. He is part fullback, part tight end, all power. As a true freshman last year Dan Vitale had an immediate impact on the Northwestern offense. He earned the starting job during fall camp and went on to earn a spot on ESPN's All-Freshman Big Ten Team. He also won the team's Offensive Newcomer of the Year award. Surprisingly, he only had one carry last season. He seems like a terrific short-yardage option. He was well integrated into the passing game, however, as he tallied 28 receptions for 288 yards and 2 TDs. He may be a big'un, but he is surprisingly fast and elusive. See the following:



  • Big, physical, great safety valve in passing plays


  • Despite his size, he has not been integrated into the running game

Offensive Line

*Jack Konopka (left tackle): 6' 5", 300lbs, Junior

Geoff Mogus (left guard): 6' 5", 295 lbs, Sophomore

*Brandon Vitabile (center): 6' 3", 300lbs, Junior

Ian Park (right guard): 6' 4", 295 lbs, RS Freshman

Paul Jorgensen (right tackle): 6' 6", 295 lbs, Junior

With plenty of talent and experience at the other positions, the offensive line is Northwestern's biggest concern this fall.

The offensive line has an interesting mix of experience. The two returning starters are young but experienced while the backups have mostly seen action in garbage time and in special teams. After converting from superback following his freshman season, LT Jack Konopka started all 13 games last season. Brandon Vitabile has started all 26 games of his career at center. He's on the Rimington Award watch list, given to the nation's best center each season. How well Mogus, Park, and Jorgensen perform in their first start remains to be seen. Their performance will dictate the performance of the Northwestern offense.

Overall, these guys aren't huge, but they're all athletic and quick. Konopka and Vitabile have proven themselves to be solid run-blockers.


  • Experienced at the two most important positions on the line


  • Youth, inexperience, lack of size


Key Player Stats

Kain Colter

  • Passing: 872 yards, 67.8% completion percentage, 5.8 yards per passing attempt, 8TD 4 INT
  • Rushing: 894 yards, 5.3 yards per carry, 12 TDs
  • Receiving: 16 receptions, 169 yards

Trevor Siemian: 1312 yards, 58.7% completion percentage, 6.0 yards per attempt, 6 TD, 3 INT

Those yards per passing attempts really stand out. Those are exceptionally low numbers (7.0 is decent, 7.5 is good, 8.0 is great, anything higher is excellent). Normally a low YPA is an indicator of a subpar QB. Their completion percentages and TD-interception ratios are good. Instead, this low YPA demonstrates how little the Northwestern offense relies on deep passes.

Venric Mark: 1366 yards, 6.0 yards per carry, 12 TDs; 20 receptions, 104 yards, 1 TD

We are fortunate that Sonny Dykes cares so much about special teams because Venric Mark is a dangerous returner. He averaged a whopping 18.7 yards per punt returned and returned 2 (out of 16) for touchdowns. The Bears need to ensure that our punts are fair caught or downed by our team. With Sonny Dykes' penchant for attempting fourth downs, punting will hopefully not be a major issue.

Team Stats

Finally we'll take a look at some of the team's offensive statistics from last season.

  • 31.7 points per game (42nd nationally)
  • 225.5 rushing yards per game (19th); 4.93 yards per carry (29th); 31 rushing TDs (25th)
  • 169 passing yards per game (110th); 121.37 passing efficiency (89th); 6.0 yards per passing attempt (111th); 62.6% completion (40th)
  • 394.6 total yards per game (63rd)
What do these stats tell us? The Wildcats have an offense that is productive, but not elite. This isn't Oregon we're facing. They are reasonably efficient when running the ball. They're not as efficient passing the ball. This is not because they can't complete their passes; instead, this is by design. They Wildcats do not throw the ball downfield very often, not even when Siemian is in the game. If we can force them into third and unmanageable (and prevent Colter from running for the third down), we will be in good shape.
  • 15 turnovers (14th fewest)
  • 16 sacks allowed (24th fewest); 74 tackles for loss allowed (75th)
  • 50.5 penalty yards per game (58th)
The Wildcats do not turn the ball over, but they do expose themselves to negative yardage plays. They are susceptible to tackles for loss and should be even more vulnerable due to offensive line attrition. They are average in terms of penalty yardage.
  • 45.92% third down conversions (29th)
  • 59.65% red zone visits converted to touchdowns (75th); 57 total red zone visits (34th)

The Wildcats are solid in third down situations, in part thanks to plays like the one we saw above where Colter baits the defense into defending the pass. While they were adept at moving into the red zone, their offense occasionally sputtered when it moved into the red zone, perhaps due to the more crowded field. Many of Northwestern's plays are predicated on spreading out the field vertically--that's much tougher in the red zone.

  • 166 10+ yard plays from scrimmage (82nd); 50 20+ yard plays (82nd); 19 30+ yard plays (98th)
  • 78.9% of passing plays went for fewer than 10 yards. This is an ABSURD number. This number is around 50-55% for most teams and around 60% for Sonny Dykes last year. Even Mike Leach's offense didn't break 70%. This offense DOES NOT throw the ball downfield.

These are some interesting stats. These tell us that Northwestern is the kind of offense that beats you in a war of attrition. This isn't an Oregon team that waits for you to blow an assignment so they can score a 60-yard TD. This offense moves steadily and methodically down the field. Those passing stats are downright bizarre. I haven't calculated that measure for all FBS teams, but I would not be surprised if Northwestern is in the bottom five in percentage of 10+ yard receptions.


We've covered plenty of material today: what have we learned? Northwestern has an extremely versatile offense that operates most efficiently when it runs the ball. They have more running schemes than most teams; they run inside zone reads, outside zone reads, from the pistol formation, power, and triple option. QB Kain Colter and RB Venric Mark will do most of the damage on the ground. Fortunately for us, they are replacing three starters on the offensive line. How well these new starters perform will dictate how well this Wildcat offense moves down the field. The pass-oriented Trevor Siemian will see some time at QB. When the Wildcats opt to pass, they rarely throw long bombs downfield. Instead they will run bubble screens, slants, curls, crossing patterns, and other short-yardage plays. Although this is a spread offense, they are not well equipped to exploit our lack of depth at defensive back. Their strengths play directly into the strengths of our defense: the front seven. If the D clogs the running lanes and stays disciplined, they have a chance at slowing down this offense.

Bonus! Third Down Plays: Run or Pass?

Okay, we're not done yet. I found an intriguing stat about the difference between how Colter and Siemian operate on third downs.

Third down and...

4-6 yards 7-9 yards 10+ yards
Siemian passes 19 attempts 15 attempts 15 attempts
Colter passes 10 attempts 12 attempts 12 attempts
Siemian rushes 2 attempts 0 attempts 4 attempts
Colter rushes 12 attempts 12 attempts 3 attempts
Mark rushes 4 attempts 1 attempt 2 attempts

No matter the distance, Siemian is much, much more likely to pass than run on third down. Colter, meanwhile, is equally likely to run or pass when the Wildcats face fewer than 10 yards for the conversion. Not until he has to cover 10+ yards does he start to pass the ball. When you consider how rarely the NU passes cover 10+ yards, 3rd and 10+ is a very difficult situation for the Wildcats.

Okay, I promise we're done now. Go Bears!