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Know Your Enemy: Previewing the Northwestern Offense

We take an in-depth look at the Northwestern offense. Without Kain Colter and Venric Mark anchoring the running game, what should we expect to see from the Wildcats?

Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports

We're only two days away from the start of the season, Cal fans!  After last year's season was mysteriously cut short following Vince D'Amato's touchdown pass on the opening drive, we can finally see what this Sonny Dykes team is all about.  It's been a long, long time since we've seen some good Cal football, so I can understand if you're hesitant to get too excited about the season.  I was in that same boat until about a week ago.  I know many of you are eager for the season to begin, but if you're still feeling guarded about getting too excited about the season, check out this video.  I DARE YOU not to get excited about the Northwestern game after watching this.

I'M FIRED UP!  I am so glad the college football season is upon us again.

Northwestern is also excited for the offseason to end.  After rising to no. 16 in the rankings, Northwestern was on the verge of a big upset over Ohio State.  They had a 23-13 lead over the Buckeyes with under 5 minutes remaining in the third quarter.  Over the next 20 minutes Ohio State outscored Northwestern 27-7 and killed the Wildcats' momentum.  They lost seven games in a row before ending the season with their only conference win of the year, a 37-34 win over Illinois.  The disastrous slide last season left Northwestern with several questions during the offseason.  Of course, the unionization efforts served as further distraction.  And just recently, star running back Venric Mark decided to transfer and top receiver Christian Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury.  This is a team that desperately wants the offseason to end.

If you did not opt for an offseason lobotomy (complimentary for season ticket holders), you may remember that Northwestern ran a unique offense last season.  It was a rare gem of an offense that showed that a two-QB system could actually work.  QB Kain Colter was a dynamic running threat while Trevor Siemian was the team's passing QB.  Northwestern would use both QBs in the same drive and sometimes even use both during the same play.  With nagging injuries plaguing Kain Colter and star RB Venric Mark, the offense never quite blossomed like it did in 2012.  Further, the offense's lack of playmakers put the Wildcats in a tough position, which Bill Connelly succinctly describes:

But with almost no big-play threat whatsoever, Northwestern had to pull off eight or 10 snaps of error-free football to avoid falling behind schedule; that tended to be too difficult.

With Mark injured, the Wildcats struggled to produce big plays. They only had 18 plays of 30+ yards last season, good for 107th in the nation.  Fun fact: 4 of those plays came against Cal.  Forced to move the ball methodically down the field, Northwestern struggled as the season progressed.  They only averaged 18 points per game in conference play--that was worse than us!

Northwestern's offense is due for some major changes this season.  Whether that change is positive remains to be seen.  Kain Colter has graduated and Venric Mark will no longer be part of the team, which leaves Siemian as the team's undisputed leader of the offense.  Can Siemian shoulder the load as the sole quarterback? Will Northwestern find a playmaker or two on offense?  I'm not sure what to expect from this offense on Saturday, but it should retain some familiar concepts.

At the very least, we know we will see some familiar passing plays.  With Siemian operating as the pass-heavy QB for Northwestern, much of their passing playbook should stay intact.  Let's take a look at what to expect from them.



Our SBN brethren at Maize N Brew have an excellent overview of Northwestern's passing offense.  Although Northwestern frequently lined up four receivers in its two-QB system, Kain Colter would only look to pass to one or two of the receivers.  With better vision and a stronger arm, Trevor Siemian could hit any one of these receivers.  As a result, Siemian was more adept at attacking all areas of the field.  Colter would primarily throw to short/intermediate routes, but Siemian can hit screens, shallow routes, intermediate routes, and deep routes.  The middle of the field will have to be particularly disciplined to avoid being picked apart by Siemian.  Just thinking of discipline among the LBs and safeties is giving my Vietnam-style flashbacks to last season...

Let's look at how Northwestern may attack the middle linebacker:


The play is picking on a single defender, the LB. The dip route (dipping into the middle before breaking back out into the flat) keeps the LB flat footed and respecting the shallow cross. The WR likely being quicker and having better acceleration, then gets an even better jump when he breaks back outside. Behind that play, a WR is running a dig route. The QB is simply reading that LB. If the window opens up between LBs, hit the dig. If the LB stays in his zone, look for the dip. Note here that if the SS begins cheating up on the dig route, the go route by the #1 WR can be adjusted to more of a post/seam route, and the QB can just move his progression down field to the deep receiver.

I've created a gif of the above play.  Notice how the middle linebacker freezes up during the play.  This allows the outside receiver (top) to sneak into the cushion underneath the safeties.


Here's another look at how Siemian will attack the middle of the field:

But with Siemian in the game, the whole field is open. The LBs are much more threatened to make correct drops and gain depth. The safeties need to gain correct leverage on receivers. Here, you see a LB put in a bad position, still have pretty good coverage, and still get beat.


Here, the WRs are getting deeper than the LBs and picking on the safety. Motioning the RB out of the backfield essentially forces either a safety out of center field or a LB to cover a RB in space. To the play, the QB is reading the SS as the two posts split the safety. One attacks the middle of the field, the other the seam. Either way, in any sort of man coverage a WR will break open behind coverage. And, even if the defense backs into a zone look, the WRs will have cleared out the middle of the field for the #1 WR to run his dig route and settle in a void.

And here is that above play in gif form.  Watch the middle linebacker again.  He's too slow to keep up with the receiver and the safety is unable to provide help in time.  Result: touchdown.


While the above two plays have several intermediate routes, Northwestern isn't afraid to send everyone deep, especially when Siemian is the QB.  Expect these deeper routes to play a bigger role in the Northwestern playbook this weekend.

Although you can't see it due to ESPN's crappy camera operator, Northwestern has four receivers lined up (one on the bottom is cut off).


All the visible WRs run fairly deep routes (the one on the bottom is running backwards, for all I know).  Siemian gets the boundary side receiver (top) in one-on-one coverage as the safety gets stuck in no man's land.  Siemian is accurate enough to deliver a tough throw.


Despite the blitz, Siemian delivers an excellent pass.


Northwestern tries attacking the outside again here.



Fortunately the safety stays in position to assist with defending the pass.  Cal actually intercepts the pass.


One of the reasons these deeper routes is successful is that Northwestern runs many shallow passing plays to try to get the defense to overcommitt to defending those short and intermediate routes.

One thing Northwestern does is run a ton of rub routes to beat man coverage and then a lot of short and intermediate routes combined with quick, three step drop passes, to pick on zone defenders. Diagramed below is a simple hitch route.


Rather than threatening over top of the safeties or attacking the field vertically with well timed throws put into small windows, Colter is really only asked to throw vertically with plays that are designed to get the defense out of position. Because they throw the ball short so frequently, defenses begin to undercut the flat routes and cheat on other short passes, what that tends to mean is you get hit with the wheel route.

With Siemian at the helm, the passing portion of the Northwestern playbook will be wide open.  Let's hope Kaufman has his players ready.


Although Northwestern has a big playbook for their passing game, the Wildcats were not very productive through the air last season.

  • 227.2 yards per game (71st)
  • 7.1 yards per attempt (68th)
  • 129.18 QB rating (67th)

Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian's passing stats were roughly the same; neither clearly excelled over the other.  Their backup saw very little playing time and accumulated 0 yards and 1 interception on 2/5 passing.

Key Personnel

Obviously the key player in the passing game will be quarterback Trevor Siemian.  He can be a very dangerous quarterback, but he's the kind of QB who is either on or off in any given game.  Twice his QB rating was over 200 last season but it was below 100 on four occasions.  His accuracy also wavered, as he twice completed fewer than 40% of his passes, but completed more than 70% on three occasions.  On four occasions he had stellar averages of over 9 yards per passing attempt, but five times he had lousy averages around 4 or 5 yards per attempt.  And on one occasion it was right in the middle at 7.1.  He's capable of lighting up great opponents (as he did with Ohio State last year) and struggling against bad opponents (as he did against Maine last year).  Siemian can best be described as an inconsistent quarterback.

He has demonstrated that he can be a great QB, but he has some weaknesses.  He can be mistake-prone when under pressure and has a tendency to telegraph his throws by staring down his receivers.  He also lacks mobility, which will complicate the bread and butter of Northwestern's running game, the inside zone read (more on that in a little bit).

While Siemian is the key player on offense, things get murky after that, as the 'Cats are replacing Kain Colter and receivers Rashad Lawrence and Christian Jones.  Northwestern's most productive returning receiver is Tony Jones, who had 630 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns last season.  They have a deep WR corps, but they're lacking in experience and production. Cam Dickerson may play a larger role in the passing game.  He's a big WR whose size gives him a great advantage when smaller DBs are draped over him.  Northwestern fans have been waiting for USC transfer Kyle Prater to break out but he has not yet lived up to expectations.  He won a starting role this season and may have turned a corner this offseason.

Unfortunately, superback Dan Vitale also returns this season.  Other than his 100+ yard game against Cal, he was fairly quiet last season.  He accumulated 382 yards and 3 TDs.  Despite being a big 'un, he's a threat in the receiving game.


He's very tough to bring down and will burn defenses that fail to corral him.

Pass protection should improve for two reasons: 1) all five starters return and 2) Kain Colter is gone.  Although Northwestern was 111th in the nation with 2.92 sacks allowed per game, pass protection was better with Siemian at the helm.

Their pass protection numbers were awful, but a lot of that had to do with Colter managing to get sacked 16 times in 98 pass attempts, a Braxton Millerian sack rate. Siemian still got sacked six percent of the time, but his presence alone will make the sack rates drop. So could an efficient run game and lots of play-action opportunities.

The interior of the line should be rather solid, but the tackles are question marks.  Paul Jorensen was decent last year and will attempt to hold down the blind side while Eric Olson will anchor the RT position.  In an offense filled with uncertainties, it's unclear whether the return of a struggling line will bring improvement or not.

Speaking of the O-line, let's talk about the run game.


Northwestern used a wide variety of running plays last season: inside zone read, outside zone read, speed option. To be effective, these plays require a mobile quarterback.  Trevor Siemian is not a mobile quarterback.  So what's going to happen to the Northwestern running game?  That is a very good question and one which will be answered more definitively on Saturday.


Northwestern likes to run the ball.  Check out this plot from Bill's Northwestern preview.


They run more often than average on standard downs.  They run more often than average on passing downs.   The only time they don't like running is when they're losing in garbage time.  Let us hope that is a scenario they face on Saturday.

They're pretty good at run blocking too. (Again from Bill's preview)

This doesn't really help in terms of big plays in the passing game, but Northwestern should have one of the nation's better run-blocking fronts in 2014. The Wildcats ranked 23rd in Adj. Line Yards last fall despite the lack of a field stretcher, and the entire two-deep returns intact. That's three senior starters and seven players with starting experience (99 career starts).

Without a mobile quarterback, Northwestern will probably not run much of their speed option and with Mark's transfer, the outside zone read may not appear too often.  Their inside zone reads may remain, with a bit of a twist.  I'll get to the twist in a moment.  First, let's understand the basics of the inside zone read.

Our main man Liffey Bear broke down Northwestern's inside zone read last season.

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.


Here is Northwestern running the play for a TD against Cal last season.  The mesh happens so fast that I don't think Siemian is even reading the defense.  He's going to hand off no matter what.  The defense knows that too, as no one even looks at Siemian as he runs towards the short side of the field.


The reason the zone read is so successful is that the QB has options: he can hand off or he can keep the ball, depending on how the unblocked DE/LB reacts.  Usually Northwestern hands off the a RB.  If the QB keeps the ball, however, he's going to need to run.  Siemian isn't the greatest runner.  Accordingly, I'm expecting Northwestern to design the play such that Trevor Siemian has some options more suited to his skills.

Here is another inside zone read. Okay, it's not actually a zone read, as no unblocked defender is being read, but let's pretend it is (Siemian's body language says it is).  Keep an eye on the receivers at the top of the screen.


On normal running plays they should be blocking their defenders.  That's what the WRs do in the first gif and that's what the receiver at the bottom of the screen does in this gif.  In this play the receivers at the top of the screen are not blocking defenders.  In fact, they react as if Siemian is going to throw a screen pass.  One takes a few steps back while the other gets in position to occupy the DB.  THIS is how I expect Northwestern to run the zone read this season.  They're going to read a defender and hand off to the RB or opt to throw a short pass, such as a screen.  This is perfectly suited for Siemian's skillset.  He cannot run, but he can certainly deliver these kinds of simple passes.

They may also try this with the outside zone read.  I don't expect Northwestern to run much outside zone read due to the absence of the speedy Venric Mark and their struggles at tackle, but it's possible.


  • 172.42 yards per game (62nd)
  • 4.08 yards per attempt (80th)

  • Like the passing game, this is nothing special.  Northwestern averaged fewer than 3 yards per carry in half their conference games last season and only exceeded 4 yards per carry twice in conference play.  That's bad.  With the absence of Kain Colter (489 yards, 5 TDs), Mike Trumpy (370 yards, 2 TDs), and Venric Mark (1,366 yards, 12 TDs in 2012), Northwestern's running gave has some big holes to fill.

    Key Personnel

    Fortunately for the Wildcats, they have several athletes who are willing to fill those holes in the running game.  Treyvon Green--yes, the same Green who ran for 129 yards and 2 TDs against us last season--is the starting running back and should build on a productive 2013 season.  He ran for 736 yards and 8 TDs on an impressive 5.33 yards per carry.  At 5'10" and 210 lbs, he's a big, physical runner.  His co-starter is Warren Long, who spent much of spring as the team's first-team running back while Venric Mark and Treyvon Green were out with injuries.  Long is a traditional, between-the-tackles running back, much like Green.

    Like our Bears, Northwestern has a couple superstar freshman who could see the field.  4-star recruit Justin Jackson is not particularly fast, but he has good vision and an excellent ability to change direction.  We may also see 3-star RB Solomon Vault, who is a speedster.  He runs a 10.66-second 100m and is a great receiver; think of him as a Shane Vereen-type player.

    Finally we have RB Stephen Buckley, who is coming off a knee injury.  He is arguably the team's fastest RB (although he hasn't raced Vault) and Sippin' On Purple Inside NU predicted that he could be the team's most productive back, even before Mark decided to transfer.


    Before we finish up, we have a couple miscellaneous stats to review.

    • 26.2 points per game (83rd)
    • 399.6 yards per game (73rd)
    • 39.89% third down conversions (66th)
    • 52.17% red zone touchdowns (104th)

    These are all thoroughly mediocre stats. Sure they're mostly better than our stats, but this isn't the Cal offense preview, is it?  Anyway, these are all average to slightly below average.  That red zone offense is a particularly lousy number.

    • 34.8 penalty yards per game (13th)
    • 20 turnovers (51st)
    • 2.92 sacks allowed per game (111th)
    • 7.25 tackles for loss allowed per game (115th)

    They're good at avoiding penalties and decent at avoiding turnovers, but they were among the worst teams in the nation in negative yardage plays.


    The Northwestern offense is coming off a very disappointing season, converting back to a one-QB system, and replacing several key cogs on offense.  This team has plenty of questions going into Saturday's game.  They will pass the ball more than they did last season due to Colter's departure.  Unfortunately for the Wildcats, this will likely come at the expense of their flexibility in the running game.  They may retain aspects of their zone read, but in a format that better fits Siemian's skillset.  Northwestern will use playaction and sets of shallow passes to try to get the defense to take its eyes off the deep routes.  If the running game and short passing game gets going, look for Northwestern to start attacking the gap between the linebackers and safeties.

    For Cal to be successful, the Bears need to force Northwestern into third and long situations.  Because Northwestern utilizes quick passes, a blitz-heavy attack will not necessarily be the most successful approach.  We need to rely on solid reads from the middle of our defense.  Northwestern will try to march steadily down the field 8-10 yards at a time.  Cal might be best off waiting for Northwestern to make a mistake (yes, the ol' bend but don't break defense).  Northwestern will struggle if put into situations where their dynamic offense becomes one dimensional.  If we put Northwestern in tough situations, the sloppy, desperate Siemian may show up and start slinging interceptions.  That would make for a fine afternoon.  A fine afternoon, indeed.