Schell Game: MANBALL, The 2013 NU Offensive Attack

This season’s version of Northwestern’s especially multiple offensive attack thus far features a stark departure from years past. In place of the highly possession-focused, short-pass-focused attack, Northwestern University now presents to you MANBALL. The Northwestern-Cal game demonstrated that no longer must NU rely on a scrappy, quick quarterback with a short passing game to defeat a highly athletic BCS team.

Instead, Northwestern’s personnel strengths have now evolved to the point to where the offense can line up with you, announce its intentions, and steamroll high-level competition. Mind you, this demonstration of firepower took place without its best two players as so chosen by ESPN, including one All-American (punt returner). And I consider this a relatively sloppy effort, which likely masks Northwestern’s true potential.

That is not Northwestern’s fifth string running back lined up in the backfield, it’s actually Chuck Norris, masquerading as Treyvon Green.  And…

FACT: The chief export of Treyvon Green?  Pain.

Northwestern pioneered the spread offense, which has proliferated through the ranks of college football. The triangular growth of the spread offense in college football originates back in 2000, when Northwestern tallied more points than any other team in the illustrious gridiron history of the University of Michigan. This event took place at night, on national television, which in 2000 meant a great deal. College football watchers of all stripes paid close attention to the seminal 2000 Michigan-Northwestern contest.

Jump to last year, when Northwestern became one of the first to deploy a creative offset wishbone adaptation of the pistol formation, mutations of which we now see popping up in college stadiums across the country. The offset wishbone pistol holds incredible potential for diverse play-calling, blending elements of the spread offense passing game and the wishbone triple option offense. However, against all expectations, to beat a talented Cal defense, Mr. Pat Fitzgerald channeled his own inner Chuck Norris.

Fitz unleashed Treyvon Green in a downhill mano y mano display of shock and awe. No need to run the triple option, just give Treyvon Green the ball, he will take seven Golden Bears with him. MANBALL, presented by Coach Fitzgerald: your 2013 Northwestern offense.

FACT: Treyvon Green has a Golden Bear carpet in his room. The bear isn’t dead, it is just afraid to move.

MANBALL sets up so, so many good things. Remember the rumors that Mr. Colter would line up as a running back? Sure, the potential for outside playmaking in space blew our collective NU fanbase mind. But, the defenses could theoretically respond by opting for a quicker package to enable more efficient tackling in space. Everyone already knew about Mr. Colter’s and Mr. Mark’s elusive sets of skills.

While interesting, the prospect of expanding the roles Messrs. Mark and Colter into a dual RB set, while intimidating, did not add another dimension to our known, lightning quick option offense.  Not so with MANBALL.

MANBALL forces defenses to stay home in the box and prepare for a missile in the form of a man who will happily taxi you and six other defenders for a trip six yards closer to, or more likely into, your endzone.

Imagine this:  a fleet-footed Mr. Mark lined up to the right, dynamic rush-first Mr. Colter or passing ace Mr. Trevor Siemian at quarterback, with earth-moving, wrecking ball force of terror Treyvon Green firmly established at running MANBALL back. . . Each of those weapons has the potential to terrorize opposing defenses by their own disparate qualities.  Northwestern’s offensive potential, once fully unleashed, is of epic proportion.

FACT: When Treyvon Green does a pushup, he isn’t lifting himself up, he’s pushing the Earth down.

The establishment of Treyvon Green as a threat to carry a ton of men six yards into the endzone, as he did in NU’s last touchdown of the game, could stand as the single most important development unlocking Northwestern’s offensive potential in 2013.

Quick Recap Note: Last week I posited that shutting down Biggelow represented the key to a successful outcome. The first Cal offensive drive, needless to say, had me worried (Biggelow had 55 yards rushing en route to a Cal touchdown during Cal’s first drive).   However, the Cats’ rushing D stiffened up as the game progressed, which I believe the most important factor in the Wildcats’ win.

I predicted that Goff would not catch up to the speed of the game.  He did throw three picks, so I think that partially came true. But I admit that I erred by greatly underestimating Goff. For an eighteen year old, he had incredible poise under pressure and threw a beautiful ball. I will certainly follow his progress through the fall. When he returns to Evanston next year, none of us should so carelessly overlook his potential as I did.

More importantly, given that our own Matt Alviti was an even more highly touted recruit than Goss, and will have an extra redshirt year to develop in Northwestern’s more complex offense, my excitement level is through the roof for our future offensive production.

On to the breakdown of a few plays:

Offset Pistol Power (MANBALL). 

Welcome to MANBALL. Northwestern accomplishes MANBALL by lining up in an amalgamation of pistol, wishbone, and full house formation into one set. This allows for, at a minimum, the following benefits: shotgun snap, which permits our quarterbacks an extra second of time in the passing game; the wishbone look, which creates exceptional opportunities for misdirection in the option game; and of course, the downhill running game more often seen in a I or power I look (MANBALL).   Today, I will focus on the latter.

The basic formation. Note the defensive alignment shading to the strength (in defensive parlance, strong right) to the defense:


The offensive line blocks left, while Siemian opens to his left. Note what the quarterback’s opening to the left, and the line’s blocking to the left, does to the linebackers (circled) — they run to their right, away from the eventual direction of the play. One bad first step by a linebacker, as we shall soon see, creates ample opportunities for running room for the Cats’ running backs.

Meanwhile, NU’s left offset back, Dan Vitale, slips from left to right.


Note the defensive line on a straight slant to the right. Vitale prepares for an opportunity to either kick out or log block (pin the defensive end/linebacker in) the defensive end Chris McCain to create a bounce out opportunity for Chuck Norris Mr. Treyvon Green.


McCain reacts at the last second to the play coming his way, so Vitale attempts to kick out block, while Mr. Green correctly reads his block, cuts off of the blocker’s gluteus, and attacks what seems to be a non-existent hole.


Uh-oh, nothing there. McCain beats the kick-out block coming across to preserve outside containment. Green smartly pushes the pile forward for what would be a 2-3 yard gain for a lesser back. . .


Except Trevyon Green is not a lesser back. And Northwestern’s new offensive paradigm is aptly described as MANBALL. And…

FACT:  Treyvon Green can pull a hat out of a rabbit.

Watch as Mr. Green lowers his shoulder to fly through and beyond a pack of hapless Cal defenders.


Mr. Green explodes through the pack on his way to paydirt:

An even more impressive rear angle shows a play worthy of Chuck Norris. Here you can see Vitale come across from the left with the kickout block, and the defensive end preparing to maintain outside contain.


You can actually see the intended hole open up to the right behind Vitale’s power block. Green nobly chose the more difficult path, in a display of prowess.  No hole whatsoever.


Then, like Moses parting the angry waters, Mr. Green blasts his way through mere mortal defenders as he proceeds into daylight. A true miracle to behold.


Thus, the clearest evidence we have that Treyvon Green is actually Chuck Norris.


Later on in the game, Mr. Green would run a similar play for an approximately 50 yard gain down the right sideline.



The main thing I want to point out here is Mr. Green’s outstanding lateral step to get outside, which is a very, very difficult thing to coach. The defense is sucked in and he quickly bounces outside:




Did you see Treyvon Green slow down to cover up the ball?   NO.   That was an illusion.


FACT:  If Treyvon Green is running late, time better slow the hell down.

There you have it, Northwestern’s 2013 offense: MANBALL. I would be remiss if I neglected to break down one more play this week, so. . .

The Shovel Option.

On the very first play of the game, Northwestern ran my absolute favorite play: the shovel option. Thus, I could not refrain from breaking it down this week. I would otherwise have broken down the double post combination route plays out of the spread then the trips formations, which Northwestern executed beautifully in successive plays to Christian Jones at about the eight-minute mark in the second quarter. I will return to the double post combination at some point in the future, as it presently seems an important mainstay route combination of our offense (I expect that the Maine game will provide an opportune moment for me to reach into my back pocket and dissect the double post, as opposed to the simple dive/iso plays we shall run ad nauseum FACT: Treyvon Green already thought of that.).

For now, onward with the shovel option.


Formation:  Base Spread with the superback (Vitale) in a wing position. In addition to the shovel pass, this formation sets up an inside zone read (note the relative depth of the running back, one-yard behind the quarterback as opposed to a horizontal set-up, which would indicate outside zone read), a lead play to the left with superback Dan Vitale lead blocking, or a variety of pass options.

Instead, to my delight,  offensive coordinator Mr. Mick McCall chose the pitch/shovel option.

The running back starts in a lateral/backward trajectory away from the quarterback to set up a pitch relationship. Most defenses center in on either the pitch man or the quarterback. In Northwestern’s dynamic option attack, a defensive coordinator would likely very much regret not assigning a specific player to each Venric Mark and Kain Colter exploding out of the backfield during an option assault.

Here, we can see by the angles taken in the initial steps by the defensive end and outside linebacker that their responsibilities are Mark (RB) and Colter (QB), respectively. Those relationships are crudely annotated by a baby blue dotted line, representing the whining baby nature of at least several Cal fans (more on that later in this post). The routes taken by Mark and Vitale have been depicted by purple arrows.

Note right guard Ian Park (circled) pulling to lead block through the hole. I encourage you to pay attention to this block in future games, as this particular play’s success largely depends on its effectiveness. (I would argue that the best way to shut down NU’s option attack is to blow back the defensive line to impede the paths not only of NU’s ball-carriers, but also especially our lead blockers.)


Colter could choose to laterally pitch outside to Mark, always a wise decision, given his peculiar set of football characteristics that somehow reflect the most distinctive features of a cheetah, a hummingbird and a chipmunk combined. Unfortunately for the boys in blue, they have overlooked Vitale (circled).  The consequence of such negligence is that the Cal defense will overrun Vitale. In this instance, Colter equally wisely chooses to forward-pitch to Northwestern’s largely ignored superback.


Vitale (SB) receives Colter’s (QB) pitch and cuts off an excellent block delivered by redshirt freshman Ian Park, our valiantly pulling RG (circled) who clears the way for Vitale by punching the defensive end in the face.

Smash boom pow.

This block is merely one of many examples of an overall excellent performance by Park throughout the contest.


Vitale, importantly, cuts inside against the flow of the defense and ambulates 25 yards downfield. Note the late response by the gentleman in blue who initially had the unsavory task of covering Mark (circled), who now must change direction and attempt to tackle Vitale before he scores a damaging gain. For naught.


First down and more, purple.

One of my favorite features of the shovel pass is that it minimizes the risk of fumble. A forward-pitched shovel pass, if dropped, has zero consequence (assuming the defense does not intercept the pass in air). The ball pitched forward, when falling to the ground, merely stands as an incomplete pass. In contrast, a laterally pitched option, if dropped, is a live ball, dangerously ripe for scooping and scoring by the defense. (My apologies if this “Football 101” talk is below your gridiron aptitude, I am still learning my audience).

Strategically, especially at the high school level where I operate, minimization of the risk of fumble during an option attack should not be overlooked in importance.  This is particularly so when facing more physical, speedy and disruptive defenses.

Permit me a sidenote. Vitale has proven himself Northwestern’s most consistent opportunity to create mismatches on a regular basis. He can block defensive lineman, outrun linebackers, and catch the ball via any route assigned to him. Vitale is truly an outstanding football weapon Northwestern, luckily, can deploy for another 38 contests. I remain very interested to see how McCall uses his skill set moving forward (I also have a few ideas for Vitale that I will share in future posts!)

FACT: Treyvon Green has no friends…or enemies, because he needs no friends, and all enemies would be roundhouse kicked in the face.  But if Treyvon Green did ever have a friend, it would certainly be Dan Vitale.

TJHS Update.

The high school team that I coach, Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver, suffered its own bout of the freshman blues when we fell to Littleton High, 20-40. Starting seven freshmen, including three offensive linemen, our tailback, and notably our quarterback, we had a rough go of it in the suburbs falling to a 23-0 deficit at halftime (several of our mainstay seniors were suspended). We committed several freshman penalties, including illegal formations and false starts, as we struggled to get into a rhythm with the NU-style no huddle during the first half. However, the game slowed down a bit for our freshman quarterback who tossed three touchdowns in the second half against no interceptions, while amassing nearly 300 yards passing.  The potential is there. . .

Also, given that I am a patent attorney, I have begun the patent prosecution process to patent the methods utilized in an offensive play for TJHS that I call “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” which though outside the scope of this post, I would happily discuss in the comments.

Finally, I, The True Victor.

While the ‘Cats won this game, I also won a wager. Not of the financial kind, so to those who consider gambling a moral violation, I encourage you to refrain from judging my ethical values too harshly.

Brett K., a recent LTP commenter, friend, and Cal alum — certainly representative of the sizable overconfident faction of Cal fans who sought to irrationally disparage Northwestern’s football program over the past several weeks — proposed a wager (as last week’s LTP commenter “Trollario” personally witnessed).

He began the wager with “…should Cal win, Schell will have to wear a Cal shirt of my choice during the 2014 Cal-Northwestern game. Should Northwestern win, I will have to wear a Northwestern shirt of the victor’s choice.”

I then added, “also, the loser of the bet will have to take a photo wearing the shirt of the victor’s choice and display it prominently as his Facebook profile photo during the week leading up to the game.” Up to this point, the vanilla nature of the bet would have warranted nary a mention in my now weekly LTP breakdown.

Yet, keeping in line with the strange psychological complex so oddly demonstrated by many Cal fans over the past week, and being an avid Miley Cyrus fan, Brett K. decided to irrationally up the anty:

“The loser of the bet shall have to twerk with the mascot of the winning team wearing the t-shirt chosen by the bet’s winner.”

So, at the 2014 Cal-Northwestern game, then.  Watch out, Willie.

I would certainly appreciate your suggestions for a particular Northwestern shirt that I will make this particularly arrogant and nonsensical Cal fan brandish. I expect this shirt to be completely custom-made, so I welcome all comers with especially creative and unflattering ideas.

Forewarning to Brett K. – FACT:  Treyvon Green does not sleep.  He waits.  (… and Treyvon is a close friend of Willie’s)

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  • John Q Catfan

    A little long for a lunchtime read, but thanks for the great analysis!

    • Jeffrey Schell

      Yes yes, TL;DR. I agree, I just had a long flight this week. Hopefully there are some skimmers out there. I put a lot of pictures in, hopefully that speeds things up.

      Jay kindly edited te very poor grammar and in some cases overly erudite style

  • Mark Wheaton

    The pistol seems to be new for NU this year. I don’t recall this formation in their spread offense previously.

    • Jeffrey Schell

      They ran some pistol last year, and I think Persa had it in the playbook

  • Mark

    Great stuff! But Green looked more like Jim Brown or Earl Campbell – power and speed – than Chuck Norris, right wing acolyte. Can’t wait to see the twerking. Oh, and what about Dan Persa’s suggestion that Cats not play Cover 4 all the time on defense?

    • Jeffrey Schell

      I certainly would defer to Dan Persa.

      My concern, which certainly could be addressed, would be the lack of athleticism. One viable alternative might be a Cover 2 Cloud concept where the cornerback stay home in the flats, while the safeties are responsible for deep halves. This reduces the pressure on the corners but dramatically increases the pressure on the safeties. I think our safeties are strengths, but opening up the deep sidelines and deep middle is going to be tough.

      I personally do not like the prospect of a cover three, because it increases the deep responsibility of the cornerbacks (thirds instead of quarters).

      One nice feature of the cover four is that it maximizes the coverage potential in the underneath zones of our linebackers, who seem to excel in underneath coverage.

  • Steve Z

    Great Post!!!

  • cece

    feels like we’ve entered the world of the next Anchorman movie.

  • Broadcasting Wisdom

    This is such great material. In the Trayvon touchdown, I would also add that Trevor holding his fake held off one of the DBs who otherwise would have crashed towards Green and probably stopped a big gainer (though still a 8-10 yarder). Check out the 4th and 5th images, and the Cal guy in the top right corner of the frame. You can tell he’s still on his heels and not even breaking on the pile yet.

    • James Klock

      Agreed– a QB who’s able to keep defenders guessing as to who has the ball is wonderful (which is why I so love the part where Colter gives it to Mark, takes his hands away, and then goes back in and takes it back…)

      I listened to the game Saturday without seeing it, and when I watched the NU Highlights reel, I was really struck by how obviously Goff was waving his empty arm after a hand-off. It’s a skill he hasn’t learned, yet, to sell the fake.

  • jason

    Funny post, love the addition of some damn good humor at the expense of our feeble foes

  • Steve

    For the t-shirt, what about a purple shirt with a picture of Fitz and the word “INTEGRITY” on the front, then the score and/or graduation rates on the back?

    • Jeffrey Schell

      Potential here…

  • Steve Z

    On a side note – Collin Ellis was named NATIONAL defensive player of the week!

  • NUMBalumDave

    This post pulled a thorn out of my side that got stuck there this morning by ESPN’s B1G bloggers: namely the attribution to Joe Tiller of the introduction of the spread offense to the Big Ten. Sorry for the language, but um, ahem, uh, Horse Hockey. NU did indeed introduce the spread, but no one was paying attention back then. LISTEN UP, FARMBOYS! And thank you, LTP, for pulling out that thorn. It stung like heck.

  • Chasmo

    “Northwestern’s personnel strengths have now evolved to the point to where the offense can line up with you, announce its intentions, and steamroll high-level competition.”

    I really wish that were true but, sadly, it isn’t. NU had first and goal on the two yard line vs. Cal and was unable to score a touchdown. It met the same fate after the long pass to Vitale put the Cats deep inside the red zone and they again failed to score a touchdown. A true power running team would have steamrolled a mediocre Cal defense but the Cats still are a finesse team.
    NU’s spread offense has never been able to overpower opponents in the red zone since it all began in 2000 and, so far this year, it seems that still might be the case. Let’s hope for the best, however, as the season moves on.

    • Jeffrey Schell

      On the balance, this is true. We’re never going to be Alabama.

      There were several key plays where Green simply lowered his shoulder and pushed the pile back. Two of those plays went for TDs.

      • cebpd

        Even Bama gets stood on goal line. Easy to telegraph what we do.

    • James Klock

      Being true “only some of the time” does not make Schell’s comment untrue.

      Last year, we saw (through the magic of telegraphing intention with our 2QB system) that even when we gave a quality opposing defense a clear indication of exactly what we were about to do, it *sometimes* worked. Five to ten years ago, that pretty much *never* worked. Now, it *sometimes* will. That’s a good place to be.

  • bandcat

    Still like to see a pistol variation this year with Kain,Trevor and Venric back there together….

    • cebpd

      still don’t wanna see that until we need it…i.e. Ohio state,

  • cece

    and more on the weird side, Urlacher is speaking about the Bears designated dive guy in the wake of our game on Saturday. jeez.

  • Welcome to Paradise

    Hurricane Dave once drank 64 beers on a cross country flight