SchellGame: Beware the Empire – Completely Overlooking This Week’s Game to Focus on the OSU Dark Side

Today we explore the offensive capabilities of Darth Meyer’s Empire. A few weeks ago, we all watched as Heisman favorite Braxton Miller went down with a horrific looking leg injury. Would the loss of Braxton prove a key strategic weakness in Darth Meyer’s death star offense?  Could Cal(deraan)’s heroic speedster X-wing receivers penetrate the defenses of the Ohio State juggernaut?

In a word, “no.”


“Now, witness the power of this fully operational battle station [offense].” – Urban Darth Meyer

Urban Meyer Darth Vader Fade_5


Kenny Guiton demonstrated the true power of the dark side of the force against Cal(deraan).  Behold:


Here, OSU comes out in twins right, tight left, with a tailback right, tight end left and sole wideout left. This formation allows for any number of pass or run options.

The run threat is enhanced, as we shall see, by the very strong blocking tight ends of Ohio State, especially Nick Vannett and Jeff Heurman. These tight ends do not catch many balls (nine and eight receptions in 2012, respectively), but as the OSU blog Eleven Warriors notes: “every catch seemed to be an important one.” A dominant run blocking tight end dares linebackers to take on blocks more aggressively, sacrificing vital pass coverage. When the tight end releases, after setting up the run repeatedly, the LBs and Safeties risk getting blown by.  “Only at the end do you realize the power of the Dark Side.”  Therefore, though the Empire’s TEs catch the ball infrequently, those infrequent catches typically lead to big, important gains. Keep an eye on the TE position of the Empire, both for the powerful run blocking and for the occasional big TE reception.

Defensively, Cal(deraan) sets up in a 4-3 defense, similar to our own. Notably, the right cornerback (bottom of the image) dares the weak side receiver, who faces press coverage, to beat him. Given the down and distance situation, I would guess a Cover Two look here. In Cover Two, usually CBs have flats responsibility while safeties have deep halves.

I worry that NU simply does not have the talent to press cover OSU’s outstanding wide out Devin Smith. Even in a Cover Two zone look, the weak side corner (in NU’s case, likely Dwight White) would sometimes need to leave flats coverage to catch up with and cover a streaking deep receiver if the safety is occupied with another deep receiver. For NU, I believe it better to shut down the rushing attack, keep the OSU receivers in front and execute tackles on the perimeter. This means backing off NU’s corners to their usual 8-yard cushion against OSU.

Let’s see how how the play unfolds:



I have tried to depict the leverage/momentum of the defense with arrows. Note the MLB and the WLB both taking steps to their right, biting on the run fake. The right safety also appears to step right with the fake. The SLB stays home possibly expecting the read option (in case the Q keeps the ball on a run).

Continuing the theme of the outstanding TE play of OSU, that Cal’s right defensive end gets blown back by a strong side run block. This, mind you, on a bump-and-run block, as the TE explodes past the DE and proceeds on a deep route. Be forewarned: the OSU tight ends are fully capable of blowing an average-to-good defensive lineman back two yards off of the ball.  This strong TE run blocking will set things up later on for OSU in the passing game.  This particularly worrisome feature of OSU’s offense will pose a threat unlike any that NU has faced this year.  The run possibilities opened by OSU’s TEs demand special attention, which for NU’s sake, cannot detract from the attention required of them in the passing game.  I believe that OSU will attempt, as they have time after time, to dominate the line of scrimmage with a powerful run game (of which the talented TEs of the Empire will play a major part).  Will NU be ready?


“For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi [defensive ends]. My own counsel will I keep on who is to be trained. A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one [Tyler Scott], a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was [in the backfield]. …Hmm? On what he was doing [eating quarterbacks].” – Yoda Hankwitz, the NU Defensive Coordinator

NU’s young Jedi defensive front features such prodigies such as Jedi Tyler Scott, whose combination of talent, strength and speed far exceeds that which OSU faced during the Cal matchup. He, along with our other defensive front seven, must consistently pressure Ohio State quarterback, whoever it is, and execute tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Use the force, Tyler. Use the force.



Ok several things to look at here. First, note that Cal’s right DE is one step behind everyone else after a strong block and release by the OSU TE. (On a bump-and-run block! Yikes.) The OSU TE now is picked up by the Cal safety.

OSU QB Guiton has a man open for the spot screen on the perimeter and an eternity to throw. He squares his shoulder to the right receiver (top of graphic). Note the Cal SLB and CB drawn in by this move maneuvering into position to make a play on the WR screen. If indeed it is Cover 2, look for the CB to cover the flat and the SLB to cover hook-to-curl.

Key takeaway here: absolutely zero pressure on QB Guiton. NU cannot allow this scenario to happen and expect to win the game.

Fortunately, NU’s defensive front seven is significantly better than the Cal defensive front.




Help over the top? Not so much. If you look at image 3 versus image 4, you will see that Cal’s left safety also stepped up to make a play on the screen. Unfortunately, the safety is tasked with deep coverage in what appears to be a Cover 2 look.

He now has to turn and catch up to the receiver. Not a good position to be in.

Meanwhile, the look to the outside receiver by Guiton has incited the CB and the SLB of Cal to place themselves roughly 3 yards apart (near the ten yard line, top of image), both covering the flats, against one receiver who will not catch the ball. Not a good position for those two Cal players. On the other side (closer to the bottom of the image), look at the CB release from the press/flat coverage and pick up the streaking WR. Good thing, as the TE gets picked up by the safety on that side. This, of course, leaves the flats open for the backside RB to occupy on a swing route.

Fortunately, Yoga Hankwitz often deploys NU’s defensive ends to cover the backside flats, which should help in such a scenario. More worrisome would be the prospect of one-on-one coverage by NU’s corners against OSU’s talented receivers.



“…you are unwise to lower your defenses!”

In mid-ball-flight, we can see that the Cal safety over the top cannot catch up to the WR, after his gaffe to step up and cover the run. Literally one wrong step, to attack the spot screen fake given by QB Guiton, placed him into a bad position to cover his deep responsibility, the deep halves.

Lesson to be learned here: discipline is of paramount importance. Had the safety not stepped up and bit on the screen fake, he would likely have caught up to the play.

A second lesson here is the speed of the OSU tight end. That dude is fast. He has blown by Cal’s strong safety.

Finally, though we cannot see it here, the OSU RB on the swing has to be wide open. The only possible option for coverage would be the defensive end, who looked to be rushing the quarterback. NU does regularly drop its defensive ends into coverage, which may help in this circumstance.



Pew pew pew.

So, if NU gives Guiton any appreciable amount of time to throw the ball, he has proven the ability to create consequences. If NU’s defensive backs have even the slightest breakdown in discipline to bite on any fakes, expect OSU to make big plays.

It is therefore critical for:
1. NU to get pressure on the quarterback, and
2. NU’s defensive backs to not bite on fakes – whether to the RB or a QB headfake.


“Hmm! Adventure. Hmmpf! Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things. [Explosion Plays.]” – Pat Skywalker Fitzgerald

Next week we shall explore whether Cal’s Jedi Raid offense made a dent in the Empire’s defense.


TJHS Update

Rough game against a ranked opponent in a higher division.  I’ll leave it at that.  We will return to successfully deploying the NU-styled no huddle offense against a more matched opponent, fellow 3A school Denver-Lincoln High, this week.


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  • Alan Abrahamson

    What say you about the true freshman Mr. Harris’ breakup on the one deep ball thrown by Western Michigan down the seam late in the game? You note Northwestern perhaps does not “have the talent” to cover the Buckeyes’ skilled wide receivers, in particular Mr. Smith. Is it talent? Or experience? A logical game plan against NU would be to throw deep and to do so often, until the Wildcats prove they can shut down the deep ball. Can they? This is, I think, the pivot on which the 10/5 game will turn.

    • Jeffrey Schell

      Harris has potential, no doubt. As does Dwight White. Despite getting beat on a double move by a MAC receiver, he made multiple physical plays to converge on a ball carrier and deliver a B1G hit.

      I think the broader point is this: if your gameplan involves giving Kenny Guiton or Braxton Miller eight seconds to throw the ball, you could have Revis Islands at both cornerback positions and expect to complete passes at least most of the time.

      The DB and DL positions exist in harmony, linked by a symbiotic bond. The success of one begets the success of the other. Your focus on the DBs without mentioning the DL is improper.

      • Alan Abrahamson

        Interesting notion. Would you then posit that Northwestern lost the Nebraska, Penn State and Michigan games last year because of interlocking breakdowns on the DL and defensive secondary? Or — to take the Nebraska game — would you say, as most sports writers would, that when Van Hoose went down with a dislocated shoulder, and Taylor Martinez picked apart the Northwestern secondary thereafter, that it was on the defensive backs?

        Thanks as always for your insightful breakdowns. Enjoy them. For real.

        • GoU_NU

          I’m thinking that it had something to do with this in Q3 of the game against Neb last year.
          Drive 1: 4 plays, 0:47, TD
          Drive 2: 5 plays, 2:16, punt
          Drive 3: 3 plays, 0:46, punt
          Drive 4: 3 plays, 1:00, punt

          Total Q3 TOP: 4:49 to Nebraska’s 10:11

          After that, DL = tired. Actually, let me revise that. DL = ridiculously beyond exhausted for the fourth quarter.

          What then happens? One half of the symbiotic DLDB relationship is exhausted, thus affecting the other half. Take out one of the better DBs that we have (NVH), and it’s game-set-match.

          • Alan Abrahamson

            That is excellent analysis, indeed. But it begs the obvious question. Why did Martinez throw at Van Hoose’s replacement? That has nothing to do whatsoever with an exhausted D-line …

          • GoU_NU

            Well the main point I guess that I was making is that Martinez threw there because he had time to go through progressions and find an open receiver. If he can only look at option 1 and doesn’t have much time to select that option, the passes will not be nearly as accurate.

            I stand by Mr. Schell’s analysis that the DL and DBs are symbiotic together. A defensive line that’s getting hands in Martinez’s face there is much more effective than NVH playing out of his mind in the secondary. I’d much rather the pass never get out, or at least get out under pressure, regardless of whomever the secondary is using to cover an opposing WR.

          • Alan Abrahamson

            Just a quick follow-up. Please see the Chicago Tribune’s piece today (Thursday) with the lede (journalism talk) on Mr. Harris. Here’s the link:

    • gocatsgo2003

      One kid makes one PBU in mop-up time against an overmanned WMU team and now he suddenly has the talent to hang with OSU’s WRs?

      • GoU_NU

        I want to upvote this a million times.

  • JimGoCats93

    Didn’t read it.
    Won’t read it.
    (Until next week)

    We gotta game Saturday against a team that would make their season if they beat us, and they will likely be ready to play.

    Hope we are.
    LTP, I don’t think I have ever seen a post about the next game before we have played the game at hand – have we?


    • gocatsgo2003

      Because whether or not you read an article about Ohio State has any bearing on the outcome against Maine whatsoever? Your focus has absolutely nothing to do with the team, amigo.

    • LTP


  • Henry in Rose Bowl Country

    I think we should go into the OSU game assuming that we will give up 40 points and make an offensive plan on that basis. We’re going to have to win a shootout so it’s going to mean throwing the ball a lot and down the field.

    • Henry in Rose Bowl Country

      This is going to be like A&M playing Bama. We wont stop them so we’re going to have to make it as hard as possible for them to stop us.

    • Jason

      But at the same time, we’ll need to have the offense on the field long enough to give the defense a rest.

  • skepticat

    Caught the first quarter or so of this game on BTN last night. One thing missing in the analysis is that OSU used basically the same formation on the play immediately before this, and they threw a receiver screen to the right side. The receiver that ended up going deep I believe also did a quick bump-and-run on his CB like he was setting up to block. So the defense seemed primed to bite on another screen.

    Another thing: OSU took 4 plays to score 2 touchdowns, and both came on deep passes. Add in a Cal turnover and OSU going for it on 4th-and-goal from the 1, and it was 21-0 while people were still settling in their seats. It was a pretty eye-opening performance, and I don’t think the game was near as close as the score indicates.

    While I think it’s generally flawed to look at how a team does in one game and extrapolate that to how they’ll perform in another, I think Meyer’s gonna all-out assault our secondary and basically go for the first-round knock-out. I have a feeling we’ll know pretty soon after kickoff whether we’re gonna be in for a wild night or booing at another OSU team running up the score on us.

    • Jeffrey Schell

      Awesome catch on that set up play with the bubble.

      The bubble-go is in our playbook at TJHS as well. Clearly then a designed play by Urban Meyer. Easy to execute when you have an eternity to throw.

  • Mark

    @ Schell. Thanks!

    I think you also answered another question I had posted earlier: are NU’s CBs playing boundary and field. From your post I take it the answer is no, they’re playing according to the strength of the formation when they’re in Cover 2.

    • Jeffrey Schell

      You’ll typically see a lot of quarters coverage from NU. I have yet to come across a defense that does not account for the strength of the offense. I have seen quite a few that under cover trips or unbalanced formations at the high school level, but there is no way that should happen in major college football. Perhaps a blitz package could allocate defensive personnel away from the strength?

  • Andrew Joseph

    This was awful.

  • Old Fat Bald Guy

    Well, thanks for tamping down my unrealistic expectations. Now I know this will be an overrated two-and-a-half-star football game followed by a tedious string of sequels.

    • Jeffrey Schell

      Nice. I saw Star Wars on TV recently, and couldn’t resist the urge to force a theme. I think the game will exceed Star Wars level expectations.

  • NUMBalumDave

    Watching BTN at this very moment – Northwestern at Michigan, Oct 7, 1995. Darnell Autrey just ran down John P. Paynter on the sideline. Paynter is reputed to have yelled, “Just get back out there and score a touchdown!”