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Film Focus: Northwestern's Two-Point Attempt

No one should ever be forced to re-watch the 2014 Michigan-Northwestern game tape. Ever. So, rather than watch all of it, Film Focus has devoted this week's column to only the game-deciding play: Northwestern's two-point attempt.

David Banks

All copies of the 2014 Michigan-Northwestern game tape should be torched.

In last week's "Inside the Numbers" column, after reviewing the statistics, I opined that it was quite possible that this past Saturday's game between Michigan and Northwestern would have a striking resemblance to the aesthetically unpleasant one the two teams played in 2013. I was wrong. It was worse than I ever could have imagined.

In fact, I truly believe that this past weekend's game between the Wolverines and the Wildcats was the worst college football game I have ever watched. Sure, we could mention that Michigan and Northwestern combined for 19 points and 520 total yards -- at 3.64 yards per play no less -- but those paltry numbers don't even illustrate the numerous comical miscues that transpired at Ryan Field.

Where do I even begin? There were players slipping on the field and tripping over themselves. There were passes thrown that were intercepted when other receivers were mind-blowingly open. There passes thrown that were tipped at the line of scrimmage straight up into the air -- sometimes falling harmlessly to the ground and sometimes not. There were passes that slipped through receivers' hands and ricocheted off their facemasks. There were fumbles by running backspunt returners, and, inexplicably, even wide receivers running in motion behind the center before the snap. There were punts that were kicked by the punter's opposite foot and by the gunners into the end zone for a touchback. There were missed field goals and blocked field goals. And there were botched trick plays.

It looked like a game played by two high school JV teams, not two Big Ten teams.

It was so absurd -- or hilarious depending on your frame of mind -- that I asked MGoVideo to create a lowlight reel set to the tune of Yakety Sax, which has been used in the past as a soundtrack for outlandishly humorous situations, like this "Jimmy Clausen for Heisman" video for example. But MGoVideo did us one even better. Instead, MGoVideo set it to a slurred version of Frank Sinatra's "Blue Moon" after Twitter friend MGoShoe blessed us with this wonderful meme during what was a scoreless game until midway through the third quarter:

The result was MGoVideo's newest masterpiece:

Like I said: the worst college football game I have ever watched.

***

How does one break down the worst college football game they have ever watched?

I seriously contemplated the first portion of this post being the entirety of my "Film Focus" column this week. What more could I say about this game that had not already been expressed perfectly by MGoVideo's reel above? However, then I remembered that you read this column not to dwell on the narrative but to examine the Xs and Os.

So there's one play I want to focus on: Northwestern's game-deciding, two-point attempt when trailing by one point with three ticks on the clock. So much about this sequence fascinates me, and it's much more than what was at stake or whether it was the correct strategy for Pat Fitzgerald to go for the win rather than head to overtime. What really intrigues me was the chess match -- or, with Brady Hoke and Fitzgerald on the sidelines, the game of checkers -- these two coaches were playing as this two-point try ensued.

The whole sequence initiated before Michigan and Northwestern took the field for the two-point attempt. Earlier in the fourth quarter, Northwestern faced 3rd & 4 at U-M's 29-yard line. The Wildcats are in a three-wide shotgun formation with twin receivers stacked to the field side. Michigan is in its Cover 1 nickel package with Jarrod Wilson playing center field. Northwestern superback Dan Vitale motions towards the field side, and Delano Hill chases after him, indicating that Michigan is in man coverage:

NW FF: Successful Rollout - 1

Immediately after Vitale sprints past right tackle Jack Konopka, Trevor Siemian calls for the snap and begins to roll to his right. Frank Clark is stoned by Konopka, so Siemian has acres of green grass to roll into before he needs to worry about pressure closing in on him. And, as you can see, Siemian doesn't need to wait very long to throw the football because Vitale is about to pop open into the flat as Hill gets stuck in traffic:

NW FF: Successful Rollout - 2

The only way for Hill to avoid the traffic created by Northwestern's receivers is to angle towards the first-down marker and away from Vitale. By the time Hill emerges into the clear, Vitale has secured Siemian's toss and turns upfield:

NW FF: Successful Rollout - 3

Because Hill was caught in traffic, Blake Countess was responsible for another Wildcat receiver, and Wilson was out in center field at the snap, there are no Wolverines that can tackle Vitale until the Northwestern superback reaches the sticks:

NW FF: Successful Rollout - 4

First down, Northwestern.

Almost every school in America has adopted some version of this rollout play this season. It's designed to get a receiver open in the flat near the sideline to gain a routine 5-10 yards. What makes it so difficult for defenses, especially those in man coverage, to stop is that the intended receiver's motion or the legal "picks" set by other receivers create a sizable gap between the intended receiver and the defensive back. And the quarterback rolling to that side of the field only makes the throw that much simpler to complete.

There are ways to defend this rollout, though, especially when defenses know it's coming.

Let's fast forward to the end of the game. Northwestern has just scored a touchdown with three seconds left and, rather than determine the outcome in overtime, chooses to go for the win right here in regulation. So Northwestern's offense remains on the field and sets up in its formation before the referees start the play clock. See any similarities? You should because it's the same formation Northwestern used earlier: a three-wide shotgun set with twin receivers stacked to the field side:

NW FF: Two-Point Attempt - 1

Hoke and Greg Mattison take notice and call timeout to adjust Michigan's defense accordingly. The timeout pays dividends because, when both teams return to the field, Northwestern is in the same formation: a three-wide shotgun set with twin receivers stacked to the field side. The Wildcats are sticking with the same call. Michigan counters with its Cover 1 nickel package, but, this time, Wilson is not in center field. Instead, he's aligned over the top of Northwestern's stacked receivers to provide support in case there's a quick out route to the sideline. Once again, Vitale motions towards the field side as Hill follows, informing Siemian that Michigan is in man coverage:

NW FF: Two-Point Attempt - 2

Here is where Northwestern's play starts to differ from the one earlier in the fourth quarter. Vitale completes his motion, but, rather than run an out into the flat like he did previously, he puts his hand in the dirt and becomes a tight end. Then, receiver Tony Jones motions to the boundary as Countess pursues, confirming that Michigan's in man:

NW FF: Two-Point Attempt - 3

It's at this precise moment when I thought, in real time, Michigan had been beat. Jones suddenly plants his foot and motions back to where he came, and, concurrently, Countess slightly stumbles. As Jones crosses behind the center, Countess is outside the left tackle and still seems to be in the process of shifting directions. This looks dire for Michigan. It appears Northwestern wants to spring Jones open into the flat near the field sideline as Siemian rolls to his right, relying on America's favorite rollout to succeed again:

NW FF: Two-Point Attempt - 4

Except Michigan knows what's coming. Siemian takes the snap and rolls to his right as Jones runs a sprint-out into the flat, and the Wolverines could not be more prepared. Despite Countess' hustle, Jones still has him beat to the sideline, but Siemian has no throw because Wilson has bracketed Jones over the top. If Siemian tries to fire it to Jones quickly, Wilson will knock it down. The strategy to position Wilson over the stacked receivers pre-snap shuts down what looks to be Northwestern's primary option.

There's some debate whether Jones' sprint-out was the primary read or just a decoy for an additional wrinkle. That additional wrinkle involves Vitale, who, in the screen shot below, is lying on the grass. I cannot determine whether Vitale slipped while running his crossing pattern towards the boundary or fell on purpose with the hope that the Wolverine responsible for him would lose sight of him. No luck. Hill is fixated on Vitale the whole time and attaches himself to Vitale after the superback climbs back to his feet.

And, even if Vitale had fooled Hill, Siemian had no chance to target that long-developing route in time. Look at Clark. In the play diagrammed above, Konopka sealed off Clark to allow Siemian to roll right without any repercussions. But, this time, Clark expects the rollout and shoots upfield wide left past Konopka, who turns sideways rather than widening out, to set the edge. Konopka barely touches Clark, and running back Justin Jackson can do little to hinder Clark's momentum at full speed:

NW FF: Two-Point Attempt - 5

Siemian tries to stop rolling to his right to look for the throwback to Vitale, but, as he sees Clark readying to barrel into him, he slips and falls on his behind:

NW FF: Two-Point Attempt - 6

Game over.

***

After reviewing Northwestern's two-point attempt, I firmly believed that Michigan knew what the Wildcats planned to run, and that was before I read post-game comments from Brady Hoke and his players claiming the same:

Brady Hoke:

Frank (Clark) did a nice job and the coaches in the (press) box did a nice job, because it was the same two-point play they had run a year ago (in a game).

Frank Clark:

You watch film all week until you get bored of watching it, and you see the same play over and over. We know the plays they like and what they like to run in the red zone, and I executed. I did my job. The coaches said all week 'do your job, and you'll win the game.'

...

I knew it was going to be a sprint out once I saw the double motion, and that's how I went about it.

Jake Ryan:

We planned for it all week. We knew what they were doing.

Pat Fitzgerald disagreed with Michigan's claims, but it doesn't matter. The Wolverines may not have known what the primary read was, but they knew Siemian planned to roll right and a receiver would run a sprint-out to the field side. They watched Northwestern call that play on a two-point try against California in 2013 and a similar one earlier in this game. So Hoke and Greg Mattison dialed up a defense that annihilated any chance of that play succeeding, including Vitale's crossing route because Hill was glued to him. It was a moment of coaching brilliance and flawless execution by Michigan's defense.

And it's why Michigan won the worst college football game I have ever watched