CFB Drive: Northwestern Riding The Split Zone Into The End Zone

Big gains get fans on their feet, but efficient scoring drives are the mark of a good team. Mark Schofield looks at the Northwestern Wildcats riding the split zone into the end zone.

Northwestern entered Big Ten play looking to start 5-0 for the first time since 2012 with a victory over visiting Minnesota. On the strength of a dominant defensive performance, the Wildcats notched their first Big Ten victory to earn that fifth-straight victory. But it was this third quarter touchdown drive that demonstrated how their offense can move the ball nearly at will when everything is clicking – especially their split zone running scheme.

After stopping the Golden Gophers on a fourth-down try, the Wildcats take over on their own 32-yard line. On their first down play, Northwestern tries to run Justin Jackson to the right side, but he is dragged down for a loss of one, setting up a 2nd and 11 on their own 31-yard line. That is when the fun begins.

Play Two

On second down, the Wildcats line up with their 20 offensive personnel on the field, with quarterback Clayton Thorson (#18) in the pistol formation. Jackson stands behind his QB, with Dan Vitale (#40) lined up to the left of the quarterback in Northwestern’s “superback” position. The Wildcats have slot formation on the left, with a single receiver split to the right. Minnesota has their 4-2-5 nickel defense in the game, showing Cover 1 in the secondary:CFBReview5NWPlay1Still1

The offense runs a split zone play here, using Vitale to trap block the back-side defensive end:CFBReview5NWPlay1Still2

Both center Ian Park (#63) and right tackle Eric Olson (#76) are uncovered before the snap, so they immediately work to the second level to take on the linebackers. Watch as these three crucial blocks come together to spring Jackson on the inside:

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For his part, the running back does a good job of setting up Park’s block. After he cuts through the line, Jackson angles to the outside a step, forcing the linebacker to flow to the sideline. The running back then cuts back inside, where Park is waiting to seal off the LB. Jackson puts a move on the free safety and races into Minnesota territory, where he is finally dragged down at the Minnesota 38-yard line.

Play Three

On this play, the Wildcats line up with 11 offensive personnel, and Thorson in the shotgun. Northwestern has trips formation to the right, with a tight end alone on the left. The defense continues with their 4-2-5 nickel personnel, showing Cover 2 in the secondary:CFBReview5NWPlay2Still1

The offense attacks the sideline here in the passing game, with Christian Jones (#14), the middle trips receiver, running a corner route while the outside trips receiver, Mike McHugh (#6) running a route to the flat. This sets up a smash concept to the outside, with receivers at two different levels:CFBReview5NWPlay2Still2

The offense also uses play-action here, with Thorson faking the inside zone run before retreating to pass:

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This is the perfect play-call against Cover 2. The flat route occupies the press cornerback, and Jones is able to angle toward the sideline as the play-side safety, Antonio Shenault (#34), tries to rotate over to cover the corner route. But the receiver gains enough separation for the QB to drop the throw in along the sideline. Jones secures the reception, setting up another first down at the Minnesota 22-yard line.

Play Four

On this first down play, the Wildcats return to the split zone concept. They line up in 12 offensive personnel, with freshman linebacker Tommy Vitale (#31), Dan’s younger brother, lined up as a tight end in a wing alignment to the right. The Golden Gophers keep their 4-2-5 nickel defense in the game and show Cover 2 in the secondary:CFBReview5NWPlay3Still1

Here is how the split zone sets up for this play:CFBReview5NWPlay3Still2

Vitale blocks across the formation to take out the weak-side defensive end. As the offensive line fires out to the right, left tackle Blake Hance (#72) ignores the DE and aims for the left linebacker. Olson, the RT, is again uncovered and he works immediately to the right linebacker. Park also works to the second level after the snap, looking for someone to block. He’ll find the free safety racing toward the play:

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Jackson takes the handoff, and again all the blocks come together. Vitale cuts across the formation and chops down defensive end Alex Keith (#9). Olson and Hance handle the linebackers, and while Park is looking for someone to hit, he finds the FS. The RB cuts between the blocks of Olson and Park, and is not tackled until he reaches the 10-yard line, setting up first and goal for the Wildcats.

Play Five

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. On this first down play, the Wildcats line up with 12 offensive personnel, with linebacker Vitale in a wing alignment to the right:CFBReview5NWPlay4Still1

What play do you think Northwestern runs?

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Again, the Wildcats run the split zone play. Vitale cuts across the formation to knife Keith to the turf with a cut block. Hance again works to the second level at the snap, sealing off the left linebacker. Because of the alignment and angle of the defensive tackle, Park executes a combination block with left guard Brad North (#69) on the DT. Jackson cuts inside of the combination block, and is dragged down at the one-yard line.

Play Six

After all that hard work, it’s time to reward the guy who set this all up:

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Wait, what?

Look, I’m all for the quarterback scoring when the opportunity arises, and Thorson executes the sneak here very well. But maybe a little love for Jackson, given his work on the drive? Or maybe one of the Vitale brothers, for their well-executed trap blocks?

The touchdown puts the Wildcats ahead 20-0, and they would cruise to a 27-0 victory. But this drive is a coaching clinic on how to execute the split zone play, and something Jim Harbaugh will no doubt be studying in the preparation for the meeting between Northwestern and Michigan next Saturday.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

All footage courtesy of the Big Ten Network.

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