The two-minute drill is one of the most exciting sequences in football. A quarterback who successfully leads his team down the field to take the lead at the end of a game will, save under the most exceptional circumstances, win undying fame as the savior of his team. Furthermore, while it lacks the drama of the last minute comeback, converting a drive into points at the end of the first half also offers a team the chance to change the complexion of a game.
In either case, success in the two minute drill requires precise offensive execution. Not only does the offense face the normal struggle of advancing the ball when 11 men are doing their very best to prevent this, it must consider the time required to run a play and the time that runs off the clock after plays that end in bounds. Northwestern's offense this year has been fairly successful in these situations, and further success could go a long way towards making NU a formidable opponent in conference play.
I will analyze Northwestern's three end of half and end of game drives against BC and Army in terms of Chris Brown's excellent treatment of the issues raised by this high-pressure situation. The goal is to call plays quickly and efficiently, wasting neither time, nor downs, nor timeouts. One advantage for Northwestern should already be obvious: as a team that runs without a huddle and at a high pace at all times, NU should have no trouble getting plays in and the ball snapped without spiking the ball or calling timeouts.
Drive 1: at BC, end of first half.
NU took over trailing 10-3 after a BC punt for a touchback with 3:25 left in the first half. In many ways, the NU offense hadn't had a good half. The second quarter had been particularly brutal: trouble with the snap stopped a 4th down sneak after a long drive to start the quarter, while the next two NU drives had ended on Kain Colter's interception to set up the BC touchdown and a three and out. Northwestern took over with enough time to run the entire playbook, but under pressure to score at the end of the half or go into the locker room without much to show for the first half.
1st and ten at the NU 20, Northwestern comes out in a balanced four wide formation and motions Drake Dunsmore(who SBNation seems to believe plays defense along with the rest of the superbacks) across the formation into an h-back position to run speed option left. Colter gets to the edge and cuts upfield for 7.
2nd and three, NU 27: NU is in an empty backfield, three receivers right. Colter hits the far right receiver, Demetrius Fields, on a hitch, and Fields is able to make a man miss and run for a gain of 18.
1st and ten, NU 45: Empty backfield, three wide left. Colter hits Christian Jones on the same route; Jones only gets 12, good for a first down.
1st and ten, BC 43: Empty, three wide right. Jeremy Ebert runs a route cutting outside from the right slot. Colter's throw is a bit off target but Ebert catches it for a gain of 6. By the end of this play, one minute has run off the clock.
2nd and 4, BC 37: Running back left, trips left. Adonis Smith runs for eight yards and a first down.
1st and 10, BC 29: NU noticeably slows down their pace, running the play clock down to 10 seconds. Trips left, back left. Charles Brown takes a bubble screen out of bounds for 14 yards.
1st and 10, BC 15: Trips right, back right. Mike Trumpy runs for 8. Under 1:30 to go after the play.
2nd and 2, BC 7: Trips right, back right. Trumpy gets three more for the first down. BC lets some time run off and takes a timeout with 53 seconds to go in the half. After the timeout, NU false starts, setting up first and goal from the 9.
1st and goal, BC 9: back right, two receivers to either side. BC blitzes, while Colter fakes to Trumpy before taking off to his right, juking the defensive end trying to contain him, and gaining 6 yards. Timeout Northwestern with 40 seconds remaining.
2nd and goal, BC 3: Empty, trips to the left. BC shows blitz, with a linebacker standing up over the center. BC follows through, while NU has Colter rolling right. The BC left defensive end drives his man back with a bull rush, but he doesn't notice when Colter rolls past him and heads for the endzone, tying the game after the extra point.
Drive Summary: 10 plays, 80 yards in . BC gets the ball back with some time on the clock, but kneels down to end the half.
Drive 2: End of first half at Army. NU takes over after a punt at their own 29 with the game tied at 7 and 1:03 remaining in the half.
1st and 10, NU 29: Trips right, back right. Ebert is open in the middle of the field, but Colter's throw is low.
2nd and 10: Trips right, back right. Army blitzes, and Colter escapes left and runs for 14 yards once the line has picked up the blitzers.
1st and 10, NU 43: Two receivers to each side, back right. Colter hits Rashad Lawrence on a hitch to the right and he runs out of bounds for 8.
2nd and 2, Army 49: Trips left, back left. Ebert finds some space between the deep coverage and the undercoverage, but Colter can't drop the ball in to him.
3rd and 2: Two receivers to each side, back left. Colter hits Drew Moulton on a hitch to the right; he goes out of bounds for 8.
1st and 10, Army 41: Trips left, back left. Army brings five pass rushers, and Colter escapes up the middle, makes a man miss, and gets out of bounds for 13 yards.
1st and 10, Army 28: Trips left, back left. Colter rolls to his left and hits Christian Jones near the sideline. Jones turns upfield and gets 19 yards; he probably could have gone out of bounds after a 12-14 yard gain and allowed NU to run another play. NU lines up to spike the ball, but takes their final timeout with 5 seconds remaining instead. Unfortunately, Jeff Budzien misses the field goal.
Drive Summary: 7 plays for 62 yards in 58 seconds, ending due to time pressure on a first and goal.
Drive 3: final drive at Army. NU takes over on their own 40 with 2:49 remaining after Army kicks off out of bounds following the touchdown that puts Army up 21-14. Trevor Siemian in the game.
1st and 10, NU 40: Trips right, back left. Siemian makes a blitzer miss, rolls right, and throws out of bounds.
2nd and 10: Trips right, back left. NU catches Army in a blitz with a screen to Ebert for 18 yards.
1st and 10, Army 42: the TV camera is late to the play. The snap is low, Siemian never looks comfortable. He tries to scramble, and is brought down for a loss of 1.
2nd and 11, Army 43: Two receivers to each side, back left. Siemian hits Rashad Lawrence crossing from right to left for a gain of 7.
3rd and 4, Army 36: Trips right, back right. Siemian hands off to Jacob Schmidt, who runs into his blockers a yard short of the first down marker. Army looks to have Schmidt well contained before bringing him down.
4th and 1, Army 33: Trips right, back right. Army blitzes off both edges, with the blitzer from the offensive left unblocked, while Siemian rolls right. Ebert flashes open on a quick out, but an Army defender is able to dive and knock the ball away. It looks like Siemian might have had a shot at hitting one of the other two receivers to the right, who hook up at about 10 yards.
Drive Summary: 6 plays, 27 yards. Army takes over on downs with 1:06 remaining and kneels for the win.
Overall, I would classify two of these three drives as successful for the offense. Against BC, the offense was extremely efficient working the ball downfield against a passive defense until the touchdown play, on which Colter made an excellent individual play. The coaching staff also deserves credit for slowing the offense down and using some extra clock when it became clear that NU was in a position where downs and the BC defense were greater obstacles than time. This meant that BC didn't have much chance of putting together their own drive after the touchdown.
While Budzien's miss at the end of the first half against Army was unfortunate, Colter and the offense deserve credit for driving most of the length of the field in under one minute without wasting much time. In particular, Colter made good decisions on his scrambles on this drive, taking off quickly when he had a lane rather than wasting time looking for the big play through the air. The offense did everything they could to put NU in the lead going into the half, a lead that might have changed the flow of the game in the second half. Instead, NU would spend the entire half chasing an Army team that scored on the opening drive of the half and again on the drive after NU tied the game.
NU started the final drive with favorable field position and plenty of time for a no-huddle offense to cover 60 yards. The screen on the second play of the drive was perfectly executed, and Ebert was able to use his blockers effectively to pick up a good chunk of yardage. Unfortunately, this was the only successful play on the drive. The bad snap put NU in a tough position on the next set of downs. Running Schmidt on third down has been much abused, but I think that the call is defensible. The rollout on fourth down was likewise a high-percentage play where an Army defender just managed to make a play. Letting games against bad teams come down to fourth down conversions in the final minute is a problem for exactly this reason: sometimes they will make a play on the most important down of the game.
Even the failed drive against Army has some positives for NU: the plays were called quickly and efficiently, without wasting time or downs. The drive ended because of a failure to get a first down on four tries, not because the 'Cats ran out of time or wasted a down with a spike. This was related to the struggles NU had all day, not anything particular to the situation. Indeed, the striking thing about NU's clock offense is how much like the normal offense it looks. The drive at the end of the first half against Army, where the offense was under stronger time pressure, seemed to involved more vertical routes from the receivers, and all of these drives were pass heavy while time was a factor. Still, NU was able to stick with the offensive approach they drill every day rather than radically overhauling their scheme for the situation.
I promised a theory of NU's close game performance last week, but this piece has already reached an epic length. So, another post will arrive before Saturday with a dose of game theory type speculation and even some actual facts!