Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports
Dan Vitale provided the biggest play of Northwestern's opening drive
On their first drive, Northwestern's offense moved the ball methodically, taking 10 plays to cover the 48 yards from the Northwestern 14 to the Mississippi State 38. Those 10 plays included 3 third down conversions, one of them coming on a 3rd and 7. While Northwestern fans are used to an offense that grinds out long drives with 3rd down conversions, it is hard to score without making a few big plays. On 2nd and 6 from the Mississippi State 38, Dan Vitale provided the first big play for the Northwestern offense.
Northwestern comes out in a 3 receiver formation with all three receivers right and Dan Vitale as a tight end left before motioning Venric Mark from the backfield to the far left of the formation. Mississippi State is in run-stopping mode, with a defender over each player split from the formation and the remaining 7 defenders stacking the box.
The defense is essentially right about what is coming. While the pitch is technically a forward pass, the shovel pass Northwestern is about to run comes straight out of Tom Osborne's Nebraska playbook as a way to combine Power blocking with an option concept. Colter gets the snap and heads to his right, reading the defensive end to that side. From the backside, both Brian Mulroe and Dan Vitale head right. Mulroe's job is to lead-block for Vitale, who will get the ball if the defensive end widens out to take Colter; if the defensive end stays inside, Colter has to make something happen in the open field. The receivers are running routes to draw the defense's attention; Colter might have the option to throw to the flat if the defensive end stays inside and a defender comes up to take the quarterback. In this case, the defensive end turns outside to take Colter, and he pitches to Vitale.
That looks pretty good for Northwestern, as the right side of the line has won some ground and Mulroe is heading through the lane to hit a linebacker (though right guard Neal Deiters has missed his block and ended up all alone on the left side of the field). This doesn't last, as Mississippi State's defense flows hard to the play and creates a pile near the line of scrimmage.
Though Vitale initially runs into his own blockers, no defender is able to get a hand on the superback. He spins left and eventually bursts into the open field with only one defender in position to make a play.
Unfortunately, that player, Jay Hughes, is able to reach out and catch Vitale's foot.
Still, that's a 24 yard gain to the MSU 14, setting up a Jeff Budzien field goal three plays later to stretch the early lead to 10. Not bad for a play that was initially bottled up for a 4 yard gain.
This is a play that gains immensely from having Kain Colter at quarterback, as he is athletic enough to force a strong defensive reaction to the outside run threat. That was enough to create a small inside crease, but Northwestern also got a bit lucky. Because Deiters ended up all alone in space, MSU had a free man at the point of attack; it just so happened that he was on the wrong side of the pile. On the other hand, this could have been a touchdown in two different ways: if Deiters had immediately headed for the eventual tackler instead of becoming a spectator or if Vitale had been a step faster, Northwestern scores a touchdown on this play. After a season of near misses, the importance of turning shoestring tackles into touchdowns should be obvious.