Players-Formations-Plays: It's the foundation of any offense, and of course, it's how the Wildcats can edge oversized opponents. You go with the players you have, put them in the formations that best suit their capabilities, and draw up a play that takes advantage of both.
In 2010, it meant using Dan Persa's pinpoint accuracy and Jeremy Ebert's elusiveness to tear apart defenses. In 2012, it meant using Kain Colter's quickness and Venric Mark's explosiveness to freeze linemen and bait linebackers away from the ball. And on Saturday, Northwestern figured how how to make it work in 2014.
Instead of jamming quick — but hardly overpowering — running backs up the middle behind a weak offensive line, and instead of relying on check downs, Northwestern took the players they had and put them in the position to win.
It started with the tempo. From their first snap, the Wildcats worked quickly and played with a sense of urgency that reflected more of the no huddle offense they ran two years ago. Siemian — whose best performance of the year made this all possible — wasted no time in the pocket and picked out targets along the sideline.
But even that all comes back to the offense's mantra: The players were the same, but the formations and plays were different. We saw not only much more of the spread, but how effective it can be when used in the right manner.
We saw the best of superback Dan Vitale, who blew past linebackers into the middle of the field and found gaps that Siemian exploited. We saw the offense use screens and swings to spread the Penn State defense thin, and downfield strikes to blow it open. We saw a group of underused receivers — Mike McHugh and Mark Szott anybody? — make major plays. And we saw Miles Shuler inject an explosive shot of life into an offense in desperate need of it with two critical returns.
And what we didn't see was just as important. We didn't see Northwestern line up play after play in the Power I. We didn't see Siemian force every pass or stare down a receiver from the moment he gets the ball in his hands. We didn't see the same rotation of check downs, misfired long balls and broken screens that made little sense and no significant impact.
It's impressive that Northwestern did this against Penn State in State College during the Nittany Lions' homecoming. But it's far more important that Northwestern finally returned to its roots.
Northwestern's never been a team that will overpower opponents on offense, and it'll likely never be one. When the Wildcats win, they win by stretching and confusing defenses, not brutalizing and running over them. They win methodically — chipping away and picking apart defenses to set up a power move. They don't give you a chance to regroup or figure out how it's happening.
And when you've proven this strategy successful like the Wildcats have, it gives you license to adapt it to whatever you have. Naturally, you recruit for the players that make the system as strong as it can be. But when you don't have a dual threat quarterback like Colter, when you don't have a running back and return man like Mark, you go back to fundamentals and work up from there.
That's what Northwestern did against Penn State, and while there's still plenty of room for improvement, this win is a small but significant step in the right direction. It not only proves that this team has the potential put it all together, but reaffirms the right way to do it.