The right man for the job’

Matt Forman

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Five years ago in the Motor City Bowl, Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall were on opposite sides of Detroit’s Ford Field. Now they’ll be roaming the sidelines of Ryan Field together.

Then, the 29-year-old Fitzgerald was coaching Northwestern’s linebackers and hoping to slow down the powerful Bowling Green offensive attack, which featured McCall as quarterbacks coach. Josh Harris, the Falcons’ All-American quarterback, picked apart the Cats, passing for 386 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-24 victory.

This season, McCall will take over NU’s potent offense that finished second in the Big Ten in total yardage a year ago.

With the experience coaching against McCall, Fitzgerald said he immediately knew he was the right man for the job after interviewing him in the search to replace Garrick McGee.

“We absolutely agree philosophy-wise,” Fitzgerald said. “We want to be a tough physical offense that can throw the ball vertically and make plays. It’s about big plays with this offense, and obviously it’s about execution. That’s what he brings.”

Since Fitzgerald and McCall agree on philosophy, the Cats will continue running the spread offense. But McCall will institute several changes, putting his identity into the new attack.

“This new offense is a real spread offense,” senior running back Tyrell Sutton said. “This one isolates guys in space, especially running backs, one-on-one with linebackers, and we’d like to think we can beat them in open space.”

Throughout the spring, several players have used the term “run to green grass,” trying to find open space on the field.

“‘Run to green grass’ is just common sense – run to where the defense isn’t and make plays,” senior wide receiver Eric Peterman said.

McCall has a formula to spread the ball around.

“We’re in the offensive staff room devising our scheme and getting it together, really thinking about what our players can do for us,” McCall said. “Who are our players? We want to put them in formations where they can be successful and then diagram all the plays up to get them the ball in open space.”

McCall takes over a veteran offense that returns starting quarterback C.J. Bachér, its top two running backs, and five of its six top receivers.

Still, McCall said the first thing he has to do is help the team improve in three specific areas: running the ball consistently, taking care of the ball, and scoring touchdowns in the red zone.

The best way to take care of the ball? Throw it away.

McCall coached another All-American quarterback, Omar Jacobs, in 2004 and 2005. In 2004, Jacobs threw 41 touchdowns and four interceptions, the best ratio in NCAA history. Bachér knows that he needs to improve on his 19 touchdowns and 19 interceptions but would not compare himself to Harris or Jacobs.

McCall has given Bachér more control over the offense, but he said he would not place an emphasis on Bachér calling his own plays.

“He’s given me more freedom in terms of being a leader,” Bachér said. “Otherwise Coach McCall is going to call the plays and we’re going to do everything we can to execute them.”

Out of the backfield, the Cats will rely on Sutton. The Big Ten’s active leading rusher excels at the misdirection zone play, where he utilizes his speed to bounce to the outside.

“They’ve done a very good job running the zone play so far,” McCall said. “It worked well last year and it’s worked well so far. The line is doing a great job of blocking up front and creating holes.”

The Cats’ rushing attack contributed 119.8 yards per game, last in the Big Ten. Running the ball consistently will be vital to having success inside the red zone.

“Even though we’re a spread team, we can and will run the football,” McCall said.

NU was second to last in scoring offense in the Big Ten at 25.8 points per game, largely because of its failure to convert touchdowns inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. In four of the Cats six losses, NU outgained its opponent in yards, but not on the scoreboard.

While Peterman loves catching the ball, he admitted the team was pass-happy last season.

“Last year we did pass a lot more, which is OK with me because I’m a wide receiver,” he said. “But whatever we have to do to get the ball in the end zone, if it’s running the ball, that’s what we ultimately need to do.”

NU was inside the red zone 52 times a season ago but scored only 31 touchdowns in those possessions.

A key to scoring in the red zone will be the Cats receivers, who have impressed McCall to date. NU returns its leading wideout in Peterman along with senior Ross Lane, who led the team with seven touchdowns.

“We’ve got all kinds, shapes, sizes, styles, speeds and different abilities,” McCall said of his receivers. “The beauty of the spread offense is that you spread the ball around and everybody gets touches.”

With a plethora of weapons and a new system to get them the ball, the offense will look to improve in the three areas that McCall pinpointed. With NU looking to reach its third bowl game in six years, Bacher said the team can only go up.

“Coach McCall is putting a huge emphasis on getting the ball into the hands of people who can make plays,” Bachér said. “If we’re able to do that, we feel like we can’t be stopped as an offense.”