Football: Diagnosing Northwestern’s offense

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor

There have been many explanations for the Wildcats’ slow offensive start through two games, all of them contributing factors: inaccurate throws by senior quarterback Trevor Siemian, blatant drops by receivers, a tepid running game and a Swiss-cheese offensive line. But one stone that’s been left unturned is Northwestern’s play calling. How much of an effect is the Cats’ offensive scheme having on their performance?

In the past I’ve called offensive coordinator Mick McCall uncreative and overly conservative, a claim I think is well backed by observation. But is there any data behind it? The first two games provide a sample size large enough to investigate, but unfortunately play calling is difficult to quantify.

One basic measure is a team’s run play to pass play ratio. So far, NU has called just 56 runs to a whopping 110 passes. Under the assumption of balance (that an offense should have half runs and half passes to avoid being predictable), this looks awful.

But, based on yardage, the Cats should actually be throwing the ball more. On called runs, the players are averaging 3.7 yards per play, but on called passes they have a much healthier 5.2 yards per play (the two numbers should be about equal). The two-to-one pass-to-run ratio is already pretty tilted, but NU should be tilting it further.

Digging deeper, I split the team’s yardage and play calling by formation. The full results are included in this table:

 Formation  Run Plays  Pass Plays  Total Plays  Total Yards  Average Yards
 Jumbo   7   0   7   13   1.9
 2WR 2 TE   1   0   1   4   4
 3WR TE   21   15   36   100   2.8
 4WR   11   25   36   212   5.9
 4WR unbalanced   2   9   11   42   3.8
 4WR bunch   4   13   17   136   8
 4WR trips   6   14   20   65   3.25
  5WR   4   28   32   143   4.5
 5WR trips   0   6   6   32   5.3

All formations are based on how the offense lines up before any pre-snap motions, which explains why there are running plays called out of the 5WR set. “4WR unbalanced” is when the offense lines up with three receivers to one side of the field. “Bunch” is when all four receivers are clustered near the offensive line. “Trips” is when three receivers on one side of the field are arranged in a triangle. Additionally, “TE” is this context refers to a receiver lined up next to an offensive lineman, because NU does not list tight ends on its roster (instead using superbacks). Whether a play is classified as a run or a pass is based on the intent and not the outcome of the play. While quarterback scrambles and sacks are accounted for on official box scores as runs, I count them as passes because that’s what the original play design was. This data also includes penalties and the assessed yardage.

The first insight: The Cats’ much maligned Jumbo set is as bad as everyone thinks it is. McCall calls plays that are expected to gain only the amount of yards needed, which supports the idea that he’s conservative.

Also interesting is the 3 wide receiver/tight end formation. Despite the team’s extreme passing tendency, NU has more called runs than passes out of this set. This explains why the rushing attack has been so bad: The Cats are telegraphing when they’re running the ball.

This is further substantiated by one particular personnel substitution. Freshman Garrett Dickerson is almost always the tight end on the line for these running plays, not usual starter junior Dan Vitale. Presumably, NU is giving up the element of surprise (whether they are going to pass or run) for a personnel advantage, but it isn’t working. Running plays out of this formation have averaged just 3.85 yards per play, barely better than the overall average.

A week ago, Kevin Trahan of InsideNU asserted that the Cats have abandoned the mindset that led to their original success under coach Pat Fitzgerald. The Medill senior is exactly right, and it’s supported by data. The offense has abandoned many of the inherent advantages of the spread, instead trying to win one-on-one battles. Through two weeks, most of those battles have been lost.

This is an NU offense that still has plenty of potential. The passing statistics would look much better if Siemian hadn’t been the victim of so many drops and had an offensive line that could block for more than two-and-a-half seconds (a column for another day). But there’s only so much coaches can do to influence and improve execution.

The scheme of the offense is entirely within their control, and the decisions that have been made in regard to the running game are baffling in light of the results. It isn’t difficult for opposing defensive coordinators to spot the trends that I just outlined, so the Cats will continue to struggle if they don’t make serious adjustments.

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Twitter: @BobbyPillote

Previous stories on this topic:

    Three takeaways from Northern Illinois’ 23-15 victory over Northwestern
    Northwestern drops second straight, losing 23-15 to Northern Illinois
    Big Ten suspends C.J. Robbins for punch against NIU