By any measure other than the play of sophomore running back Justin Jackson, Northwestern’s offense has been terrible this season. The Wildcats mustered a meager 4.52 yards per play, which ranked 120th out of 128 teams nationally. Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson was the worst regular starter in the Big Ten, throwing for just 5.3 yards per attempt, and the Wildcats’ best wide receiver was a former walk-on. Any way it’s sliced, the offense didn’t carry its weight for a 10-2 team.
Unsurprisingly, offensive coordinator Mick McCall gets much of the blame.
If you’re searching Twitter or talking to NU fans, it’s not hard to find someone upset with McCall. The Cats used to be known for an innovative and prolific spread offense, and under McCall’s continued guidance the script has totally flipped. NU is now unquestionably a defense-first team that has often relied on defensive touchdowns and special teams points to win this season.
But McCall isn’t entirely at fault for the offense’s poor performance and is far less responsible than many fans would argue. Calls to fire him are premature at best.
First, consider the offensive personnel McCall has to work with. Yes, Thorson was a four-star recruit, but he’s still a redshirt freshman playing the game’s hardest position. Many freshmen don’t play well and most don’t play at all, so of course Thorson had some growing pains. Take, for example, the pitch option plays NU ran early in the season.
Please stop running this awful option play. pic.twitter.com/UCQXwVcDUt
— Bobby Pillote (@BobbyPillote) October 10, 2015
I and many others blasted what seemed to be a terrible play call, but look at how poorly that play is executed. Thorson pitches the ball way too early and at least two blockers completely miss their assignment, leading to a play that’s blown up in the backfield. McCall shouldn’t call plays his players don’t know how to run, but that’s not the issue here. Most players have used some version of the option in high school so they should know what they’re doing. The execution by Thorson (and everyone else) is just not very good.
Also consider the players around Thorson. Junior Austin Carr was the leading wide receiver on the team in terms of yards with just 14 catches. Vitale led all players with 33 receptions for 355 yards, and nobody else had more than 23 catches or more than 300 yards. There simply isn’t much talent helping Thorson.
Likewise the offensive line struggled, swapping players in and out all season long due to injury and poor performance. No combination ever seemed to work well.
So what was McCall left to do? Give the ball to his best player as much as possible, which is exactly what he did by feeding Jackson a staggering 298 times, the most of any player through 12 games. It wasn’t pretty, but it often worked. Jackson frequently succeeded in spite of the offensive line in front of him.
Football Outsiders assigns an “Opportunity Rate” percentage to every offensive line in the country, measuring how often each line “did its job” and created running room for the ball carrier. NU did this just 35.3 percent of the time, ranking a dismal 106th nationally. I criticized it, but maxing out Jackson’s carries really was the best thing for the Cats and McCall to do.
Second, McCall has a proven track record and deserves at least some benefit of the doubt. When he took over prior to the 2008 season, the offense steadily improved, ranking 60th in yards per play during 2011 after finishing 92nd in McCall’s inaugural year. It wasn’t until 2014 — when quarterback Trevor Siemian was injured most of the year — and 2015 that the offense really took a nosedive.
McCall, who doubles as the quarterbacks coach, has seen two pupils — Siemian and 2009 starter Mike Kafka — play in the NFL, which is more than most college coaches can say. He also coached a third, 2010 and 2011 starter Dan Persa, from ignominy to stardom. Each rated as a three-star recruit out of high school, according to 247Sports, so McCall clearly is adept at developing quarterbacks.
Third, consider the alternative. If NU fired McCall, who would it hire? The program doesn’t have the money or clout to attract a big name, and going with a lesser-known candidate carries considerable risk — that he would never perform up to the level of McCall or leave for a better program as soon as he did.
Consistency matters in college football, especially when it comes to recruiting, and it shouldn’t be overlooked that coach Pat Fitzgerald has managed to assemble a staff loyal to him and the program. NU can certainly do worse than McCall, but it probably can’t do much better.
Fans are right to demand excellence from their football team, but much of the vitriol seems misdirected. If the Cats want to do better on offense they need better players and better execution, not a new offensive coordinator.
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