Football: Over a decade, how have Mick McCall’s Northwestern offenses fared?


Joseph Wilkinson, Reporter

It’s one of the oldest tropes for grated college football fans: Fire the offensive coordinator. For every Lincoln Riley, the Oklahoma head coach and former offensive coordinator who designed the Sooners’ record-breaking attack last year, there are dozens of people sitting
in folding chairs, downing Busch Lights and yelling about how they could call better plays.

After a 7-point performance against Duke and a three-turnover disaster vs. Akron, Northwestern’s Mick McCall is hearing especially loud cries from the folding-chair coaches. They’re calls he has heard since he took over in 2008, making him one of the longest-serving offensive coordinators in the country and a grizzled veteran against stout Big Ten competition.

“We play against really, really good defenses every week,” McCall said. “It still comes down to running the football, stopping the run and taking care of the football. … In the Big Ten it’s definitely prevalent that you have to be able to do those things.”

McCall’s offenses have never been known to light the world on fire, and as NU is primed to take on Michigan, one of the best defenses in the country, a detailed statistical analysis found McCall’s squads to be remarkably average.

Despite this, McCall remains rooted in his role on coach Pat Fitzgerald’s staff. Fitzgerald himself is a rare breed in his longevity; only five FBS head coaches have held their jobs longer than Fitzgerald, who took over in 2006.

Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, Gary Patterson at TCU and Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State have all had similarly long tenures helming power-conference programs, but all three have gone through multiple offensive coordinators.

And yet McCall endures, adjusting his scheme while remaining true to his Big Ten roots.

“We’re a spread team. We run a lot of run-pass option-type things,” McCall said. “We’re going to spread it out and make people defend space, but we’re still going to run the football well.”

But have McCall’s teams been quantifiably good at those things during his time at NU?

The most basic ways to quantify an offense, yards per game and points per game, are both dependent on several factors outside the control of the offensive coordinator: How many plays the team runs per game, the quality of their opponent and their average starting field position are just a few.

Rather, a metric called S&P+, a holistic measurement of offensive production, attempts to account for all those factors. The formula for S&P+ has been altered marginally during McCall’s time at NU, so it is most useful to chart the Cats’ national ranking in Offensive S&P+ than to use the raw numbers.

Additionally, it is important to consider worthwhile comparisons for the Cats. NU is unique on the college football landscape — a private university with more than 10,000 fewer undergraduate students than the next-smallest university in its Big Ten and also the rigorous academic standards of the 10th-ranked university by U.S. News & World Report.

It would make little sense to compare the Cats’ offense to Georgia, an almost 30,000-student public university that recruits at a much higher level, or Rice, which is ranked 16th by U.S. News and World Report but competes in Conference USA, with significantly lower football expectations.

Fitzgerald’s expectations for his alma mater, however, remain high.

“We don’t hide from the goals that we have, which are to win the Big Ten West, to win the Big Ten Championship, and then go win our bowl game,” Fitzgerald said before the season-opener at Purdue.

Thus, it only makes sense to compare NU to its Big Ten opponents.

“I love being in the Big Ten, it’s football,” McCall said. “Again, you have to run the ball, you have stop the run, and you have to take care of the football on offense.”

That aside, the Cats’ offense has been statistically worse than the average Big Ten offense during his time at the helm.

Among the 11 teams that have been in the Big Ten every year since 2008, the Cats average out as the 8th-best team by S&P+ ranking. They’ve also been below average when compared to only Big Ten West teams, which have generally failed to match their East Division counterparts offensively.

Even intra-conference numbers can be misleading, though, since blue-chip programs tend to recruit at a far higher level than NU and have for decades. A more accurate comparison is to power-conference teams who recruit similarly to the Cats. Fourteen such programs ranked within five spots of NU in 247Sports’ composite rankings in at least three years between 2008 and 2017. (Big Ten programs within two spots of the Cats in the Big Ten rankings in at least three years were also included.)

Cross-conference comparisons are also difficult. This data includes some of the worst power-five offenses in recent years, like 2014 Wake Forest (128th in S&P+) and 2017 Kansas (127th). The data below removes some of these outliers by focusing solely on NU’s conference foes who posted similar recruiting profiles: Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota.

Under McCall, the team’s Offensive S&P+ numbers are very close to the averages of teams that recruit similar talent, both within the Big Ten and among other power-5 teams. Like most comparable teams, McCall’s unit has its highs (43rd in S&P+ in 2011) and lows (111th in 2015), but he has balanced things out to an almost eerily average level.

Of course, not every team and player is mediocre. At various points, McCall’s units have featured a future season-long NFL starting quarterback, the best running back in program history and currently has a quarterback projected as a first-round pick in some NFL mock drafts, yet has never quite lived up to its potential.

That highly-rated quarterback, Clayton Thorson, has been in McCall’s system for five years now and the two have developed considerable chemistry.

“They’re going to run what I would like to run and vice versa,” Thorson said. “We have a lot trust in that we’re not going to go out there in a game, we’re not going to run something that I don’t like. I’m going to run what they want to do. They’re our coaches, and we have a lot of open communication.”

But in Thorson’s time and before, various issues, whether in play-calling, along the offensive line or just in execution have always held NU back from reaching the next level.

Sometimes, the talent is the answer. McCall’s offenses, which are clearly not as statistically efficient as an average Big Ten team, measure up much better when compared to teams that recruit similar talent. Given the talent Fitzgerald, McCall and the rest of the staff have recruited, the aggregate 10-year results have been almost exactly what would be expected, and almost never anything more.

In a sense, Mick McCall is an almost perfectly average Northwestern offensive coordinator.

A complete spreadsheet of the data used in the creation of these charts is available here.

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Twitter: @joe_f_wilkinson