Football: Northwestern’s lack of explosive plays is a problem


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Kyric McGowan lines up on the outside. The junior has played both running back and wide receiver for NU this season.

Peter Warren, Print Managing Editor


Last week’s game against Purdue was a high mark for the anemic Northwestern offense this season. The Wildcats scored 22 points — their highest total against a Power 5 conference opponent this season — and gained 435 yards.

But beyond that, NU also illustrated an ability it had not displayed since facing UNLV in early September, with a season-best four explosive plays.

However, the Cats’ lack of explosive plays has been one of the main reasons their offense this season has been one of the worst in college football.

“When we threw on time and took what the defense gave us, we made big plays,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “There were other plays that were out there to be made that we did not make.”

For this piece, explosive plays are considered either pass plays of 16 yards or more or rushes of 12 yards or more, which is the definition provided by NFL research pioneer Mike Eayrs.

Through nine games this season, NU has run 641 plays on offense. Of those, 82 went for 10 yards or more. That means only 12.8 percent of plays the Cats have run resulted in moving the chains on a regular first-and-10. More specifically, the team has 23 explosive rush plays and 13 explosive pass plays.

The Cats also have only five plays of 30-plus yards — three rushes and two passes. That’s less than one percent of their total.

Over the past five years, NU has not been an explosive offense, ranking in the bottom sixth in the country in 2018, 2017 and 2014 and topping out at 65 in 2016. In 2017 and 2018, the offense was led by field general Clayton Thorson, who may not have been a big-play machine but was great at leading a team down the field. In 2014, NU finished with a losing record.

Against Purdue, NU had two of those five plays. On the Cats’ second play of the game, junior Kyric McGowan took a handoff up the middle, found a hole in the defense and sprinted 79 yards for a touchdown. It was the first touchdown for the Cats in over a month and only the second time this season NU had a play cover at least half of the field.

Then in the third quarter, Smith escaped the pocket as it started collapsing. After rolling to his right, he stopped, looked downfield and found a wide-open Berkeley Holman across the middle for a 33-yard gain. Fitzgerald said it was the first time in six-to-eight weeks the team had extended a play.

“I didn’t feel like any of the wide receivers on the route concept were open at the time,” Smith said. “So I escaped the pocket, playing high school ball again, Berkeley’s running down the middle of the field so why not throw it?”

This lack of playmaking can be somewhat attributed to injuries: senior wide receiver Bennett Skowronek hasn’t played since Sept. 21; sophomore deep threat JJ Jefferson is out indefinitely; tailback Isaiah Bowser has never been at 100 percent this season; and sophomore quarterback Hunter Johnson has also been oft-injured and limited.

But injuries don’t account for it all. The play calling hasn’t been conducive to big plays. Offensive execution has ranged from average to very poor. And there has been some bad luck.

Whatever the sources of the issues are, they’re holding NU back. Explosive plays correlate to winning football games, and the Cats have been doing neither.

Earlier this season, Bowser had a different take on NU’s offensive struggles.

“Just goes back to preparation,” Bowser said. “I guess we’re just not preparing correctly.”

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