Football: Analyzing Northwestern’s new offense under Mike Bajakian


Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Peyton Ramsey lines up under center. The graduate quarterback has led Northwestern’s turnaround on offense this season.

Andrew Golden and Peter Warren


Needless to say, Northwestern’s offense last season was unacceptable by all standards. The Wildcats played four different quarterbacks last season who combined for six touchdowns, 15 interceptions and completed exactly 50 percent of their passes as a group.

NU averaged just under 300 yards per game, good for 124th out of 130 teams in the country. The Wildcats’ offense scored 16.3 points per game in 2019, which ranked 126th. Their points per game was just below 3-9 SEC bottom feeder Vanderbilt, but slightly better than Old Dominion, Bowling Green and Rutgers. Yes, Rutgers.

Pat Fitzgerald immediately made moves to improve his offense. He parted ways with long-time offensive coordinator Mick McCall a day after NU’s 2019 season ended. McCall had served as offensive coordinator for the Cats since 2008.

Less than a month later, Fitzgerald tabbed former Boston College offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian as McCall’s replacement. Bajakian has also made stops in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and at the collegiate level with the Tennessee Volunteers and the Cincinnati Bearcats. Bajakian’s college offenses were highly productive — they averaged 424 yards and 31.3 points per game in nine seasons as offensive coordinator and were top-40 offenses nationally seven times.

“In my past I’ve been a part of many different schemes and many different personnel groups,” Bajakian said in December. “I’ve found that the most successful offenses were very simply geared towards getting the ball to the guy who can do the most with it in his hands.”

Fitzgerald also bolstered the quarterback room by bringing in graduate transfer quarterback Peyton Ramsey from Indiana. Ramsey — a team captain for the Hoosiers — threw for 6,581 yards over his three year career, adding 42 TDs and 23 INTs.

The biggest question mark for Northwestern coming into the 2020 season was the new-look offense. Any chance at Big Ten West and Big Ten titles this season were predicated on the success of the offense.

Under Bajakian’s tutelage and Ramsey’s leadership, the Cats offense has made significant strides. Here are some tendencies and takeaways from this year’s offense through seven regular season games.

Note: Only plays featuring a majority of the starting lineup were charted. Plays in blowouts featuring the second string were not included in the formation data set.

The statistical difference

NU’s offense was historically bad in 2019, which meant that it would be fairly easy to see signs of improvement.

The Cats’ offense is better across the board in almost all offensive statistical categories in 2020.

This is not surprising to anyone. The on-field product has looked so much better and much more efficient this season with Bajakian as offensive coordinator, and it makes sense for the stats to follow.

However, when compared to teams across the country and not to last season’s numbers, the stats tell a different story. NU is 89th in the country in scoring at 25.3 points per game, and 100th in yards per game at 351.4.

The reason for these middling overall numbers may lie in the one area that has been a weakness for both the 2019 and 2020 NU teams: explosive plays. Neither team was good at breaking off a game-changing, big play. The Cats had 13 plays of 30+ yards in 2019, or just about one per game. This season, NU has eight in seven games, and only one play of 50 yards or greater.

The 2020 Cats have been much better in gaining medium-sized plays of 10-20 yards — 9.9 per game compared to 7.4 — which has been a key reason for their success in sustaining drives and moving the football. But that lack of a deep threat or door-breaking play has limited the offense’s potential to enter a higher echelon of success.

In the hands of the playmakers

From the moment he arrived in Evanston, Bajakian preached about getting the ball into the hands of the team’s playmakers. The idea quickly became ingrained in the mind of the entire program, with players and even Fitzgerald regurgitating the concept.

As formations shifted and gameplans changed, this idea has been a constant throughout the season. And for each game, the top playmaker has been Kyric McGowan.

McGowan’s rise as a multidimensional playmaker started last season when he moved into the running back room as injuries decimated the group’s depth. Before he was injured himself and missed the last few games of the season, McGowan was splitting time in the backfield and on the outside.

His time in the backfield demonstrated his ability to be an effective rusher in addition to a dynamic pass catcher, and Bajakian has treated McGowan like a swiss-army knife.

The senior has 30 catches and 19 carries for a combined 448 yards, over 100 yards more than any other player from scrimmage.

There are a few different ways Bajakian has lined up McGowan this season to have him make plays. The most often is in his natural position as a receiver out wide. He has started in the slot only 32 times all season, or just about four times per game.

While in this role, McGowan can stretch the field in a variety of ways as a pass catcher depending on the routes he runs.

When lined up wide or in the slot, McGowan also frequently moves in motion across the formation. While this can serve as just a way to help Ramsey gain more information before the snap, it is also a great way to get McGowan a head of steam on a jet sweep.

And then McGowan also lines up in the backfield occasionally in a two-RB set. When lining up in the backfield, he has taken the handoff, served as a lead blocker for the other back, been motioned back out wide or even served as a checkdown option.

No matter where he lines up, Bajakian has made him a threat to get the ball in many different situations. That has reaped benefits for the offense the entire season.

Two tight ends

One of the biggest expectations heading into the season was that Bajakian was going to use a lot of 12 personnel, or two tight end sets. Something rarely seen during the superbacks era, two-tight end sets were a staple of Bajakian’s offense during his one year at Boston College.

That expectation has proved to be a reality. NU has run 154 plays with two tight ends, with half of their games featuring 27 or more plays of the set.

Part of the success of this formation is the varied skillsets of the top two tight ends: graduate transfer John Raine and junior Charlie Mangieri. Raine is a pass catcher first who is as comfortable lining up in the slot as he is on the line of scrimmage. Mangieri is a block-first tight end who isn’t much of a threat to catch the ball, but can lay down a firm block.

Bajakian also moves the two around the field when they are in together. Their most featured set is when they start on the same side of the offensive line.

Other times, Mangieri will be on the line of scrimmage and Raine will be set up deeper in the backfield as an H-back. And other times, they will be two of the three receivers in a bunch set.

No matter where they are, the two have been productive and making plays. Raine earned All-Big Ten honorable mention with 14 catches and 122 yards. Mangieri has only six catches, but two of them have been for touchdowns.

Bunch Formation

The Bunch formation takes place when three receivers are grouped tightly on one side of the field, with the intention of creating confusion and mismatches among defensive backs and linebackers.

Bajakian had utilized two forms of the bunch — one with two wide receivers and one with two tight ends — with a wide receiver often lined up on the opposite side. As the season has progressed, NU has increasingly used the bunch formation.

In the season opener against Maryland, the Cats experimented with the formation right away, using it five times on the opening possession. After that drive, they only used it four more times the rest of the game. NU used bunch formation less than ten times in four of the team’s first five games, with the lone anomaly in that stretch coming against Nebraska — the Cats used it 18 times.

But in the past two matchups, NU has come back to the bunch formation often. The Cats used it 11 times against Michigan State and 14 times against Illinois.

The personnel groupings on these bunch plays often has dictated what kind of play is run. NU has come out in bunch formation with two or three wide receivers 34 times through its first eight games. Of those plays, 21 have been resulted in pass plays or quarterback scrambles when the pass play broke down. In the same formation, but with two tight ends, the Cats ran the ball 30 of the 36 plays this season. Against the Fighting Illini alone, 11 of the Cats 13 bunch plays with two tight ends were rushes.

Starting off strong

The wait was finally over. 329 days after fans had last seen the Wildcats’ offense, they finally had a chance to see just how good this offense could be. Fortunately, the new-look offense didn’t make them wait too long.

After a Maryland field goal, NU marched down the field on its opening drive in 14 plays and capped off the drive with an Isaiah Bowser rushing touchdown. The Cats did a little bit of everything on that drive — nine rushes from three different players, five passes with three different pass catchers on the receiving end and two-third down conversions. That 4:20 drive was an omen for how successful this offense would be to start the second half of that game and the rest of the season.

“There was a great response,” Fitzgerald said after the game. “Our offense then being able to sustain a drive the way they did allowed us to get a lot of confidence as a team. It’s a new offense. It’s a new quarterback. And to get that first drive was great.”

In that same game, NU methodically paraded down the field on 17 plays, with Bowser this time catching a pass for a touchdown from Ramsey to practically put the game out of reach.

Since that game, the Cats have scored on their six of their 12 opening possessions to begin the game or half. NU has scored on the team’s first possessions against Nebraska, Purdue and Wisconsin, while scoring on the first possession of the second half against the Cornhuskers, Michigan State and Illinois. To put that into perspective, the Cats only scored on their first possession of a half five times in 24 attempts last season.

Running the ball efficiently is crucial to gaining momentum each half. NU is averaging 6.9 rushes on these scoring drives, while averaging just four passes on those same drives.

Peyton to Ramaud on long down-and-distance scenarios

If there has been one player who has benefited the most from the Mike Bajakian offense, senior wideout Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman would fit the bill. Chiaokhiao-Bowman has 30 catches this season — a significant number considering he had 41 combined in his first three seasons.

It’s widely reported that once Ramsey committed to the Cats, he and Chiaokhiao-Bowman began working together and immediately built rapport as a quarterback-wide receiver tandem. Ramsey’s trust in RCB has manifested itself in long down and distances — typically six yards or more.

Take, for instance, Chiaokhiao-Bowman’s breakout performance against the Boilermakers — a game in which he caught eight passes on 10 targets for 86 yards and three touchdowns.

The average yardage needed on plays when he was targeted was eight yards. Eight of his ten catches were on down and distances of at least six yards. On the sixth drive of the game alone, Ramsey found RCB three times — on 2nd and 18, 3rd and 6 and 2nd and 11.

“We’re playmakers. Coach puts us in the right position to win and Peyton makes sure the ball’s in the right position for us to win,” Chiaokhiao-Bowman said after beating Purdue. “Peyton trusts us and we trust Peyton.”

But this isn’t the only game where this has taken place.

In the Maryland game, he caught three passes on third and long and had two more targets on second and long. He added two third down catches on third down against Iowa and Nebraska. Despite not converting on any of the throws, Ramsey looked for RCB on three separate third and longs against Wisconsin. They did, however, hook up for three catches of 25, 21 and 13 yards.

Ramsey fired a pass Chiaokhiao-Bowman’s way 14 times against Michigan State and a whopping 10 of those were in a down-and-distance of at least 10 yards. He snagged eight catches that game and no other player had more than four.

“If you’re inside the facility, you know what (Chiaokhiao-Bowman) brings to the table,” Ramsey said.

Fourth Down Fitz

For the last few years, Fitzgerald’s aggression on fourth down has become such a staple of the NU offense he has been stowed the moniker “Fourth Down Fitz.” Ben Pope wrote about Fitzgerald’s fourth-down play calling in 2018, noting that the team’s uptake in fourth-down attempts started in 2016.

A new offensive coordinator hasn’t changed Fitzgerald’s aggressiveness on fourth down.

The Cats are 16th in the nation with a conversation percentage of 73.7 percent, converting on 14 of 19 attempts. Those numbers do not include a fourth-down conversation NU picked up in the Purdue game when the Cats got Lorenzo Neal Jr. to jump offside via the play design.

When the starting unit has been on the field, the Cats are 13 of 17 on fourth down, with their distance ranging from one to 10 yards. NU has also been fairly even in its pass/rush splits, running the ball nine times and passing on eight. They have also worked out of the shotgun and under center. This has led to an unpredictability to NU’s fourth-down play calling, especially in short-yardage situations, where the Cats haven’t been afraid to throw the football.

The Cats four failed conversations are a mixed bag of missed opportunities. The biggest one was the 4th-and-1 on the first drive against Michigan State, when a missed blocking assignment led to Bowser being stopped in the backfield on defense. But some are fluky, like later in that Michigan State game when the referees picked up a flag for defensive pass interference.

“You better buckle it up, because I’m going to be aggressive,” Fitzgerald said after the Michigan State game. “I’m not gonna sit here and say fourth downs’ punt. That’s Pat Fitzgerald 1995. Pat Fitzgerald 2020 — we’re gonna be as aggressive as I think is smart within the flow of the game.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @andrewcgolden

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @thepeterwarren

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