Look at me now. Look at me now. Look at me now. I'm getting paper!
You remember the scenario: NU trailed Auburn 38-35 in overtime. As you know, college overtime lets you match, and on fourth down, NU needed only a chippie to tie. A 23-yard field goal, even for backup kicker Steve Flaherty - who had never taken a field goal in a game before - would probably be easily makeable and allow NU to dodge a bullet after they had appeared to have been stopped and push Auburn to a second overtime.
Instead, craziness happened. Pat Fitzgerald called a modified fumblerooskie. If you really want to read about the play, I wrote way too many words about it here, but, for the purpose of this post, what matters is the fact that coach Pat Fitzgerald stared a second overtime in the face and decided to put his chances of winning the school's first bowl game in sixty years on a single play.
It didn't work; the play itself was flawed. But the decision is one hard not to approve of. NU football's biggest joke almost died on a play from the bag of tricks, and most coaches wouldn't have had the cojones to call it. It cemented a bold persona of Pat Fitzgerald in a lot of our heads: a fierce competitor willing to put it all on the line and make risky calls if it gave NU a shot at winning.
But it comes at a contrast to lots of what we know about Fitzgerald, whose coaching career tinged quite conservatively: this was the same guy who once said his goal was never to leave points on the field, to take the least risks possible. The coach whose offense is predicated on four-yard pickups rather than taking the longshot.The coach who, often infuriatingly, played for field position rather than going for it on fourth-and-short.
So which coach do we have? The one with the onions (®Bill Raftery), or the uber-conservative?
I decided to take a look at offensive decision-making: sure, a lot of this rests on coach McCall, but I feel it overall reflects Fitz's mentality. (Also, the 2011 Defense was a bad enough unit that I don't think focusing on it would reveal anything.)
Northwestern runs an EXTREMELY conservative offense. NU only had two plays of more than 50 yards on the season: a long gain to Rashard Lawrence against ISU and a 80-yard touchdown by Mike Trumpy, which came as a result of a run play on first-and-10. Quite simply, the "big play" isn't a part of NU's game plan. Instead, NU's game is wearing down defenses with drives of ten or more plays methodically working down the field - a category NU led the nation in through Dan Persa's injury.
In a system like that, there simply isn't any room for dramatic playcalling. A simple incompletion or play for loss leaves NU's offense needing to pick up more yardage than it is used to, which potentially derails a drive.
For the most part, that makes Fitz's playcalling "conservative". But I won't call him "not bold" for having his team execute a strategy that gives it the best chance of winning. As long as Fitz has been at NU, this system has best suited the skillsets of his quarterbacks, wide receivers, and running backs - or lack thereof - and his team has managed to be quite potent offensively when everything is clicking.
However, I have some qualms with Fitz's thinking:
1. Running ad nauseum
As with most teams, passing is the most effective method of moving the ball down the field for NU, especially considering Dan Persa. NU averaged 7.9 yards per attempt through the air, while only getting 3.64 yards per carry - however, NU ran the ball 557 times, and passed it only 385 times. Again, no qualms: this is pretty typical, also, as we all know, the run sets up the pass. Runs did a great job of setting up the pass, in fact: run plays on first down gained 4.5 yards for the Cats.
What irks me is when NU decided to put the ball on the ground: in situations that seemingly required passes, and with very little effectiveness. According to Football Outsiders, NU depended on the run more than average when they needed yards the most. NU ran the ball almost exactly the national average on downs FO considered "standard downs", but they ran 37.9 percent on passing downs, more than the national average of 34 percent, and 66.5 percent of the time in the red zone, above the national average of 60.4 percent.
On third down, NU ran the ball 98 times - the sixth most in the nation - while passing it 94 times - 99th in the nation. The results were disastrous: despite fewer attempts, passes resulted in more first downs than runs. Runs on third down resulted in a pitiful average of 1.94 yards per carry - 95th in the nation. The dependence on third down rushing might seem reasonable: after all, they've already had two plays - they probably had very little to pick up, and decided to put the ball on the ground, right?
That's wrong for two reasons: first of all, NU's rushing on third down with 1-3 yards to go was pitiful: 52 attempts - the eighth most in the nation - for 1.73 yards per carry - 111th in the FBS. They converted these situations 63 percent of the time, while on their 16 pass attempts on third with 1-3 yards to go, they converted 11 times, 68 percent.
Secondly, the insistence on putting the ball on the ground continues in third-and-long situations. With third and more than 10 yards to go, NU universally settled for a punt by playing conservative and keeping it on the ground: The Cats attempted 18 rushes, the 23rd most in the nation, getting only one first down on those 18 plays, while on their 31 pass attempts, the 85th most in the nation, NU earned 11 first downs - over a 33 percent success rate on plays needing to pick up over 10 yards.
This continues late in games. In the fourth quarter, NU attempted 131 rushing attempts for 2.87 yards per carry - 103rd in the country - as opposed to only 85 passes.
2. Penalty punting, and a lack of drive for three
I hate it when teams punt from enemy territory. Mathematicians will tell you never to punt except in extreme circumstances, that the odds of you getting the first generally give you a better chance of scoring than the difference between where your opponents would get the ball if you didn't punt and 35 yards further. But I understand why teams are conservative: a bad call is a huge momentum shift that turns into seven more often than not.
So I decided to look individually at each one of Brandon Williams' punts looking for a specific criteria: punts from the opposition's side of the 50, taken with less than five yards to go.
As luck would have it, I didn't find any. The closest I came was a punt on fourth-and-4 from the 50. NU punted four times from enemy territory, twice with more than ten yards to be picked up - although he probably could have tried a 53-yard field goal against Illinois on fourth and 17 instead of settling for a touchback and 16 yards of field position.
However, as I soon found out while inspecting the Purdue play-by-play, there was a reason for this seeming insistence on boldness: Fitz doesn't punt on 4th-and-short, rather, he lines up, tries to draw something, then takes the delay of game, giving his punter more room to work with and making my search for 4th-and-less than five futile as this always results in 4th-and-6 or more. At this point, I gave my apple-F a rest and was infuriated.
A look at NU's 11 fourth-down conversion attempts - down and distance and game position - revealed little: Fitz was hesitant to allow Stefan Demos to kick 40+-yard field goals - as much as I'll defend him, this was with good reason, he was two for his first six from that length, and didn't even get a chance to kick a 50 yarder - and generally only went for it on fourth in situations his team needed seven and would've been criticized for not going.
So I'll leave the question to you: is Pat Fitzgerald's on-field decision-making bold? Is his alternate nickname Crazy McGoforitonfourthdownwithabowlgameontheline or Conservative Noballsowitz-Runsonthirddownenstein? Why did I just decide to write those things?
I say he's bold, and it's not just because his off-field persona is the man of a million Scoville heat units and up to 10 Intense-o-meter units. He's no Tresselballer: he has the werewithal to make gutsy calls when the time calls for it, but part of that might be his WE MUST WIN A BOWL GAME thought process. I hope he spices up the other 12 games and three quarters of the football season: although the dink-and-dunk is NU's best hope at victory, and therefore will count as an innovative stratagem which we'll call "bold", ehhhh not so much on the running on third down.