clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

One Less Day Til Football Season, Post 5: Offensive Line

This is actually the third in a series of three photos in which Jerel Worthy "moves past a block attempt" by Brian Mulroe in the SB Nation database. Yes, it calls it a "block attempt".
This is actually the third in a series of three photos in which Jerel Worthy "moves past a block attempt" by Brian Mulroe in the SB Nation database. Yes, it calls it a "block attempt".

This ain't nothin but a gangster party. 

I heard a rumor Friday Night Lights ran its final episode last week. It's funny, because since Friday afternoon, I've watched just about 15 episodes of the first season. I think it would be one of the best shows I've ever watched if football accounted for somewhere between 6 and 10 percent of the plotline, as opposed to the roughly 2.5 percent of the story that it currently takes up. It's not that I can't enjoy non-football programming, I just find the attempted segues between a very typical TV drama and a show ostensibly about football painful. Look, Friday Night Lights authors, you don't need to bait people into watching sappy romance stories about young attractive people: I'm on record as watching and enjoying "Gossip Girl". Apologies to the plotline about whether a young sheltered sophomore is being introduced too fast to things by her new experienced senior friend of questionable morality, but it isn't more compelling because one of them is the son of a coach and the other used to date a fullback (about which, why the hell is there a fullback prominently featured in the show?) It's a good show - comparing it to "Gossip Girl" isn't really fair, that show doesn't really attempt to discuss anything besides who Blake Lively and Leighton Meester are boning at any given point, where "FNL" discusses race and poverty and tragic accidents and a billion variations of levels of broken homedness at you - but saying it's a show about football is a bit like saying Pulp Fiction is a movie about Marcellus Wiley Wallace's briefcase. It's a MacGuffin, and a fairly powerful one as football pervades everything in the town from relations to fatherhood to religion, but after three straight episodes without a snap and about six without anybody yelling "CLEAR EYES FULL HEARTS", I'm wondering why I'm watching. I suppose I made the mistake of watching FNL because I love football, which is like watching ER because you're knowledgeable about the inner workings of hospitals and like hearing about them.

Days left til football: 46

Was the o-line good last year?: There are not enough ways to fully express the word "no". Let me start by saying that if I mention a stat in this article that should not be accompanied by the phrase "Big Ten worst", I will mention it when I cross it. If some soul seeking for a fairer depiction wants to argue that NU allowed more sacks and tackles for loss perhaps because NU ran the most plays on offense of any team in the conference - true, NU's 942 plays from scrimmage topped Michigan's 941 by one - sure, this contributes, but not enough to absolve allowing the most sacks - 40, 28 in conference, while no other team allowed more than 14, which is half as many - and tackles for loss - seven per game - than any other team in the Big Ten. And the Cats only got 3.64 yards per rush - caveat, ONLY NINTH IN THE BIG TEN - some of which was possibly due to the 40 sacks, but, still. When I say that Northwestern's offensive line took a step backwards in 2010, I mean that in that they went from allowing only 31 sacks in 2009 to 40 in 2010, but also in that they may have literally started every play by turning around and taking a step backwards while defenders charged untouched. 

Who did it? L-R: Al Netter, Brian Mulroe, Ben Burkett, Keegan Grant (Doug Bartels started until an injury) and Patrick Ward. Quite frankly, there wasn't even that much work off the bench - Bartels got in the game frequently, as did Neal Dieters, Colin Armstrong and Chuck Porcelli both played but I don't remember seeing either number on the field off the top of my head. 

Blame game: There's five positions: who are the culprits?

My intiial thinking was to focus on the mistakes of NU's inside guys: we always laud an all-conference left tackle in Al Netter and a highly touted prospect turned to solid performer in Patrick Ward at right tackle, but never hear anything about the other three, save Ben Burkett's annual naming to the Rimington Trophy watch list, cementing him as one of the best 40-odd centers in the country, which, just like every trophy watch list, is silly. (Last year's Biletnikoff Award Winner was not on the 70-give-or-take-20 person-strong Biletnikoff Award watch list. WHO'S WATCHING THE WATCH LISTS) 

But go ahead and name me a defensive end who came to NU and didn't have his way with the o-line. Ryan Kerrigan? Sack. Adrian Clayborn? Sack, possibly ended Dan Persa's season after storming past Netter on a QB hurry. J.J. Watt? Let's just say he did unspeakable things to Northwestern. Yes, these were all-Big Ten and all-Americans, but NU helped make their reputations despite probably cuing in on them. 

I would go back and look at gametape of where NU's defensive lapses leading to sacks came from. All 40 of them. I considered this. But the logistics of this (considering the one-sided nature of most NU highlights reels) is difficult. 

Who's got next?: The good, and, or, well, um, uh, bad news is that everybody involved in the line besides Keegan Grant will be returning to play for Northwestern. A gift and a curse: nothing's better for an o-line than experience - the same thing I said last year when NU returned three second-year starters - but that experience isn't necessarily for the best when you allow 40 sacks. There is an open battle at right guard between Deiters and Bartels: Bartels brings experience, Deiters brings size and also has started a bunch at right tackle. I'd say Deiters represented NU's best chance to have a Big Ten-ish line, but he's done nothing but regress from a starter to a backup in two years. My point is, although it's a good sign everybody's coming back since NU apparently doesn't have much going on outside of this core group of guys - thank goodness there's some good recruits on the way - nobody in this unit has done much to impress me. I presume some of this is due to my lack of ability to discern great offensive line play besides DURR SACKS, but, still. 

Rodger's three wishes: 

1. Some semblance of a run block: I mentioned that despite all the sacks, NU was only ninth in the Big Ten in rushing, despite all the sacks. Could be worse, right? A lot of this is due to the 4.5 yards per carry NU got on the ground on first down. As running situations developed, however, NU got worse and worse and worse. Second downs, NU got 3.39 yards per carry, I'm not mentioning what number that is in the conference, because the caveat has already been explained that not mentioning it means its last. Now let's talk about third down between 1-3 yards to go: NU attempted the most carries in the conference - 52 - but picked up only 1.73 yards per carry, 10th best in the conference, only Indiana (1.09) was worse, but they had the common sense to attempt such runs only 24 times. You can pin some of this on Jacob Schmidt and NU's lack of a power running game, but even Brandon Jacobs could only do so much if asked to run into a wall of his own jerseys being shoved backwards by defenders. When the threat of Dan Persa was around on first downs, teams had to defend the pass and a run for a gain was plausible. When teams expected rush, NU didn't have a shot.

2. Level playing field: 6-foot-6, 310 pounds, 6-foot-4, 295, 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, 6-foot-8, 315 pounds, 6-foot-7, 305 pounds. Those are the heights and weights of NU's offensive line if Neal Deiters starts - with Bartels, there's a slight, but very manageable, dropoff to 6-foot-4, 300 pounds at left guard. At 6-foot-2, 305, Keegan Grant was NU's smallest lineman. Now he's gone. These guys aren't smaller than they're supposed to be anymore. Their turn to play like it. 

3. Someone teach me what zone blocking is: I don't understand it.