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The Northwestern Offense: Historical Prologue

During the remainder of the summer, I am planning to put together a series of posts about Northwestern's offense that can (hopefully) serve as an informative introduction and a source of reference material for me during the season. Before I start writing about the modern Northwestern offense, though, some background on how we got here is in order.

We should start in 1995 when Gary Barnett took NU to the Rose Bowl. After another solid season and shared Big Ten Championship in 1996, however, things went south. By 1999, when Randy Walker took over, NU was coming off a winless conference season in 1998, and when Walker went 1-7 in conference in 1999 (with the only win coming over this Iowa team) NU could have plunged back into the Dark Ages. The very next season, however, NU picked up a share of the conference title. While 2000 was hardly the strongest year in the Big Ten (the three co-champs were 6-2 in conference), the biggest factor in the turnaround was the introduction of the current offense's ancestor.

Chris Brown has written both on what Randy Walker and Kevin Wilson brought to the emerging world of spread offenses and on the upset of Michigan that remains my favorite live football memory. I defer to Brown on the broader schematic impact of the 2000 season, but for Northwestern the important thing was the discovery of a successful offensive philosophy that has remained fairly stable ever since (oh, and that Big 10 championship). The statistics are worth mention because the turnaround is astounding: in 1999, NU scored 12.8 points per game. The quarterback with the most attempts and yards was Nick Kreinbrink, who completed only 38% of his passes. Not far behind was future starter Zack Kustok, who gave back his slight advantage in completion percentage (45.8%) by throwing shorter passes and an extra interception. Damien Anderson ran for 1000 yards, but only because he carried the ball 25.5 times per game for a mere 3.7 YPC.

The turnaround was most dramatic and important in points scored: the 2000 team put up 36.8 PPG-an improvement of 24 PPG in a single season! Kustok's completion percentage shot up to 58% and his interception rate plunged in a full year at the helm, as he improved his YPA by 2 full yards and only threw one more interception (7 in 2000 to 6 in 1999) in more than twice the number of attempts. Anderson, meanwhile, set the NU single-season rushing record, reaching 2000 yards rushing with a stellar 6.5 YPC (there is a disagreement here between the official numbers in the NU record book and the numbers at the link, as Northwestern counts the 149 yards he picked up in the Alamo Bowl against Nebraska in the season total). Anderson's 2000 season contained the 3rd, 4th, and 9th best single game rushing performances in NU history. Kustok tacked on 450 rushing yards, with another 450 split between Kevin Lawrence and Torri Stuckey.

The 2000 season marks the last time that Northwestern was unambiguously ahead of the schematic curve. When you watch video of that offense, you see the fruits of innovation: defensive backs conceding easy slants, linebackers failing to run down receiver screens, and Damien Anderson running straight through defenses that had never seen a team come out on first down with four receivers and a commitment to running the ball. Within a few years (indeed, by bowl season) teams would figure out how to limit the easy stuff, but Walker's transformation from a traditional Midwestern MANBALL coach to a spread innovator paid off in spades.

Given the turnaround, it is little surprise that the spread was here to stay. As I will discuss in more detail in the coming weeks, Northwestern has changed most of the details of the offense to keep up with defensive adaptations, but the roots of NU as an up-tempo spread to run team are the desperate decision by a couple of old-school offensive coaches to try something new.