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How Northwestern misunderstands offensive strategy

The Wildcats' view of "success" on offense is flawed.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern's first drive of the second half is the one that best exemplified the Wildcats' offensive strategy on Saturday. NU had gone into the locker room down just 4 points, and it had the opportunity to take the lead with the first possession out of halftime. Instead, here's how that series went.

  1. Screen pass to Kyle Prater with Miles Shuler blocking for two yards. That combination doesn't make a lot of sense, but that's a topic for another day.
  2. Quick pass to the sideline for three yards to make it third and five.
  3. Quick pass to Shuler for four yards.
  4. Punt on fourth and one.

I might disagree with the first play call, because I don't see that personnel grouping being all that successful, but Northwestern runs it enough that the coaches clearly think it can be successful, so I can't fault them too much. But the second and third plays are inexcusable, and they represent NU's inability to recognize what makes an offense successful.

We'll use the Football Outsiders definition to determine what a successful play is:

A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

The second down play was perhaps the worst offender. The ball was thrown to the sideline roughly three yards down the field, meaning the best possible outcome was a Kyle Prater catch for three yards. However, it was second and eight, meaning the bar for a successful play would be 5.6 yards. So that means the Wildcats ran a play where they knew that the best possible outcome was an unsuccessful play, and by a pretty wide margin.

After that completion, it was third and five. In this instance, a successful play would be any first down. However, Trevor Siemian threw a quick pass to Miles Shuler for just four yards. Shuler was blanketed by Minnesota's man coverage, and therefore, he could not go anywhere after the catch. Commence the punt team.

That means on NU's first possession, it ran one play that it knew had zero chance of being successful, and another that it knew had a very slim chance of being successful, as it would require an egregiously missed tackle.

This was the Wildcats' offensive strategy the entire game. The plan was to play the baseball equivalent of "small ball," hoping to use small, largely unsuccessful plays to get first downs in three-play sequences. This is a "football way" of thinking: Try to get into third-and-manageable and inch your way down the field to minimize mistakes, regardless of whether the plays are actually successful.

This strategy is bad in general, but it was absolutely terrible for Northwestern, in particular. Minnesota was playing man defense, meaning those quick throws short of the sticks were typically going to be blanketed right away. If the defense was in zone, it might provide a little more space. As a result of trying to play small ball against a solid man defense, NU ended up with far too many throws short of the sticks.

Even Northwestern's final offensive play of the game — a drop by Kyle Prater that Pat Fitzgerald would describe as an execution error — was a route short of the sticks. Even had Prater caught the ball, he may not have even gotten the first down, because he was blanketed by a linebacker.


Moreover, the idea of Northwestern wanting to win by sustaining long, methodical drives that just barely get the first down each time is flawed. Coming into the game, NU ranked 109th nationally in offensive success rate, while Minnesota ranked 18th in defensive success rate. The Wildcats simply weren't going to score enough points to win this game without picking up bigger chunks of yardage at a time.

I asked Fitzgerald about this after the game, and he chuckled.

"I'll take third and manageable," he said. "If I'm going to be in third down, I'll take third and six all day. I think we can get those."

I get what Fitzgerald was saying — of course you want to have to go fewer yards than more yards if you get that chance — but it also shows the fundamental issue with Northwestern's offense. The Wildcats opt to run unsuccessful plays because in the minds of the coaches, they would rather run a fairly unsuccessful play than risk running a "very" unsuccessful play.

In their minds, a designed three-yard pass on second and eight that has an 80 percent probability of completion is a better option than a 10-yard pass, or even a 6-yard pass, that has, say, a 50 percent chance of completion. This is how coaches have thought forever, but it's a complete misunderstanding of statistics and of how offenses score points. And it shows that they don't understand what constitutes a successful play — thus leading to a paltry 4.7 yards per play and 17 points.

I've used it before when discussing Northwestern's offense, but this Art Briles quote perfectly exemplifies why Baylor is so good at what it does, and why the Wildcats can't seem to score enough points.

"We're trying to score every play. That's it. We're not trying to make first downs. We're trying to score touchdowns."

It's clear that Pat Fitzgerald is never going to coach this way, and that's fine, because very few coaches are willing to subscribe to that philosophy. However, Northwestern at least needs to try to run a successful play on every down. If the offensive strategy doesn't follow that logic, then the Wildcats aren't going to be very successful no matter who they play.