Northwestern's offense has struggled mightily this season, but a heavy dose of superback Dan Vitale might just be the thing to cure the offense's woes. As a player who can line up outside as a wide receiver, inside as a tight end, or in the backfield as a fullback, Vitale is a versatile weapon for the Northwestern offense.
Despite leading the team in yards (282) and being tied for the lead in receptions with Kyle Prater (26), Vitale's targets have dwindled, something that is not only maddening fans, but also severely limiting the offense. He seemed to have a possible injury — or at least, some reason he didn't return — in the Nebraska game, but this has been a season-long issue. It showed when the offense struggled to score against Minnesota and then again when it grinded to a halt in the second half versus Nebraska.
Vitale is a big play threat. Of the six Wildcats with double-digit catches on the season, Vitale's 10.8 yards per catch ranks second, behind Cam Dickerson's 15.5 mark. Vitale is especially proficient on first down and is absolutely money on third down. On the year, he has 10 catches for 113 yards (11.3 ypc) on first down, essentially earning yardage for a new first down every play. Hence, the offense should try to incorporate Vitale more on first down plays; get him the ball via screens, making for an easy completion for Trevor Siemian. That strategy worked well on this play against Penn State.
Vitale is also very productive on third down. Of his 11 receptions on third down this year, nine have resulted in first downs. None of them were more crucial than the conversion against Wisconsin three games ago. Needing to pick up three, Siemian rolled out after the play action fake and found Vitale pulling across the formation, making for an easy throw. The result? A sixteen-yard catch-and-run that put the game away. On the year, the Cats convert under 40 percent of third downs. Vitale converts at over 81 percent.
Vitale also has the size and sure hands to excel down the middle of the field. With Northwestern failing to produce big plays as of late, he needs to get back involved in the downfield passing game immediately. Even if the ball isn't always thrown to Vitale down the middle of the field, simply his presence in the middle opens up room for other receivers to work with, especially underneath the coverage. The matchups he gets up the seam — he's too fast for linebackers and too big for defensive backs — have arguably been his best attribute at NU.
But you really don't need advanced stats to measure this: when Vitale is actively involved, the offense is simply better. Against a good Penn State defense, Vitale wreaked havoc mainly down the middle of the field. He ended up with a 7-catch, 113-yard performance. Against Wisconsin, Vitale only had two catches, but they were both extremely important: the above-mentioned third down conversion and the touchdown catch, which was coincidentally one of Siemian's best throws all year. In the past two games combined, Vitale only has 6 catches for 45 yards. It's not because of drops — something that has plagued the team at times — but rather a lack of targets.
Dan Vitale is one of Northwestern's premier offensive playmakers. Without seeing consistent targets, however, he can't really help an offense that surely needs some help right now.