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The missing piece to Northwestern's offense

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Is the passing game holding this team back?

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

A turnover-forcing defense. More aggressive play calling. Improved offensive line play. Better execution on special teams. The emergence of an effective run game.

These are the reasons given for Northwestern football's mid-season renaissance. Ironically, the one thing missing from that list is the passing game, despite its improvement in recent weeks.

Since 2007, the hallmark of NU football has been its innovative passing attack. But you wouldn't know that from watching this year's team. Now the passing game is holding the rest of the team back. The question is: why?

I asked Pat Fitzgerald that question at Monday's press conference.

"We've missed a couple throws," he said. "We've allowed ourselves to be covered a few times. And we are very critical of our play inside the 10 schematically. We've had some mental busts down there too."

Fitzgerald makes it sound like the passing game is very fixable. Parts of it are, but others will take time.

The red zone inefficiency is more than a passing game problem, but one that needs solving nonetheless. The Cats rank 19th in the nation in red zone conversion rate, but 89th in red zone touchdown conversion rate. When they reach the red zone, they find the end zone only 55% percent of the time.

Fitz blamed the red zone troubles on schematics and mental errors. Schematically, the coaching staff has definitely improved since the 0-2 start. They wisely veered away from the power running scheme they tested against Cal, Northern Illinois and Western Illinois, and they have become more aggressive with their offensive play calling. The mental errors are correctable.

While Fitz sounds critical of the wide receivers, they are not to blame for the lackluster aerial attack. If anything, the receivers have improved throughout the season. The only thing the receiving core caught was "dropitis" those first two games. But they got healthy and have found the cure since then.

"We have depth at wide receivers," Fitzgerald said. "We didn't have that the first two games."

Also, the wide outs are blocking better. It's no coincidence the running game is beginning to come alive.

"A lot of those runs happened because our receivers engaged downfield," Fitz said.

Fitz added that Justin Jackson still had to extend some runs on his own, and that the receivers need to "finish plays better." But that is not the reason for the poor passing game. According to Fitz the receivers need to do a better job getting open. This may be true, but even when they get open, they aren't always getting the ball.

The play of Trevor Siemian is more concerning. On Saturday, he missed open receivers, sometimes badly, on numerous occasions. He had some good moments early in both the Penn State and Wisconsin games, but struggled down the stretch. Even Fitz admitted that he's inexplicably sailing some throws.

To be fair Siemian made some clutch throws against Wisconsin and has only one interception in the last three games, which is an improvement. But his numbers are still down from last year. He is completing just 57 percent of his throws and averaging under six yards per attempt. Last season he completed 60 percent and averaged over seven yards per throw. Moreover, in 2012 and 2013 Siemian had an adjusted QBR around 58. This year he has an adjusted QBR of 39.8, which ranks 105 in the nation.

Siemian's brilliant first quarter performance against Penn State illustrates what this offense is capable of. Siemian threw for 150 yards and led two scoring drives against a good defense. But that was one of the only stretches when the passing game maximized its potential.

Imagine the prolific offense of the "old" Fitz era, coupled with the new and improved stingy defense we saw against PSU and Wisconsin. That Northwestern team would hands down be the team to beat in the West division. The passing game has a long way to go before that happens, but we haven't even reached the halfway point of the season. The hope for another mid-season renaissance, this time in the passing game, rests on the arm of Trevor Siemian.