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Why Northwestern's offensive turnaround is here to stay

Sometimes good performances are flukes. Given the circumstances, that's likely not the case here.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

If you were to judge Northwestern's offense based on the entirety of its performance over the first five games, it would be impossible to come up with any conclusion other than that this offense is bad. The Wildcats rank 99th in the Football Outsiders S&P+ ratings, and they have struggled to move the ball against some bad teams.

But two weeks ago, we saw a glimmer of hope from the Wildcats' offense. They put together one quarter of very good football against Penn State, and they made plays in both the running game and the passing game that they hadn't made before, due in part to a re-emphasis on the spread offense. It was NU's second-best offensive performance of the year to date, and it came against by far the best defense that the Wildcats had faced.

At that time, our Henry Bushnell wondered what the real NU offense was: the one that showed signs of improvements — even if still with major flaws — or the one from the first three games that was bad against bad defenses. The offense followed up that question with its best performance of the season against yet another solid defense, moving the ball more efficiently than it has all season against Wisconsin.

Opponent Opponent Def. S&P Rk NU YPP
Cal 97 4.37
Northern Illinois 62 4.93
Western Illinois N/A (FCS) 4.29 (wut)
Penn State 17 4.81
Wisconsin 35 5.13

The team that played Penn State, and most certainly Wisconsin, was not the 99th-best offense in the country. So it's time to pose that question again: Which is the real Northwestern? When analyzing that question, there are two possible arguments:

  1. The play against Penn State and Wisconsin was a fluke.
  2. Something substantial changed that means the offensive improvement could be sustainable.

Generally, I'm skeptical to make something of small trends. I caught some flack last year for pointing out that Northwestern's run of basketball luck was a fluke, and it turned out that it was. It's pretty easy to identify flukes — usually, people don't get drastically better at doing the exact same thing that they always have overnight.

But this Northwestern turnaround is different. Despite his reluctance to admit it, Pat Fitzgerald went into this year hoping to install more power packages into a team filled with spread personnel. His rationale for doing that, via superback Dan Vitale, was that the team had three good superbacks who could aid in blocking.

Because Northwestern has so many tight ends, Vitale said it has allowed them to be "a more complete offense." That means mixing in power personnel groups, and it's apparently what the offense wants to do.

The result was a disaster — otherwise known as "putting up 4.29 yards per play on Western Illinois." The problem wasn't with the personnel, it was that the personnel weren't being asked to do the things they were recruited for. The Wildcats recruit smaller, more athletic linemen fit for a zone blocking scheme that is aided by spreading the field. They can't expected to just "line up and beat you," and not surprisingly, they failed to do it.

But in the upset of Penn State, Northwestern started to get back to the offensive philosophy we were used to seeing. There were still power plays (that didn't really work), but NU spread the field more, sent the superbacks out for more passes and subsequently lessened the burden on the offensive line. While it still made some mistakes, the offensive line was much better, and it executed in scenarios that allowed the players to play to their strengths.

The Wisconsin game was even more impressive. The superbacks were more involved as receivers again, and the offensive line did a tremendous job executing its zone blocking schemes. The result was the Wildcats putting up a rushing performance against the Badgers that no other team had done.

Opponent Opponent YPC through week 6 Oppenent YPC vs. Wisconsin
LSU 4.5 2.7
Western Illinois 4.3 1.8
Bowling Green 4.8 3.2
USF 4 3.8
Northwestern 3.3 4.4

Every other team Wisconsin played did far worse than its season rushing average against the Badgers, but the Wildcats beat their average by over a yard per carry, and they were far better than any other Wisconsin opponent. So there's the question again: Is this a fluke, or is it an indicator of better things to come?

Without context, it would be easy to call that performance a fluke, but luckily, we have the advantage of knowing the context, and it's clear that the Wildcats have made a substantial schematic change that has coincided with their turnaround. Moreover, we know that these personnel have been successful before when used the way they were used against Penn State and Wisconsin, and the young players, like running back Justin Jackson, should only improve in time.

Unless Trevor Siemian gets some of his accuracy back — and that could certainly happen as he gets more comfortable — Northwestern is not going to have one of its better offenses in recent history. But given the improvement we've seen over the past two weeks, and the schematic changes that made them possible, the Wildcats aren't likely to have the 99th-best offense in the country going forward, either.