As bad as Northwestern's offense was at times in 2013, you couldn't fault it for being inefficient (that was Northwestern basketball's problem). The Wildcats struggled mightily with big plays, finishing 113th in the country in that category, but when you adjust for the strength of its opponents, NU had the 25th most efficient offense in the country.
Oh, how things have changed.
Football Outsiders posted their first offensive S&P+ ratings of 2014 today, and as many people would expect, Northwestern is noticeably terrible, coming in at 86th in the country. This isn't really news, but the Wildcats' stunning drop in efficiency is. Here are the raw numbers compared to last year:
|Year||Success Rate||Success Rate Rank|
|2014 (so far)||27.6%||117|
Just from a rankings perspective, that's an absolutely terrible number for 2014. But when you consider what it actually means, it's even worse. Here's the definition from Football Outsiders:
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.
Basically, Northwestern only has a successful offensive play on on 27.6 percent of downs. That's close to once every four plays. Meanwhile, last year's team was successful nearly twice as often. This year's team has been a little bit better on big plays (it ranks 69th), but its inability to move the ball at all is it's biggest problem.
This offense has no strength. It ranks 124th in rushing, 110th in passing, 122nd on standard downs and 88th on passing (desperation) downs. And the only thing that has kept the first two games as close as they have been is the defense, which ranks 35th, but against the 72nd and 80th best offenses in the country.
The drop in efficiency is striking, given that the situation isn't much worse than it was last year. The offensive line has the same players. The running back situation is arguably better, while NU has a healthier quarterback and more options at wide receiver.
I asked Pat Fitzgerald what the reason for such a drop could be — for the record, he nodded in seeming agreement when I noted that the problem looked like efficiency — and he said the same thing he always does, about this being about execution and scheme.
Given that the personnel has not changed all that much, the latter seems to be a much bigger issue, though Fitz again insisted that nothing has changed schematically. However, as I wrote after NU's loss to Northern Illinois, the inability of the coaches to apply a scheme that fits the players it recruits is hurting this offense, and it's impossible to be efficient with constant switches between power and spread philosophies.
Mick McCall has said that he likes being able to line six players up on the line and run, because the Wildcats finally have a group of tight ends who can do that, but the problem is, the rest of the offensive line isn't built to do that. And when the Wildcats line up in a heavy set, they immediately show their cards to the defense and hurt their chances of running a successful play.
For years, Northwestern was able to be at least somewhat efficient on offense by sticking to its identity. This year, drops and all, it's among the most inefficient offenses in the country. Even if Fitzgerald doesn't think his scheme has changed at all, now might be the time to make some changes to the current philosophy.