Can Northwestern win a Big Ten game?
It was a fair question from Chicago Tribune writer Teddy Greenstein, but obviously one that didn't make Pat Fitzgerald too happy. In fact, Fitzgerald said that he was "insulted" by the question, and that Northwestern can absolutely win a Big Ten game.
In the literal sense, he's right. Northwestern probably should beat Illinois, Purdue and possibly Minnesota, and the Wildcats *can* beat anyone in the weak Big Ten West. But the point of the question was whether Northwestern can safely say it will be a competitive Big Ten team. And that's where Fitzgerald's reasoning is off-base.
"We won a football game," he said. "And as I look at our league, I think it still comes down to the 60 minutes you play each game. It's not anything you played in the past."
Fitzgerald will tell you that stats are for losers and that his annual FCS opponent is really good, but this was about as bad as a 24-7 win can get. The Wildcats gained a meager 4.29 yards per play. They were out-gained by 93 yards and put together far fewer good drives than the Leathernecks of Western Illinois. The passing game averaged 4.7 yards per attempt and 7.8 yards per completion — it was checkdown after designed short pass after checkdown.
The problems were what we've seen all along. A win doesn't change that. Trevor Siemian locked onto receivers short of the sticks and missed some others down the field. The secondary played below its potential. And most importantly, the offense did not put players in position to succeed.
Fitzgerald was noticeably frustrated that I continue to ask him about the offensive scheme changing — he claims it hasn't — but it's pretty hard to defend that today. NU went back and forth between trying to run a spread, and trying to line seven guys up on the line and pound it down the defense's throat.
The Wildcats missed a number of short-yardage runs — including one on fourth down — because they tried to line everyone up on the line and power run. And just like in the first two games, it didn't work. Northwestern continues to try to be Stanford, Wisconsin or Iowa, and it continues to stagnate an offense that before this week, only ran successful offensive plays a quarter of the time. Former NU players Nate Williams and Jeremy Ebert expressed their bewilderment over the lack of success (and the gameplan) on Twitter.
jesus.... effin insanity is going on with northwestern.... quit expecting different results please.— Nate Williams (@BigEasyCat44) September 20, 2014
There are a few issues with Northwestern's offensive approach. The first is that it simply doesn't play a style that fits the players it recruits. Fitzgerald denies this — he said today that he thinks the offensive line was recruited for what they're asked to do — but the play on the field doesn't back that up. The Wildcats recruit smaller running backs who can do things in the space afforded by a spread offense, but they choose to shrink the field instead.
The scheme makes even less sense for the offensive line. The Wildcats like to recruit smaller, more athletic linemen who can zone block and provide more space downfield. They aren't going to be successful trying to move a pile, no matter how many tight ends are on the line to help them. Heck, they weren't even successful doing it against an FCS team. That's not a knock on them, either; that's not what they were recruited to do. It's just an incredible failure of the coaching staff to use what could be a solid accumulation of talent.
The second issue is that Fitzgerald seems to fundamentally misunderstand why the offense can't switch back and forth between spreading the field and trying to power run. Bad plays affect the play calling far more than they should, and an unsuccessful play on first down kills far too many series.
It may seem riskier, but the smarter move is to stick to your identity, even if it leads to a few bad plays. A couple bad plays on first and second down shouldn't lead to a six-yard pass on third-and-eight. Moreover, a third-and-four shouldn't suddenly cause the Wildcats to stack the line. Northwestern is far too concerned about being situational on offense. The best don't let one bad play affect their offensive approach, because they know they'll have enough successful plays to make up for it. Nobody is better at sticking to the plan than Chip Kelly, who sticks to his identity and has tremendous success with it.
"The more offensive personnel we put in the box, the more defenders the defense will put in there, and it becomes a cluttered mess," (Kelly said).
"That is the great thing about football. You can be anything you want. You can be a spread team, I-formation team, power team, wing-T team, option team, or wishbone team. You can be anything you want, but you have to define it." That definition is evident in Oregon. Kelly's choice of a no-huddle spread offense drips from every corner of the impressive practice facilities in Eugene. Oregon does not run a no-huddle offense so much as they are a no-huddle program.
Baylor is similar. Coach Art Briles will go for the home run ball on every play, knowing that if it doesn't work on one series, there's a good bet that it will enough over the course of 60 minutes to pull out the win.
"We're trying to score every play. That's it. We're not trying to make first downs. We're trying to score touchdowns. We're simple."
Northwestern does not need to be Baylor, nor does it need to be Oregon. However, the Wildcats need to know who they are and stick to that plan — not be half of who they are and half of who they wish they would be.
Sure, Pat Fitzgerald's team won the game today. That's the only stat that matters if this were the only game of importance this year. But presumably, the Wildcats would like to win again. And as much as it might insult Fitzgerald, that's not going to happen much more if the type of gameplan we saw today continues.