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Northwestern's efficiency problem and how it can be fixed

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The Wildcats have some playmakers that can get more yards on third down, and subsequently keep the coaching staff from constricting the playbook on later downs.

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern fell in the Football Outsiders S&P ratings again, due largely in part to an offense that struggled to move the ball effectively against FCS Western Illinois. Offensively, the Wildcats ranked 119th in the country, which is no surprise to anyone who's watched it regress, even since the Cal game.

Last week, when the initial S&P ratings came out, we diagnosed the offense's problem as a drop-off in efficiency. Even last year, the offense was relatively efficient, but this year, Northwestern has been extremely ineffective at moving the ball. The Wildcats have a success rate — defined as percentage of "successful plays" — worse than nearly everyone in FBS, and it was just as bad as against WIU as it was in the first two games.

(From Football Outsiders, a successful play in college football is one of the following: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down. So NU has run a successful play around a quarter of the time.)

Efficiency is the second-most important stat in the game, so for NU to be respectable this year, it can't have such a bad success rate. We've already diagnosed this problem as more scheme-related than personnel-related. While Pat Fitzgerald has said that nothing has changed schematically, that was impossible to accept after the Wildcats repeatedly failed on short-yardage plays against WIU, and left tackle Paul Jorgensen even admitted that the team has made it an "emphasis" to power run more, which is odd, considering that doesn't fit the Wildcats' personnel and what they've done well offensively for years.

That's the broad issue, but Saturday's win provided some a more specific look at what's wrong with the offense and why the success rate is so bad. The biggest reason is that NU is far too situational in its play-calling. As I explained on Saturday, the best teams don't change their scheme so much based on one bad play. Rather, they stick to what they do well, and they know that they have good enough personnel to be successful on the rest of the series. Instead, the Wildcats change their plan depending on the situation — they try to power run on third-and-four or they throw it short to minimize mistakes on third-and-medium. This greatly reduces the chance of having a successful play.

People like to criticize the play calls on longer downs due to Trevor Siemian's checkdowns, and while the passing game won't be winning any awards, NU is actually better when everyone knows it's passing than it is on "standard downs" like first down.

Explosiveness Passing Downs Standard Downs Success Rate
Rank 71 80 121 120

Fitzgerald seems to be ultra-concerned about success on first down, as he's mentioned it a number of times this season. And while an unsuccessful first down play shouldn't force the offense into a shell or change the play-calling as dramatically as it has — in other words, an unsuccessful first play shouldn't doom the offense to a full series of unsuccessful plays — that appears to be how Fitzgerald is going to coach this team. If the Wildcats start having more success on first downs, the offense might see some dramatic improvement.

How can that happen? A lot of people will say that it comes down to better blocking, better passing and getting receivers more open — things that aren't likely to improve overnight — but there are a couple of reasons to believe this could change.

The first is Justin Jackson. While some of his success against WIU was due to the fact that the Leathernecks aren't very good, he showed just how talented he is and showed his ability to pick up yards after contact. Moreover, the coaches (rightfully) seem more okay with spreading the field in the running game and trusting their zone blocking schemes on early downs. Against Cal and Northern Illinois, the Wildcats went with Treyvon Green and Warren Long far too often in those situations. Jackson and Solomon Vault, like Venric Mark, are faster and can do more to take advantage of the open field. If Jackson can get five yards on a first down where Green might have gotten three — still a question mark, of course — that could be enough to convince Fitzgerald to open things up a bit more on second down.

The tight end play also provided some hope on Saturday. Dan Vitale, Garrett Dickerson and Jayme Taylor have all shown an ability to catch the ball, and to some extent, they're all very difficult to cover. Dickerson had a linebacker right on him the whole way at one point, but he still made the play because of his combination of size and athleticism (this is why Alabama, Ohio State and Stanford wanted him). All three of those players are legitimate threats in the passing game, and Fitzgerald seems comfortable throwing to them on standard downs. The more looks they get, the better the offense might be.

For Northwestern to fix its offensive problems, the coaching staff is going to have to be a little bit more flexible than it was against Western Illinois. However, as much as the schematic changes have been a problem, Fitzgerald has shown a tendency to play to the personnel's strengths on first down. Against Western Illinois, the Wildcats got the ball to their best playmakers more than they did in the first two games, but still not nearly enough. If they do it more, and subsequently have more success on first down, then maybe the offense can get back to a respectable level.