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Northwestern's offense has become excruciatingly predictable

The Wildcats' offensive strategy was putrid against Michigan once again.

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Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Fans and media members alike tend to overreact to both wins and losses, and Saturday's 38-0 Northwestern loss to Michigan was no different. College football performances happen on a bell curve, and just like we couldn't expect NU's play against Minnesota to be the new normal, the play against Michigan isn't the new normal, either.

As Henry Bushnell wrote, NU is still a Big Ten West contender, and the Wildcats are a win against Iowa away from being the odds-on favorite.

There were bright spots to build on yesterday, including Clayton Thorson's improvement. He moved the ball well at times, and made some clutch throws on third down. Northwestern is getting better, and the future looks bright, but the fact that the offensive strategy seemingly hasn't changed at all is troubling. A year ago, I wrote this about the NU offense after the Wildcats lost to Minnesota:

The Wildcats opt to run unsuccessful plays because in the minds of the coaches, they would rather run a fairly unsuccessful play than risk running a "very" unsuccessful play.

I had faith that things would turn around this year, since NU has the talent to turn it around. Thorson is a four-star, Justin Jackson is a stud and there are plenty of other weapons — Dan Vitale, Garrett Dickerson, Christian Jones, Miles Shuler, Solomon Vault, and maybe even Auston Anderson if they let him touch the ball — for the Wildcats to be successful. The defense has adjusted its scheme along with its improved talent, but on offense, nothing has changed.

The Wildcats' offense ranks 93rd nationally, according to S&P+, and it's running even fewer successful plays — defined as 50 perecent of first down yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down and 100 percent on third down — than last year, ranking 113th in that category. NU has a potentially explosive quarterback in Thorson, and he's shown his ability to make big throws, but the Wildcats don't even let him throw the ball downfield (NU ranks 89th in explosiveness).

But even beyond the advanced stats, and the bad individual decisions the coaching staff has made — like opting to kick the field goal on 4th-and-1 early against Michigan — the staff has become criminally predictable.

Take NU's first-down offense, for example. The Wildcats ran 12 first-down plays in the first half against the Wolverines, and they ran the ball or called a screen on every single one. Unsurprisingly, that resulted in just two — TWO — successful plays, since Michigan knew exactly what was going to happen.

Northwestern first-down offense, first half vs. Michigan
First Down Number Play Yards
1 Run 0
2 Run -4
3 Run 6
4 Run 15
5 Screen -2
6 Run 3
7 Run 0
8 Run 3
9 Run 3
10 Run 3
11 Run 2
12 Run 3

Northwestern's strategy was clear: Try to inch toward the first down marker every time and hope to string together enough short gains until they can get into the end zone. The problem is, that has never, ever worked, and it certainly wasn't going to work against one of the nation's best defenses that knew exactly what was coming.

What's worse is that the NU coaches are seemingly going out of their way to put their players in the worst position possible. The Wildcats kept running the speed option, even though it's Thorson's worst play, to no avail. Here's one of the first speed options on a first down run.


Thorson pitched the ball far too early, and Michigan's defense had all the time in the world to adjust. Thorson wasn't going to learn how to pitch the ball any better during the game, so why not try something else to mix things up — like a pass downfield — rather than just running a risk-averse inside zone play or a speed option that you know has very little chance of working?

At some point, you have to take risks to win. Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is just as "risky," in that it turns almost every game into a close, coin-flip game, and that's ultimately hurting the Wildcats, even in great defensive performances.

Players make plays, and not everything is on the coaches, but Northwestern has the talent to be better than 93rd in the country. At the very least, the coaches aren't even willing to test whether they have enough talent. The Michigan game wasn't winnable on this day, but if this trend continues, games against winnable opponents are going to be lost because the coaches refuse to change things up.