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Explaining Northwestern's woes: An Inside NU staff discussion

Does the coaching staff's predictability hurt it more against teams it sees year in and year out?

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Last Saturday night at about 7 p.m. CT, Henry Bushnell pulled out his phone in a car on his way back to Evanston only to be hit with a hard reality. Henry had been busy most of the day, and unable to watch the second half of the Northwestern's homecoming game vs. Iowa. He had seen bits and pieces of the first half, but not enough to really dissect what was happening.

Henry expected to read about a close game. After all — and as Iowa fans on Twitter were clearly aware — Henry had predicted Northwestern to win this game 20-0. And while perhaps that was a bit overzealous, he firmly believed Northwestern was a better team than Iowa.

But of course, a close game was not what he read about. So he was stunned. Almost confused. In need of an explanation, Henry sent a message to fellow Inside NU editors Josh Rosenblat and Zach Pereles, and the following discussion ensued. We thought it raised some interesting points, so towards the end, we decided we were going to publish it, with a few edits, here:

Henry Bushnell: So was it really bad?

Josh Rosenblat: Yes.

Zach Pereles: It could have been better.

Henry Bushnell: Wtf happened to the defense? I couldn't watch the second half.

Zach Pereles: Line got killed. Backers are bad when the line isn't good.

Josh Rosenblat: VanHoose was awful too.

Zach Pereles: Everyone was bad.

Henry Bushnell: And same old story on offense?

Josh Rosenblat: Wideouts worse than usual.

Zach Pereles: They panic so hard on offense. Like, down 9, they basically quit running the ball.

Henry Bushnell: So weird to think about overall. Because, like, I don't think the first 5 weeks were necessarily flukes. They legitimately played really well on defense. Their play has just fallen off a cliff.

Josh Rosenblat: I have a theory.

When you don't play Northwestern year after year, the predictability on offense doesn't hurt as much. Same goes for the defense. Northwestern doesn't have much variety on that side either. Thus, NU can get away with running Jackson the same way 30 times per game and playing the base defense for 80% of snaps. When the same coaching staff does the same thing against the same teams year after year, it comes down to who has better players. And Michigan and Iowa have a lot better players. That's why there's been a drop off in conference.

Just a theory though.

But I think it makes sense.

Henry Bushnell: That definitely makes sense.

Zach Pereles: Agreed. Also, you have to win in the trenches. And NU is severely outsized/getting beaten there. Like, every [opposing] offensive lineman is getting to the second level. And [Northwestern is] way outskilled out wide, which I don't get. They have no weapons.

Henry Bushnell: But see, that's what's weird and why Josh's point is really interesting. Because they won in the trenches against Stanford and Duke.

Zach Pereles: Duke isn't big up front and Stanford just played really really bad.

Josh Rosenblat: Northwestern blitzed more against Stanford too.

Manufactured pressure.

Henry Bushnell: It's not just the pressure though, like, even the offensive line was decent vs. Stanford. And NU had at least something to do with why they played poorly. And Duke is still good, even if it's more speed than strength.

Also Minnesota, they're bad but big.

[Off topic] Seems like Northwestern was basically Minnesota today.

Josh Rosenblat: That's why I think familiarity plays a big role. Think back to ND. Offensively, Northwestern didn't do anything objectively different that game. Trevor Siemian hit Kyle Prater a few times. Also look at Cal last year. They knew everything Northwestern was doing defensively and dominated the first half.

Henry Bushnell: So I have two questions then...

First, this is on the coaches, right? They don't gameplan well enough?

Zach Pereles: I don't know if it's on the coaches' preparation as much as the coaches just being creative. I think that's definitely the case for [offensive coordinator Mick] McCall. His play calling is predictable, boring and makes it nearly impossible for Northwestern to get back in games. If the Wildcats get down early, he's clueless as to how to get them back into the game.

Josh Rosenblat: Not necessarily. Coaches have tendencies. That's just a fact. Every team has them. When you play in conference, it's about executing. Saturday, for example, Northwestern played Iowa the same way it has forever. And Iowa did the same to NU. But Iowa dominated due to winning one-on-one battles. The caveat, though, is this: when your team gets out executed by the same teams year after year, somethings gotta change from a tendency standpoint. And nothing has.

Henry Bushnell: That's what I'm saying.

Like, you have to bring something new to the table every week in football, or else you're going to get found out.

Unless you've got something revolutionary that people haven't yet figured out how to stop.

Josh Rosenblat: I.e. Chip Kelly

(Sorry Henry)

Henry Bushnell: ^No I totally agree.

That's what I was thinking.

But like, I trust Chip to adjust, as an Eagles fan. I don't see how NU fans can trust McCall to adjust at this point.

Do we think Hankwitz has a similar problem?

Josh Rosenblat: I think less so, but today, there were no adjustments made from my view.

Zach Pereles: When NU brought pressure, they often got good results, but I think they could have easily brought a LOT more often than they did.

Henry Bushnell: That's the thing, I feel like Hankwitz did change things up to better fit the personnel earlier in the season, right?

But sounds like it was a reversion to what they've done in the past today.

Anyway, to wrap this up, I'm thinking about how these last two games change our reflections on/explanations for the five wins. Specifically the three Power 5 wins. How do they?

Josh Rosenblat: Getting outscored 78-10 is super bad. Like absolutely awful. But, truly, I don't think Northwestern is this bad. But in a weird way, I also don't think Northwestern played outside itself -- as in playing well above its ability -- against Stanford, Duke and Minnesota. That brings up an interesting conundrum that leads me back to my original theory. First, let's take a look at how Northwestern ran the ball against Stanford, Duke and Minnesota, compared to the games against Michigan and Iowa:

Opponent Carries Rush Yards
Stanford 54 225
Duke 54 201
Minnesota 51 184
Michigan 25 38
Iowa 26 51

To me, a team's running game is as much about scheme as anything else. Northwestern has a good running back, a fast quarterback and an offensive line that has proven it can dominate the LOS against big teams like Stanford and Minnesota and also quick teams like Duke. Thus, it comes down to scheme and predictability. And against Michigan and Iowa, the scheme was predictable and easy to stop. It allowed both teams to use their superior size and strength to dominate. In Big Ten play, when Northwestern will most likely be the smallest team on the field in each game it plays, scheme becomes magnified.

So why was Northwestern successful against Minnesota, a team it plays year after year? The thing is, Northwestern wasn't that successful.

Look at the offensive drives:

Plays Yards Result
14 76 FG
2 9 Punt
7 19 Missed FG
6 12 Punt
1 5 TD
19 69 FG
6 68 FG
6 27 Punt
3 9 Punt
3 1 Punt
3 0 Punt

In terms of real drives, of Northwestern's 27 points against Minnesota, the offense truly accounted for just 13. The five-yard TD was due to a long Miles Shuler punt return and Anthony Walker scored a defensive touchdown. Thirteen points is really nothing. Minnesota was not out-coached or confused. Northwestern's offense was just a bit better than Minnesota's banged-up defense and Northwestern's defense shut down Minnesota's very bad offense.

I think, based on the struggles in Big Ten play over the last few seasons, Northwestern is closer to the team that lost to Michigan and Iowa because these other conference opponents will also know exactly what's coming.

Henry Bushnell: So I still don't think the theory fully explains Northwestern's struggles in October, whether it be this year or historically. NU is 14-25 in October, the first full month of conference play, under Fitzgerald. Part of it probably has to do with classes starting. Perhaps there are other issues. Perhaps some of it is just random variance. But I think everything you've said definitely plays a role.