With Northwestern's regular season over, and only the bowl game remaining, it's time to evaluate the Wildcats' 2015 season. Over the next two weeks, between Monday, Dec. 14 and Christmas, we'll be going position by position and doling out grades to every Northwestern player that was a significant contributor this year. We'll start with the quarterbacks, progress through the offense, move over to the defensive side of the ball, and then finish up with special teams and coaches on Christmas Eve.
After grading the superbacks Thursday, today, we have our final offensive unit, the big guys up front.
The best word to describe Northwestern’s offensive line in 2015 is "tumultuous". The only starter from Week 1 against Stanford that played at the same position in Week 13 was Eric Olson at right tackle. The other four positions were in a state of flux for the entire year as Northwestern rotated through eight offensive line combinations through 12 games this season. Every time Northwestern had a stable offensive line combination, an injury would force Pat Fitzgerald and offensive line coach Adam Cushing to call in a replacement. Good offensive lines in football are often the units that can stay the most healthy and consistent. Northwestern lacked both of those elements. As a result, many of the problems that plagued the offensive line in 2014 resurfaced in 2015.
Grades will be issued first to the line as a unit and then by position, as most spots had too much turnover to get consistent grades for some players. It's also hard to accurately grade individual lineman because the position relies on the cohesiveness of the group.
Why did Mick McCall run such a conservative offensive scheme? That question has been asked by many Northwestern observers this season, but trying to piece together McCall’s reasoning has been difficult. While playing a redshirt freshman quarterback and weaknesses at receiver were surely major factors, the bevy of offensive line changes also had to play a major role in McCall's thinking. Once Northwestern’s offensive line started substituting younger players and shifting positions, McCall and head coach Pat Fitzgerald decided to play it safe. The passing attack was utilized early in the season against Ball State and Minnesota, but the utter collapse of the offensive line against Michigan and Iowa curtailed any hopes of a more dynamic offense.
After the Penn State game, in which Thorson was injured on a passing play, McCall reverted to a "run it on first down no matter what" offense against Purdue and Wisconsin. Nobody knew whether the offensive line would hold up for Thorson even if the receivers could get open, and the conservative playcalling may have been, in his mind, a necessary reaction. Northwestern has never consistently recruited and developed standout offensive linemen, and the strengths of the unit mostly came from its play-to-play consistency rather than above average talent, best exemplified by longtime Northwestern center Brandon Vitabile, who graduated last season. Before the season, the line was often described as "serviceable", and while that can work if the unit stays healthy and plays well together, it does not work when untested players are brought in to play new positions. However, despite the offensive line performing slightly worse than the 2014 iteration, the defense led Northwestern to ten wins instead of five.
Northwestern’s offensive line finished 87th in adjusted line yards and 85th in adjusted sack rate. It was also just 110th in standard down sack rate, reducing the effectiveness of early-down passing. The problem with the playcalling was that Northwestern's insistence on running the ball was not very efficient either. Jackson's 1,000-plus yard season came mostly from absurd volume and his own natural talent rather than fantastic offensive line play. On "power" runs on third or fourth down in short yardage situations, Northwestern’s success rate was a terrible 57.8 percent, just 109th in the country. Northwestern was also 90th in "stuff rate" on runs, a stat which means exactly what it sounds like.
Even by the eye test, Northwestern’s offensive line clearly started to break down as the year went on. The first game against Stanford was fine, and the unit played very well against Duke, but the line fell apart against powerhouse Big Ten defensive fronts like Michigan, Iowa, and Penn State. Michigan picked up four sacks and five quarterback hits while limiting Northwestern to 38 yards on the ground. Penn State’s run defense was poor, but Carl Nassib shredded Northwestern repeatedly. T.J. Watt and Wisconsin spent the entire second half imposing their will on Northwestern’s struggling offensive line.
On the positive end, Northwestern’s run-blocking improved as the season progressed and the line gradually solidified. When looking at Northwestern’s run game, the team usually ran the ball effectively when the line got some continuity (or when Duke played in 95 degree heat). The devastating spate of injuries and position changes is one of the subtler "what ifs" of this season. In hindsight, if Northwestern’s offensive line had remained healthy and performed around average, could Northwestern have avoided the two blowout losses that knocked it from New Year’s Six contention? Could it have blown out more teams if the line’s poor health prevented the offense from becoming more dynamic? Those questions are impossible to answer, but I suspect that with such a dominant defense, Northwestern could have jumped at least two or three spots in the polls with a healthier and better offensive line.
That being said, Northwestern’s win-loss record speaks for itself, and the offensive line did have some very good games. However, the bad games were very ugly, and Northwestern has to improve its offensive line if it wants to become a perennial contender.
Left Tackle: C
Northwestern’s left tackle situation was game-to-game for much of the year, which is usually not a good sign. Remember, this is arguably the most important position on the line, as it covers Thorson’s blind side.
Geoff Mogus started the first four games, but got hurt in Week 4. Redshirt freshman Blake Hance shifted from backup right tackle to starting left tackle, and played much of the remainder of the season there. Mogus played one more game at tackle before shifting to left guard and then getting hurt again.
Like the rest of the offensive line, Northwestern’s left tackles were very inconsistent this season. Against teams with below average defensive fronts, Mogus and Hance looked fine, but they really struggled against elite pass rushers. The left side of the line also made the one cardinal mistake for an offensive line when Carl Nassib broke through and knocked Thorson out of the Penn State game. Thorson was under pressure constantly against Wisconsin, and Hance looked outmatched against the stronger Wisconsin pass rushers. However, he did well against teams with average or below average pass rushes, like Illinois and Nebraska. In the run game, Mogus and Hance were mostly ineffective against good run defenses (Michigan and Iowa), and the whole line failed to get anything going on the ground in the second halves of the Wisconsin and Penn State games.
In hindsight, was Geoff Mogus’ injury against Ball State the most important offensive injury of the season? Before the year, Mogus was regarded as one of Northwestern’s most important players. He played decently in his first four games at left tackle, but he was not the same guy when he returned from injury. Mogus’ first game back against Michigan went badly, and Hance was immediately put back into the starting lineup for the rest of the year. Mogus switched to the less critical left guard spot before he was injured again. Considering Hance’s inexperience (he mostly played tight end in high school), his struggles were understandable, but the offensive line’s performance suffered on the whole.
Left Guard: An injury-riddled D-
This position was a mess. Ian Park started the year at left guard, but moved to center after Week 1, allowing Connor Mahoney to take over. Mahoney filled in until Matt Frazier returned from injury to play left guard against Minnesota, but Frazier was soon forced to right guard once Shane Mertz was injured. Geoff Mogus then moved to his old position at left guard, but then he got injured, which forced Shane Mertz, originally the starting right guard, into action. Then Mertz got hurt and Mahoney came back in against Wisconsin. Mertz then returned in Week 13. Also, Brad North got some playing time as the backup at various points this season.
Here’s a quick TL;DR summary, in order, of NU's seven left guards throughout the season:
(Hat tip to The Daily Northwestern for this graphic on offensive line combinations)
This position was decimated by poor health. Matt Frazier battled some serious injuries, and didn't find his groove until he moved over to right guard. Mogus’ injury seemingly reduced his effectiveness and he did not look good after moving to left guard. Then Mertz switched over to left guard and had a pretty bad game against Wisconsin. Overall, this position was an absolute shambles.
Brad North started the year at center but Ian Park took over after Week 2 due to better play. Park stayed healthy for the middle of the season but got injured against Penn State. North retook his starting spot briefly before Park returned. However, Park got injured against Wisconsin and North took over as the starter again against Illinois.
Park was not the starting center to begin the season, but he quickly supplanted North and played well for the most part. Replacing longstanding center Brandon Vitabile was difficult, but Park earned the trust of his coaches and the rest of the offense. Park’s run blocking was good, and Justin Jackson definitely benefitted. Park’s switch from guard to center has been successful, and his experience has helped ease Thorson into reading defenses. His snaps were also generally good after North struggled in Week 1. Park was repeatedly beaten at the line of scrimmage on passing downs against Michigan and Iowa, and he needs to improve his quickness when Thorson drops back to pass. Park missed the final game of the season against Illinois, but hopefully he’ll be ready for the Outback Bowl. J.B. Butler was a competent reserve lineman when he played.
Right Guard: B-
Hey, at least this position had the same starter for the first six weeks. Shane Mertz stayed healthy until Week 6, but he got hurt, and Matt Frazier took over for the rest of the year.
It’s incredible that Matt Frazier is still playing college football given his medical history, and he did a good job stabilizing the right guard position after Mertz’s season-ending injury. Once Frazier settled in at his usual right guard position, the running game got going again. Justin Jackson’s resurgence in the second half was helped by Frazier’s contributions, and it’s great to see him play well at the end of his Northwestern career. When the run game was rolling, it was often Frazier who was paving the way from his right guard position.
Right tackle: B
Eric Olson was the only consistent member of the line and started 11 of 12 games this season. However, his official backup, Adam DePietro, who played some left tackle as well, suffered a season-ending injury midway through the year.
Eric Olson was a solid component of the offensive line, and he earns a good grade simply because he stayed healthy and provided some consistency in the trenches. Olson had to win a job in camp, but pressing needs on other fronts led Olson to start nearly all of Northwestern’s games. Grading individual lineman is difficult, but Olson looked fine at right tackle. He did not match up well against tough Big Ten defenses, but the stability he provided for the unit overall helped keep Northwestern’s line from falling apart completely. Highly-rated recruit Tommy Doles never really gained traction, and he was the backup at both tackle spots for most of the year.