With Northwestern's regular season over, and only the bowl game remaining, it's time to evaluate the Wildcats' 2015 season. 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 the coaching staff.
With all defensive and offensive units done, as well as special teams, it's time to look to the coaching staff to finish up our end-of-season grades.
By now you've read all the stories, watched all the games. You may be frustrated with some things, glowing about others and much of that agreement/dissension is aimed at Northwestern's coaches. Last offseason, after back-to-back 5-7 seasons, the "pitchforks" were out at Northwestern.
No one was fired. And no one was happy about it, except the football program; a program that seemingly valued continuity and loyalty over success and doing jobs adequately.
Oh, but how things have changed in 12 months: a ten-win season, an All-World defense and another New Year's Day bowl.
But from a coaching perspective, how much has really changed?
Mick McCall, offensive coordinator: C-
You can look at the stats and get one idea about Northwestern's offense and McCall's coaching of it. You can see that Northwestern is ranked 109th in S&P+ offense (out of 128 FBS teams) while ranking No. 4 in defense, by far the biggest disparity of any FBS team. Despite giving up just 16.4 points per game, Northwestern's offense averages a lowly 20.4. McCall has created an un-explosive, non-efficient offense that is unable to finish drives in the red zone.
You can also watch the games and get the same idea about Northwestern's offense and McCall's coaching of it. It's amazing how many things Northwestern cannot take for granted to complete a pass. Think about this. In the span of eight seconds, the following things have have to go right for Northwestern to successfully convert through the air: A) the playcall has to come in on time and redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson has to receive it, organize his team and scan the defense pre-snap, B) the snap needs to happen before any false starts, C) the snap must actually reach Thorson comfortably, D) the offensive line must protect Thorson so he has time to see the field, E) the receivers must run the correct routes, F) the receivers must run the correct routes quickly, G) the receivers must run the correct routes quickly and in a way that actually allows the quarterback to recognize they are open, H) the throw needs to be on time and on target, I) the receiver actually needs to catch the ball. All of those things happened for McCall, Thorson and co. just 142 times this season on just 51.6 of attempted passes.
A lot of these issues stem from a player personnel perspective -- most notably at wide receiver where a former walk-on is clearly the team's go-to wideout -- but that also falls on McCall's shoulders as a recruiter. When you compare the talent on offense and the talent on defense, it's almost as if there's two different programs using the same uniform set. But the personnel issues have also led to one of McCall's redeeming qualities: he rarely tried to do stuff he knew his offense couldn't do. Sure, the playcall patterns may have been a bit repetitive -- Northwestern ran the ball 273 times on first down this season, compared to only 82 passes. But, despite everyone knowing that Northwestern ran on first down over three-quarters of the time, the ground game still managed over four yards per carry. A lot of that has to do with star sophomore running back Justin Jackson. McCall, recognizing he was Northwestern's best offensive player, just kept giving Jackson the ball. Jackson finished the year fourth in the nation in carries (even without playing in a conference championship game). McCall, for all his faults, didn't try to get cute with this team. Sometimes the simple thing may be okay, and for this team, it mostly was. The biggest worry is that this season installs a false confidence in McCall and the offense. There needs to be marked improvement in 2016.
McCall also gets some bonus points for Thorson's development (if you can really call it that) over the year and also for the decision to start Thorson in the first place (more on that later).
Mike Hankwitz, defensive coordinator: A+
Try to imagine week-after-week, game-after-game the pressure Mike Hankwitz feels. He knows that his defense needs to be pretty much perfect to give Northwestern a chance to win the game. And in all but four games the unit was outstanding. The defense was okay against Ball State and Nebraska but was outclassed against Michigan and Iowa. He molded his defense to fit his young, athletic and aggressive personnel, building around the sophomore duo of linebacker Anthony Walker and safety Godwin Igwebuike. For as bad as the recruiting has been on the offensive side of the ball for Northwestern, it has been quite the opposite defensively. That fact that Hankwitz, the architect of one of the top defenses in the nation, was not on any assistant coach award watch lists was a travesty this season. What he did this year -- aside from maybe going with the all-tan sideline attire a few too many times -- was way above and beyond expectations.
Pat Fitzgerald, head coach: A
It has been written about time and time again, but it bears repeating: this wasn't supposed to be a successful year for Northwestern. It was supposed to be a rebuilding year, another disappointing 5-7 campaign. Remember at Big Ten Media Days when Fitzgerald recommended that people who had problems with Northwestern's play should tweet with the hashtag #WTFitz? We at Inside NU planned to curate those tweets on a game-by-game basis. It turns out, though, that those tweets were too few and far between. There were no games like last year's against Michigan, rather it was competent performance after competent performance, aside from two vomit-inducing hiccups against Michigan and Iowa.
The biggest decision Fitzgerald made all year didn't even come during the season, but a few weeks prior to it when he announced Thorson as the starting quarterback. Fitzgerald could have easily gone with the senior Zack Oliver or could have even refused to name a starter, keeping it veiled until kick-off against Stanford. He even could have played multiple quarterbacks with Thorson, Oliver and sophomore Matt Alviti until he became comfortable with one. Instead, he rolled with the freshman -- a freshman that basically turned around Northwestern's 16-6 upset of Stanford in the season-opener, setting the Wildcats on an improbable track to 10 wins.
His 10th season at the helm of his alma mater, 2015 could very well have been Fitzgerald's finest. He preached the idea of this being a new team, one that was fundamentally different from the disappointments of the last two seasons. He allowed for more "good, clean American fun" inside the locker room with a looser attitude filled with dancing while allowing his team leaders to step up and instill their own clubhouse culture. He made sure there was a noticeable uptick in intra-squad competition, breeding the depth needed to maintain a high-level of play throughout the year.
Already, Fitzgerald has used this season to build for future ones, wrapping up commitments from a few extra 2016 recruits and getting a head start on 2017 commitments since the regular season ended in late November. Not only can he sell Northwestern on its new lakefront facility and world-class academics, but now also on continuing the expectation set by this team in 2015. As our Henry Bushnell wrote following Northwestern's 10th win of the year, "Northwestern, in 2015, finally became Pat Fitzgerald's."