Northwestern officially started its 2016 season by kicking off training camp with a team meeting on Sunday, August 7. The team will be in Evanston for a week and then head up to Kenosha, Wisconsin, for a grueling week of workouts and practices in the summer heat, a time for the team to come together on and off the field. Kenosha will go a long way in determining who wins key position battles, who ends up where on the depth chart and much, much more. It’s the equivalent of NFL training camp, except compressed into about one week. We count down the biggest questions—two per day—facing Pat Fitzgerald’s team heading into camp.
We continue the countdown with No. 8: Will the offense be any more explosive in 2016?
Take a moment and try to remember all the big offensive plays Northwestern had last season.
Done? Yeah, that didn’t take long. Plays of 30 yards or more were few and far between for Northwestern’s stagnant offense. You probably do not need an advanced statistic to realize this fact, but for the record Northwestern was 112th in opponent adjusted IsoPPP+ (a metric which measures offensive explosiveness).
Other than a few Clayton Thorson scrambles, Justin Jackson runs and throws to Austin Carr, Northwestern could not reliably create big plays downfield. The reasons for this failure have been discussed at length. Northwestern went with conservative play-calling for its redshirt freshman starting quarterback. Northwestern had no standout talents at wide receiver. The offensive line was shaky. In order to generate big plays, a team must be able to take advantage of opposing defenses, and Northwestern was usually unable to do that in 2015.
But what about 2016? Can Northwestern break out of its offensive malaise from the past two years and return to the heady days of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian?
Obviously, it’s difficult to expect Northwestern to revamp its offense over one offseason, especially with its lack of major offensive recruits in recent years and current personnal. Thus, Northwestern will have to create some potency in its offense through its existing personnel and by changing its philosophies. The main avenue to explosiveness in football is throwing the ball. Contrary to popular belief, Mick McCall has not been afraid to throw the ball in the past, especially when Northwestern’s offense used to put up 20-30 points on a regular basis. However, with the aforementioned issues at quarterback and the excellent defense, throwing the ball downfield was a rarity.
However, there are quite a few logical points to start throwing the ball more often and further downfield. Northwestern was arguably even worse at short passes and playing “possession football” last season, even if that was the original philosophy behind the offense. While the run game was still passable (though it didn’t produce many big plays, as Justin Jackson doesn’t have the speed to rip off huge chunks), the complete lack of any deep threats whatsoever allowed Northwestern’s opponents to bear down on Thorson and the offense.
The offensive line is an entire issue in and of itself. The Wildcats had eight different starting combinations in 13 games last year, and no one started all 13 games (Eric Olson was the closest, starting 12). But in order to work the ball downfield, you have to have the time to work the ball downfield, and Thorson was rarely afforded that time. The Wildcats do, however, return significant experience at every position; they just need those experienced players to stay healthy.
Another contributing factor was Northwestern’s fast tempo from last season. The Wildcats were 31st in the nation in adjusted pace, mainly due to the fact that they ran so much but still played at a decent tempo. It was a ground-and-pound system that didn’t necessarily eat the clock. Northwestern has almost always played at a fast pace under Pat Fitzgerald. It has become part of the team’s identity, and it has worked in the past. However, that philosophy breaks down when the offense is designed to protect the defense. Trying to run an up-tempo offense that doesn’t take risks while also trying to protect the defense is utterly contradictory.
Northwestern has to streamline its offensive philosophy—Pat Fitzgerald emphasized improved balance at Media Days—and the best way to do that is to become more explosive. How could Northwestern become more explosive and improve field position? It could start by giving Thorson the chance to throw downfield once in a while, which falls on Thorson’s shoulders, the offensive line’s shoulders and the receivers’ shoulders. Solomon Vault should help with his speed and ability, but it remains to be seen whether he can get open and perform at a high level. Regardless, Northwestern will need more than a converted running back to get its offense moving.
It’s easy to say “Northwestern has to attack deep more often,” but becoming a more explosive offense is much more complex than simply taking more shots downfield; you have to complete those deep balls. And doing that requires time to throw, people to throw to, and someone who can throw the ball accurately. None of those were in place in 2016. Too often, Thorson was flushed from the pocket and forced to run or throw the ball away, and even when he had time, his deep ball—like the rest of his game—was inconsistent at best.
At Kenosha, we’ll be searching for any signs that Northwestern has figured out a solution to its explosiveness problem. If Vault, Marcus McShepard or Flynn Nagel—regarded as the faster wide receivers on the team—can break out as a true deep threat, that would give this offense something to work with. However, we won’t truly see whether Northwestern’s offensive philosophy has changed until the first game against Western Michigan.