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Who deserves the blame? A look at which coaches are not cutting it, Part I: Offense

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There’s plenty of blame to go around.

NCAA Football: Illinois State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Any time a team struggles, one of the first areas to examine is the coaching staff and the performance of each coach’s unit. Through two games, there have been ample struggles for Northwestern on both sides of the ball, and with that, there is a plenty of reason to call into question the performance of the coaching staff. Going coach-by-coach can help determine the root of the problems and perhaps answer the question regarding who belongs on the hot seat.

This is part one of a three-part series. Defensive coaches will be discussed on Wednesday and Pat Fitzgerald on Thursday.

Mick McCall: Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach

McCall has been subject to calls for his firing for the past few seasons, with some claims being well-reasoned and others not so much.

One thing is almost certain: Mick McCall will survive this season. The likelihood of a midseason fire of an offensive coordinator—barring the firing of a head coach—is infinitesimally small, and Pat Fitzgerald is not going anywhere.

But the calls to fire McCall certainly have a base, especially after Northwestern put up a pathetic seven points against Illinois State. Seven. That’s the lowest number from a Power 5 team against an FCS team since Kansas in 2010, when the Jayhawks lost 3-6 to North Dakota State. That’s the same Kansas program that went 0-12 last season and whose fans rushed the field after beating Rhode Island to open this season.

McCall produced a balanced and creative gameplan in Week One against Western Michigan. Clayton Thorson had some of the best numbers of his career on just 22 throws. Justin Jackson looked impressive on 23 carries, and the Wildcats ran 31 times overall. That’s much-improved balance from a team that threw 352 times and ran 582 times in 2015.

But in Week 2, McCall reverted back to the ways that failed him in 2015, and there are several instances to point to.

On Northwestern’s longest drive of the day, a 15-play excursion, Justin Jackson was targeted just twice in the final 13 plays, both on incomplete passes. Perhaps most perplexing, though, was that at the Illinois State 16, McCall called three straight passes, all of which were incomplete and all of which were thrown out of bounds. On the first play, Northwestern ran a play action wheel route to Jackson, a good, creative call, but one that Illinois State read well.

(All video courtesy of Big Ten Network and btn2go)

On second down, Thorson targeted Bennett Skowronek on essentially a fade route. Northwestern was lined up on the left hashmark, and Skowronek was out left. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for a pattern that requires a precise throw. Skowronek did a solid job being physical on the route and came down with the ball, but the throw forced him a few yards out of bounds.

Unless this play is executed perfectly, it’s an incompletion every time, and more importantly, this is really Thorson’s only read on the play. He’s looking Skowronek’s way, hoping his true freshman can win the battle in tight quarters.

This is the most problematic call of this situation. A more reasonable call here would be a handoff (especially given the Redbirds’ four-man front) or even a short route with a higher probability of success. Instead, McCall goes with a high-reward but very low-probability play, leaving his unit with a third and 10.

On third down, Northwestern split Jackson out wide, not only completely eliminating the threat of a run, but also ridding Thorson of one of his blockers. After Eric Olson gets beat inside, Thorson has no other option but to throw the ball away. In his post-game press conference, Pat Fitzgerald said the team was forced to abandon the run because of poor offensive line play. Why, then, would McCall leave his offensive line without any running back help on this play?

This was just one of several confounding series of plays. But the more concerning issue was that the relative balance we had seen in Week 1 was nonexistent. Thorson threw the ball 41 times and ran it 12—the most of any ball carrier. Jackson received 11 carries, and yes, he left early, but he only had seven carries in the first half compared to 20 Thorson tosses. That’s inexcusable. Even if the offensive line is underperforming, you don’t abandon your team’s tried and true offensive identity.

And then there’s Mick McCall the quarterbacks coach. The development of Clayton Thorson from year one to year two looked to be apparent against Western Michigan, but the same basic problems plagued Northwestern’s sophomore gunslinger against Illinois State. He completed just 17 of his 41 passes and missed far too many open receivers. He locked onto targets and missed opportunities down the field, and even when he looked downfield, he often missed his man.

If Thorson’s development remains underwhelming, it will continue what has become a general trend of late. Matt Alviti, one of the top recruits in Northwestern history, will in all likelihood leave Northwestern having never been more than a gimmick quarterback. One can argue that Trevor Siemian, now an NFL starter (and, so far, a successful one), never came close to his full potential while in Evanston, either. So perhaps there’s more fault in McCall as a quarterbacks coach than as an offensive coordinator. And it’s not as if Northwestern can add a quarterbacks coach; NCAA rules limit teams to one head coach and nine assistants, a limit Northwestern has filled.

But another issue has been the ability of the players around the signal-callers. Believe it or not, Northwestern has had wildly successful offenses under McCall. When you don’t have the players, though, as it appears is the case, you have to compromise. When your line can’t block and your receivers can’t get open, your quarterback will rarely look good. Has McCall been less successful recently because of his players’ abilities? Or has he not put his players in areas to succeed? Has his system become stale, perhaps? Or does he simply not have the players to execute it? In all likelihood, all four play a role in Northwestern’s struggles, but there’s no concrete answer. Better players make coordinators look good, but good coordinators can bring out production despite a talent deficit. So how does the talent McCall has to work with (outside of quarterback) stack up?

Adam Cushing: Offensive line coach

Adam Cushing’s unit—not Mick McCall’s playcalling—is the biggest issue for this offense.

Without a good offensive line, everything McCall calls in becomes immeasurably harder. When Clayton Thorson takes dropbacks, even if he avoids pressure, the timing of the plays are ruined. When Northwestern struggles to run the ball again an FCS front with one of the best running backs in the nation so much so that McCall has to abandon it completely, there is a major, major problem. When Fitzgerald and left guard Connor Mahoney admit they got their “butts kicked,” there is a major, major problem.

The offensive line looked as overmatched against Western Michigan (at times) and Illinois State (all game) as it did last year against Iowa, Michigan and Tennessee. Northwestern returned six linemen with starting experience from last year. That the unit’s parts aren’t improved, and thus neither is the sum of its parts, falls squarely on Cushing’s shoulders. From an article last winter debating whether McCall should be fired:

Offensive line coach Adam Cushing has been with the program for 12 years, but only took over as the offensive line coach in 2009. In recent years, the development of offensive linemen has been inadequate. Guys like Shane Mertz, Adam DePietro, Kenton Playko and Sam Coverdale haven't fulfilled supposed potential. Plus, the mishandling of Geoff Mogus (moving him from guard to tackle this offseason) and the constant shuffling and position switches are worrisome.

So should Cushing be under pressure? Probably. Even if you think back to Brandon Vitabile, the best NU lineman to play all four years under Cushing, did Vitabile really develop that much from his freshman and sophomore years to his senior year? Was he that much more effective late in his career, even with added size and strength? Cushing's performance has been questionable at best.

That Northwestern’s offensive line has regressed from last year despite the return of so many experienced faces is unacceptable. And more importantly for this discussion, it plays a major role in the performance of Mick McCall. What Fitzgerald said post-game is true: Northwestern abandoned the run early because it was unsuccessful. Should McCall have stuck it out with his best player hoping that eventually Jackson would grind out the yards we saw him grind out last year? Maybe. But McCall was put in this quandary because of a massively underachieving offensive line. And what if he stuck with the run and it continued to be unsuccessful, which all signs pointed to? McCall would have under fire for not mixing it up and airing it out more.

Dennis Springer: Wide receivers coach

Also the subject of fans’ ire, Springer’s unit has actually looked better this year. Drops have been much less of an issue, and players have been able to win more one-on-one battles.

Northwestern has shifted from bigger, slower receivers to smaller, quicker receivers, with guys like Christian Jones and Mike McHugh being replaced by Flynn Nagel and Solomon Vault. Last year’s top receiver, Austin Carr, has been nothing short of excellent, coming up with a bevy of both tough catches and important catches. He’s clearly Northwestern’s No. 1 receiver, something the Wildcats lacked last season.

Still, it’s not as if Springer gets a full pass here. The wide receivers haven’t been head and shoulders above either opponent, which is concerning, and they still struggle to truly win down the field (though of course it’s hard to tell given how inconsistently Thorson throws the ball, assuming he even has time to do so). At this point, Springer’s unit probably deserves a mark of “to be determined.” The wide receivers look better than last year but also haven’t really played competition that allows us to pass judgement. At least this unit has not regressed, though.

Bob Heffner: Superbacks coach

Superback was a position that was expected to regress after the loss of Dan Vitale, and in terms of receiving production, it has. Garrett Dickerson has caught four passes through two weeks, but it is clear that he’s not quite the line-me-up-anywhere-and-I’ll-produce guy that Vitale was.

Still, it would be hard to point to Heffner and his superbacks as a real issue. Not only has Heffner had to work around the loss of Vitale, but also of Jayme Taylor. Cameron Green switched to the position just weeks before the regular season opened and immediately saw a lot of snaps, but it will certainly take him some time to become the receiving threat Taylor was expected to be. Dickerson is yet to develop into the all-around superback that his recruiting profile might have suggested he would be, but when he’s had the ball in his hands, he’s been very good with it. If anything, the former four-star recruit needs to ball more often. He remains a top-notch blocker, too.

Matt MacPherson: Running backs coach

Unsurprisingly, the best position group on the offense has the coach that deserves the least amount of blame.

The running backs have been hit by injuries (Warren Long out at least four weeks, Jackson missing the end vs. Illinois State), but they have still produced. Even Auston Anderson, the fourth-string running just 10 days ago, found a way to contribute positively when called upon against the Redbirds. No, he wasn’t Justin Jackson, but he picked up a hugely important first down and was essentially the only back during the Wildcats’ lone scoring drive, holding up solidly in pass protection, too.

The running backs are deep and talented, so MacPherson naturally will look good. But he has done a great job of expanding Jackson’s game—he’s a better pass catcher and protector than he was when he came in—as well as developing the guys behind him. That his group didn’t produce as effectively as expected against the Redbirds can hardly be blamed on him or his players.