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Mailbag: Offensive struggles, why we do what we do, and more

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You had questions. Here are answers.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

What’s up, everyone. Classes resumed at Northwestern, so things will hopefully kick back up at Inside NU. We have a lot of new writers who have joined the staff, which is exciting. The goal is to increase our multimedia output too. Football season’s in full swing, basketball is a month away and it’s getting cool outside. Sitting in class today, I thought it was a good time for a mailbag, in part because I can procrastinate on some PoliSci reading.

If you don’t make it to the bottom of this story, I think the main takeaway from this mailbag is we — myself, Davis and everyone on our staff — appreciate your comments and feedback. If we’re not covering Northwestern the way you want, let us know. If we get something wrong, please let us know. If have tips, suggestions are thoughts on anything related to the content on Inside NU dot com, let us know. We want to make the site as good as it can be, and the more interaction we have with our readers will help us do that. Without further ado...

@FakeCoachFitz on Twitter: Hi @calebfriedman How much malort am I going to go through watching this team for the rest of the season?

This is probably kind of sad, but I had no idea what malort was until I looked it up. In my defense, I did turn 21 fairly recently, but my answer to the question is... probably a lot. And, that’s not meant to be a shot at the team. Yes, there are a lot of difficult games left on the schedule, but I say that more because of how Northwestern is built to play and win games. For NU to win games, I think it has to win ugly.

The Michigan game was a great example. Northwestern kept the game low-scoring, held the ball for a good chunk of the first half and kept the game close against a good team. By S&P+, the defense is No. 31 in the country and the offense is No. 93 in the country. There could be a bunch of low-scoring games the rest of the way, which isn’t necessarily a problem in terms of winning games, but it’s less entertaining than a back-and-forth shootout (in my view). Have the alcohol ready.

@Samuel_1851 on Twitter: how bad does it have to get for McCall to get fired?

@JayMcNamara6 on Twitter: What will it take to get Mick McCall fired?

If I knew, I’d tell you. I honestly have no idea what it would take, but I’d imagine if things really go wrong the rest of the way, like a 3-9 or 4-8 finish (which are decently likely by most metrics), Pat Fitzgerald would have to take a serious look at his staff. The tough part is, it’s hard to distinguish exactly why the offense is struggling on a week-to-week basis. It’s plausible that Fitz may look at making a change at offensive line coach, and that could potentially save McCall, but I think if NU makes a bowl game, which is possible at 5-7 given Northwestern’s high academic progress rate, Fitz might use the bowl appearance to justify keeping his staff intact (Not that that makes sense).

Joe Gleeson on Facebook: If you were made offensive coordinator right now, what would be the first three changes you would enact?

  1. Get the ball in JJ Jefferson, Solomon Vault and John Moten IV’s hands in space as much as I can, on screens, reverses or other creative ways
  2. Build in ways for Clayton Thorson to get outside the pocket on bootlegs (contingent on his health allowing for it)
  3. Speed up the offense, use more hurry-up/uptempo

@Naasir37: With Solomon Vault back in the roster do you imagine that Northwestern is going to try to take advantage of his and JJ Jefferson’s speed? I.e. plays with the option to give to Vault on a sweep or throw to Jefferson in the flat?

See above. I think getting the ball in your most dynamic players’ hands in creative ways is smart, and I’d imagine Northwestern will try to do that.

Shawn Offenbacher on Facebook: What is the deal with the plaid? Don’t you guys own anything purple?

No. We do not own any purple clothing.

Kidding, obviously. But we’re supposed to be as objective as possible in the press box, so no purple.

@DieHardFan15 on Twitter: How to return to your office and face your sports-obsessed coworkers after your college team drops a loss to Akron.

First, do not pull the “Well, we’re a top 10 University” card. That may be true, but nobody wants to hear that, and those rankings are pretty meaningless.

The way I’ve argued my Northwestern fandom with others is this: when Northwestern has successes, it’s just sweeter because it’s not the norm. When Northwestern makes the NCAA Tournament, it’s more special than at a school like Michigan or Notre Dame. When Northwestern breaks through and wins the Big Ten West, it’s going to be so much cooler for NU fans than a Wisconsin division title is for Wisconsin fans. Going through the lows makes the highs better.

@BlakeKolesa on Twitter: To which Wildcats season is this year’s 5-week start most analogous?

There isn’t an exact match, but, if we’re keeping this relatively recent, I’d go with 2016, when Northwestern started 1-3 with the meat of its schedule still ahead of it. Here’s how that season started:

22-21 loss to Western Michigan

9-7 loss to Illinois State (comparable to Akron this season)

24-13 win over Duke (relatively similar to this season’s Purdue win)

24-13 loss to Nebraska (like the this season’s Michigan game kind of?)

Clearly, the first four games of the 2016 and 2018 seasons are not perfectly analogous, but I think that’s probably the closest comparison.

@Garrett_ldr on Twitter: Does Fitz’ job security need to be threatened in order for him to make staff and scheme changes?

I would encourage you to read former EIC Henry Bushnell’s feature on Pat Fitzgerald’s comfort zone. I think if this season continues to go the way it’s gone in terms of record and offensive performance, then potentially yes. Fitz shouldn’t be fired, though. But eventually, if the offense continues to perform in the bottom half of the FBS, and no changes have been made, then the conversation becomes more pressing. But even then, Fitz is pretty much un-fireable given the length of his contract.

To answer your question, I can’t say because, as I’ve previously mentioned, I don’t know what it would take to make staff and scheme changes.

@jmkelly91 on Twitter: What’s the record for fewest second half points in a season for a Big Ten team?

This was difficult to Google, so I don’t know, but Northwestern is dead last in the country in second half points per game this season, so that should count for something.

@NUfans14: Do you guys actually think Thorson is a NFL QB? Or did McCall ruin another QB? (Siemian)

I think Thorson will get drafted, probably on Day Three. He has the arm, mental makeup and stature that NFL teams look for, which should help him in the pre-draft process. As for the second half of the question, it’s hard to say, again, because it’s difficult to place blame on one player or position group.

Lori Lynn Vogel on Facebook: Caleb-I guess my question would be this: How fully and how accurately do you really understand what it means to be an athlete at the collegiate level? How aware are you of what has been invested to even earn the privilege of competing in the big 10? How well do you understand the countless hours of training and conditioning and practicing and strengthening and studying and rehabbing that go into preparing for a single game? Have you personally experienced the passion, the competitive drive , the single-minded determination that fuel an athlete to perform to the very best of his ability? Have you experienced the brotherhood and commitment that sacrifice everything for the success of the whole? Every sports writer needs to be accountable to these questions and every comment, every analysis, every criticism needs to be made in the context of genuinely knowing and understanding your subject. Thank you. LLV

The leading questions aside, I actually want to answer this, because I think it’s important. I’ll break it up to make it easier for people to read.

How fully and how accurately do you really understand what it means to be an athlete at the collegiate level? How aware are you of what has been invested to even earn the privilege of competing in the big 10? How well do you understand the countless hours of training and conditioning and practicing and strengthening and studying and rehabbing that go into preparing for a single game?

I do not fully understand what it means to be an athlete at the collegiate level. I’ll readily admit that. I was recruited to play soccer in college, but I never did it, so I don’t really know what the grind of being an athlete is truly like.

But, as a journalist covering the team, it’s my job to try to understand that grind as best I can, and the way I do that is by talking to people who are smarter than me in that way and have valuable information to share. I talk to players, coaches, trainers, operations staffers and people in recruiting offices to try to glean whatever I can. And I don’t come even close to knowing everything. On scheme and Xs and Os topics, I will always defer to any player or coach, because they know more than me.

Have you personally experienced the passion, the competitive drive , the single-minded determination that fuel an athlete to perform to the very best of his ability? Have you experienced the brotherhood and commitment that sacrifice everything for the success of the whole? Every sports writer needs to be accountable to these questions and every comment, every analysis, every criticism needs to be made in the context of genuinely knowing and understanding your subject. Thank you. LLV

You’re right, sportswriters should be held accountable for what they say. I have said things that are either incorrect or uninformed, and, usually, somebody will call me out in the comments section. And that’s a good thing. But, what I think is important — and I’m speaking for everyone on our staff here — is that we try our best. We watch every game from the press box, we re-watch and analyze games and we go through advanced stats that go far beyond the box score of a game. We read about football schemes and watch professional film analyses every week to get better at what we do. Still, we’re students, and we’re going to make mistakes.

The other thing is, it’s difficult to be critical of your peers. Any time I write something criticizing the performance of a Northwestern player, it feels wrong. That could be someone I see in class or walking down Sheridan Road. That’s someone who chose to go to the same small school as me. But, being critical is part of the job we’re doing. I can only speak to the time I’ve been writing for the site (since fall 2016), but our criticism has stuck to performances, not people’s character, which is how it should be. We’re not going to apologize for doing our jobs as best we can, just as we wouldn’t expect a player to apologize for doing the same.

We’re Northwestern students, and we want Northwestern’s teams to win. But, for the people on our staff who want to be journalists, learning how to cover losses is just as important as learning how to cover wins. We definitely aren’t perfect, and there’s a long way to go before we’ll be anywhere close.

So please, respectfully disagree with us and hold us accountable. We really appreciate it, and we know it’ll make us better. Anyone who wants to talk privately about that can email me, my email’s in my profile.

Thank you for reading.