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The 10 worst moments from the McCall era

The list we’ve all been waiting for.

74th, 71st, 64th, 51st, 43rd, 83rd, 101st, 114th, 87th, 57th, 100th, and 126th.

That list of numbers is where Northwestern’s offense finished in average points per game nationally in the FBS under Mick McCall from 2008 to 2019

Things were actually trending upward early on, with McCall’s offense improving every year during his first five seasons, and culminated in the 2012 offense led by the Trevor Siemian/Kain Colter two-headed monster. Even down the stretch of his tenure, there were plenty of bright spots, which prompted us to make yesterday’s list of our favorite offensive memories from Northwestern football’s past 12 years.

But it’s obvious that the offense under McCall was bad more often than it was good, especially after 2012, and with bad offense comes bad moments. Many, many bad moments. So I went back through hundreds of box scores and highlights from the McCall era and picked out what I believe are the 10 worst moments his offense produced for the ‘Cats.

There were a number of candidates, so feel free to let me know if you think I missed anything in the comments down below. It’s hard for one man to capture all of this incompetence on his own.

Let’s get into it!

10. A disappointing loss to Duke - 2018

The ‘Cats dominated this game in almost every statistical category, holding an edge over Duke in passing yards, rushing yards, yards per carry, third down efficiency, time of possession and a whopping 23-14 advantage in first downs.

However, the ‘Cats lost two very important statistical battles: they were -2 in the turnover margin and went a ghastly 1-5 on 4th down attempts. That’s how you lose a game 21-7 even though your offense racked up 381 total yards.

Both of the interceptions Thorson threw were egregious, but the true worst moment of this game for the ‘Cats came on the opening drive of the second half. The offense actually managed to move the ball to Duke’s nine-yard line for a 1st and goal, where McCall unleashed this sequence of offensive play calling on the Northwestern faithful.

1st down:

2nd down:

3rd down:

Instead of taking the field goal and likely trimming the lead to 11, Fitz instead decided to bet on McCall drawing up a play that would put the ‘Cats in the end zone.

Northwestern would only gain 40 yards total on their next three drives combined, and put up 79 meaningless yards on the last two drives of the game with the outcome already decided.

9. A 38-0 drubbing in Ann Arbor - 2015

Remember this season? The ‘Cats went 10-3 with freshman Clayton Thorson throwing for only 1522 yards, 7 touchdowns and 9 interceptions, and McCall’s offense finished 114th in points per game. While that correctly indicates that the Northwestern defense was amazing (18.6 points allowed per game that year), it also indicates that the Wildcats really may not have been as good as their impressive record.

This game exposed that. Michigan also finished 10-3 that year, yet absolutely swallowed up the NU offense that day. Northwestern was on the brink of cracking the AP top ten for the first time since ‘96, only for this dud from McCall’s group to prove that they were still nowhere near being one of the Big Ten’s elite programs.

This play in particular stood out for its gross ineptitude. The drawn-out option to the far side of the field is tough when there isn’t much speed involved, and Thorson pitched the ball without even looking to see if the defender was about to close in on him, basically dooming his running back. Northwestern’s running game was DOA against the Wolverines all day long, only mustering 38 yards on 25 attempts.

8. The scoreless first half and a loss to Northern Illinois - 2014

This was one of two moments on this list of which I was able to find no game film of Northwestern’s wretched offense no matter how long I scoured the internet. I’m convinced that the tapes have been burned to spare us all of the suffering it would inflict.

McCall’s offense actually racked up 394 total yards, but it was all useless dink and dunks. They ran for only 72 yards on 37 attempts and Thorson averaged just 6.5 yards per attempt himself (which admittedly doesn’t look as bad after seeing this season’s numbers in that category).

Any loss to a MAC team is bad, but sometimes it’s at least understandable, like the loss to Western Michigan in 2016. However, failing to score against that MAC team until the late third quarter, then trailing 7-23 with three minutes remaining is much more inexcusable.

7. Tennessee smashes 10-2 NU 45-6 in the Outback Bowl - 2015

The ‘Cats were disrespected and told that they paled in comparison to an 8-4 SEC team, and only proved those Big Ten-haters right after a long buildup with plenty of fan back-and-forth. McCall’s offense turned the ball over four times and Thorson averaged 2.9 yards per attempt. Yet again, salt was poured in the ‘Cats’ wounds with a game-ending pick six.

6. The catastrophic second half of the Akron loss - 2018

Already another MAC loss. Non-ideal.

If you just looked at the final score, you’d pin more on the defense, which seemingly gave up 39 points, than the McCall offense, which registered 28. However, McCall’s offense gifted the Akron Zips, only a season away from being arguably the worst team in the FBS, 18 of those points off of two pick-sixes and a fumble return touchdown.

Maybe you see those plays and blame Thorson more than McCall. That’s fine, but it was also the offensive coordinator’s job to coach up the quarterback, make him better and have him prepared to make good decisions in the game. Thorson’s poor decisions and lack of ball security partially fall on McCall’s poor coaching.

Not to mention that in this game, Northwestern had the ball inside of Akron’s 40-yard-line ten times, and only scored five touchdowns. They missed two field goals, turned the ball over on downs, and threw a pick-six. The 10th time was their failed hail mary attempt that ended the game.

5. Quarterback Play in 2019

Enough said (or, I should say, shown).

4. Losing to Illinois State 9-7 - 2016

This was the aforementioned second game where seemingly all tape of the McCall offense has gone missing.

McCall decided to run future NFL running back Justin Jackson only 12 times in a game against non-scholarship athletes and the ‘Cats failed to score until there were nine minutes left. It’s not like the offensive personnel was incapable. A month later they put up 54 points at Michigan State and finished with an acceptable 26.6 scoring average.

It’s really incredible that McCall managed to guide them to this 7-point dud against not only an FCS team, but one that finished 6-6 at that. Everything surrounding this performance makes it very deserving of this 4th spot on the list.

3. The Michigan State Goal Line Sequence - 2019

I’ve listed specific games that went poorly and highlighted specific moments for the most part on this list. I could certainly have just said the Michigan State 2019 game, but I think this goal line sequence deserved special recognition.

It actually appeared that the offense had scored and wouldn’t need to mess with a goal line package, only for Isaiah Bowser’s run to be reviewed and overturned. As you can see in the shot below, he was just inches short.

Then this absolutely horrific/hysterical sequence of plays ensued.

How did McCall get so much (apparently) worse at this??? The QB sneak is almost always the right call on a short yardage play, yet he refused to run it with the 6’2” Hunter Johnson on three straight plays??????

At least I can somewhat understand the second and third down plays as believing in your running back, but what the heck was that fourth down call? Why would you run a power-option from the half yard line that requires your quarterback to first retreat three yards and then move laterally?

This was the first Northwestern game I ever attended in person and this was a very bad omen of what was to come from the offense in 2019.

2. Simian’s Slip in the M00N game - 2014

Did you know that it was possible to rush for 9 yards on 35 attempts in one game? Because that’s exactly what the ‘Cats did in their 10-9 loss against Michigan in 2014. Both offenses contributed to what was a nearly unwatchable contest, but McCall’s was particularly wretched.

There were many examples to choose from, but I found this end-around especially rough.

First, why is the running back pitching the ball back to the receiver so quickly? He barely had any time to try and trick the defense into thinking he was the play’s designed ball carrier. Second, and much more importantly, that block attempt from Trevor Siemian was non-ideal. McCall shouldn’t be calling a play that requires his quarterback to lay some wood if he’s just going to flail his arms and stand in place.

Of course, that wasn’t nearly the most infamous thing Siemian did that night. The ‘Cats miraculously scored a touchdown with three seconds left and Coach Fitz decided to go for two and the win. Most of you know what’s coming next.

As you can tell by the pre-snap motion and the alignment of the offense, it was a virtual guarantee that Siemian was rolling right, and Michigan’s Frank Clark figured this out immediately. He comes straight up the field, and his presence startled Siemian, causing him to slip and lose the game for the ‘Cats in embarrassing fashion.

It’s not often that Northwestern gets a chance to beat a program like Michigan, and this was one of their best chances, as the Wolverines went a meager 5-7 in 2014. McCall’s offense ruined this opportunity all game, and even given one last chance, he called for a two point conversion that had his quarterback scrambling backward to his own 12-yard line.

1. The 44 drive touchdown drought - 2019

Aidan Smith punched the ball in the end zone near the start of the third quarter to tie the score of the Northwestern-Nebraska game at 10 apiece. It would be another 34 days before a Wildcat player found the end zone.

The only time I can even remember them being close to scoring a touchdown was the second drive of the Indiana game. Most other drives were three-and-outs, turnovers or immediately stalled once the ‘Cats crossed the 50-yard line.

That’s why the student section in Ryan Field just about lost its mind when Kyric McGowan ripped off that 79-yard touchdown run against Purdue. It was like a weight had been lifted off our shoulders. McCall’s offense had been rendered to a pulp in its showings against Ohio State, Iowa and Indiana, and just to see some semblance of production was a cathartic experience.

There were already some whispers of “Fire Mick McCall” chants, but they became delirious shouts during October the touchdown drought. They also became a cardboard “Fire Mick McCall” sign that a student sneaked in week-after-week despite Ryan Field’s policy and was proudly shown for all to see.

McCall’s offense was never a thing of beauty. Heck, it never even cracked the top-40 nationally. But it wasn’t a full on disaster until this drought, and for how low it dragged down the fan-base, it has to be the number one worst moment of the Mick McCall era.