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Measuring stick looms as Northwestern’s receivers look to take the next step

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The Wildcat wideouts have largely impressed so far, but Saturday will give plenty of context to their growth.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

In 2019, Northwestern’s receiving corps had exactly one player total more than 200 receiving yards. That player, Riley Lees, was the only receiver to average even two receptions per game, and had his best performance, catching 7 balls for 76 yards against arguably the worst team in the country in UMass, during a contest in which none of his teammates managed a reception.

Somehow, that wasn’t even the worst season by the numbers for a group of receivers in the Mick McCall era. In 2015, Clayton Thorson’s first year as the starting quarterback, the wideouts, minus superback Dan Vitale, caught four touchdowns — two fewer than they managed last year. No wide receiver managed either two receptions per game or even a measly 26 yards per contest.

Under McCall’s stewardship, and particularly in the second half of his tenure, the receivers as a group were often an offensive weak point for Northwestern. There were individual bright spots, most notably Austin Carr’s spectacular 2016, but he and Flynn Nagel in 2018 were the only players to average 50 or more receiving yards per game across Northwestern’s past six seasons.

The individual numbers haven’t yet changed all that much under Mike Bajakian, though much of that is due to fewer passing attempts—a mere 25 per game over three contests—than in even the most run-heavy years of the McCall offense ). But even within the relatively small sample size, the big moments have shown that 2020 Northwestern receivers can consistently catch balls and make plays.

With the veteran triumvirate of Lees, Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, and Kyric McGowan leading the way, the Wildcats have picked up third down after third down through the air, particularly in clutch situations while on the comeback trail against Iowa and Nebraska. That has helped lead to an overall third-down conversion rate of 49 percent, better than any season-long number in the Fitz era and a whopping eight percentage points higher than in any season since 2012. 2019 and 2017 combined for the low-water mark, all the way down at 35.7. That’s without even mentioning the perfect 6-of-6 they’ve been on fourth down, two of which came via the pass.

Third down-and-medium-to-long was a specific and oft-cited area of criticism for McCall’s offense, and it has been a clear area of improvement thus far. When asked whether the significant uptick in conversion rate could be credited at least in part to wider route variation and increased options in third and fourth-down situations, the lack of which NU’s offense was heavily criticized for in the past, wide receivers coach Dennis Springer said “absolutely.”

“The credit really goes to the players,” he said. “In order to do all of those things, they have to have an understanding of the offense and the concepts that you’re running...When you have variety, and you have different ways, different bodies, different people to get the ball to in those situations, it definitely helps you convert.”

Though some of the credit for this early-season development in critical situations must go to Bajakian and his new and improved system, the ability of Northwestern’s receivers to learn that system, run crisp routes, and make tough, contested catches in must-have situations shouldn’t be overlooked.

They’ve found success thus far despite what has pretty clearly been an increase in responsibilities: when asked if his route tree had expanded under the new offensive leadership, Chiaokhiao-Bowman smiled and said “we got options” before praising Bajakian for his ability to put players in positions to succeed.

As things continue to develop within the Northwestern passing game, with Bryce Kirtz getting involved on some deep routes against Nebraska and a couple of near-misses from Peyton Ramsey on potential big plays (more on that later in the week), the ‘Cats are approaching a roadblock.

Purdue’s electric passing game, with or without star receiver Rondale Moore, serves as both a measuring stick and a test for Northwestern’s receiving corps. A steady diet of running and defense may have been enough to win the first three games, but NU will be hard-pressed to repeat the feat against the high-octane Boilermakers.

If the ‘Cats want to secure this one, the passing game will have to step out of the shadows, and graduate from making big plays on the occasional third down to doing so with consistency. From what we’ve seen in the first three weeks, if the quarterback does his job, that next step appears eminently reachable for this group of pass catchers, especially against a mediocre Purdue secondary. And based on what the rest of this team has shown so far, making that particular leap may end up spelling the difference between a winning season and a special one.