The 2019 Northwestern offense sucked. You probably didn’t need an expert opinion to come to that conclusion yourself, but in case you did, here’s the one and only Bill Connelly, godfather of S&P+ and all things of the college football internet.
Northwestern's horrific 2019 offense was UNIQUELY horrific -- they did a strangely decent job of not moving backwards. They just never moved forward either. Either way, I am legitimately intrigued by the Mike Bajakian hire. Big + burly + fast = fun. pic.twitter.com/o63m8SZnPV— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) July 8, 2020
Depressing, I know.
Except, of course, for those last two sentences. Connelly excited by the Bajakian hire? A theoretically fun Northwestern offense? What’s next, a functional Student Rewards App?
(Probably not, but a man can dream)
All this hype and anticipation is great, except we still haven’t seen the fruits of Bajakian’s offense. We don’t know his style or his favorite pet plays. From all the interactions I’ve had with him in person and over Zoom I can guarantee only three things: 1) Playing up tempo is really important and was to be the focal point of spring practice, 2) he loves everything about Peyton Ramsey, and I’d be shocked if the IU transfer did not open the season under center and 3) the superbacks are no more, long live the tight ends.
Thus, since this is Inside NU, and I am the designated film nerd, it’s time for a breakdown.
In his lone season calling plays for Boston College, Bajakian had quite the weapon at his disposal in running back AJ Dillon. After amassing 2,697 yards in his first two years at BC, the bruising power back reached career highs in rushing attempts (318), rushing yards (1,685) and total touchdowns (15) with Bajakian implementing a run-heavy scheme. Overall, the Golden Eagles finished a respectable 44th in offensive S&P+, even after a lackluster bowl performance knocked them down a few rungs.
Now some of you already might be concerned, as Northwestern under Fitz has a tradition of trying to establish the run, despite modern statistical analysis largely disproving that theory and its merits. And sure, I did find times when NU’s new OC committed to the ground game rather than more sensibly airing it out. This play was particularly egregious, where on a 3rd-and-6 he called for a basic run up the middle and didn’t even disguise it to try and fool the defense in any way.
But don’t fear, for Bajakian is not a stuck in his ways old-timer who only wants the ball to be run straight through the heart of the defense. In fact, almost all of his drives begin with a read option or run-pass option (RPO) designed to get the running back sweeping to the outside, while providing the quarterback to cut against the grain if the defense sells out. All four of these first down plays (including two from 2014 when Bajakian was the OC and play caller for Tennessee) are a variation of the option, and you can see how the play is designed to help the back beat the defense to the edge.
However, Bajakian doesn’t just run for the sake of running itself. Often, it’s a part of a larger game of cat and mouse between him and the defense, as he presses the repeat button on his favorite run plays over and over again, only to spring a play action based on that very set and gash the defense for a long gain.
Remember those plays up above with Tennessee during which Bajakian swept the running backs to the outside? Later that same drive, he looks like he’s at it again with three skill position players stacked in the box and a slot receiver sweeping across the formation. Only this time, he calls a play action with a wheel route that leverages the speed built up by the sweeping receiver and results in a huge gain for the Volunteers.
Take a look at how much this warps the South Carolina defense. The three linebackers are all grouped together in the middle of the field, yet find themselves with no one to cover (not to mention the safety covering absolutely nothing on the left, and the corner hand fighting with a receiver). They all look directly at the running back whose simply flared out to the quarterback’s right but is simply sitting at the line of scrimmage as a decoy. Meanwhile, the receiver’s wheel route gives him a great angle against his defender, almost like a forward in soccer making a run for a through ball.
He even applied this same counter attack strategy to a goal line situation, where space is hard to come buy, especially when you have a tendency to load up your box with blockers for power runs.
Those two actions are literally the exact same play. The receiver motions from right to left, and a fake pitch sets up a read option. Tennessee gains positive yardage but can’t punch it in. Then on the third down, Bajakian hits them with this beauty:
My breakdowns can get super nerdy and technical, explaining almost imperceptible-on-first-watch movements and relating them to hyper-specific techniques and coaching designs, especially when it comes to basketball. But you don’t need to have a PhD in sports theory to realize what’s going on when you’re watching a game.
I certainly don’t when it comes to football. However, I can watch these plays and realize how running this sequence of plays works. The first two goal-to-go plays trick the defense into a false sense of security, making them think they’ve recognized the pattern only to completely switch the field on them. It puts the defense’s numbers in the wrong place, which is the equivalent of death on the gridiron.
One potential downside of Bajakian’s leaning toward set-ups and follow-the-instructions-type play calling is how it can prevent players with upper echelon talent from freelancing and making something happen even when the defense hasn’t been fooled.
That 2014 Tennessee offense displeased the Vols’ fanbase (which as we all know is made up of completely rational fans that don’t create accounts just to argue with opposing fans), as many of them thought that it held back a team with a quality defense according to a post from the blog Saturday Down South.
Said article took some shots specifically at the coach’s play calling, saying “the second-year coordinator relied heavily on screen and swing passes, despite facing long third downs and late-game deficits.”
The post does mention how this wasn’t all Bajakian’s fault, as UT had a pretty crappy offensive line that finished 118th in sacks allowed and 124th in tackles for loss allowed. However, Bajakian himself made sure to assume responsibility for that group’s failings.
“It starts with me,” Bajakian told GoVols247 that October. “Obviously I’ve got to do a better job of preparing our guys during the week for those different types of situations and putting them in situations to make those plays.”
Tennessee, while having more than its fair share of disappointing football teams over the past two decades, has always recruited well and been stocked deep in SEC talent. It makes sense that the fans would be irritated when they believe said talent is being micromanaged, always being told where to go and how they have to do it. That hard caps your ceiling, as great players need to be given the freedom to rock out and improvise. It’s what makes them so hard to defend, as their opponents have no pattern to interpret and have to react in the moment to what’s happening. Bajakian’s style works against that.
What Coach Jake’s method does well is raise the floor of your offense. He puts players in spots that usually work, and if they just follow what he tells them to do, the results are often pretty good. Last season, it was too often the case for NU that Mick McCall left his quarterbacks out on an island, giving them that rock-out freedom when they themselves didn’t seem to know what they were looking at. There’s not a ton of elite, five star-caliber talent that comes through Evanston, so a system that safeguards against total self-destruction should be welcomed by Wildcat fans, even if it means simply returning to 7-5 and 8-4 seasons rather than revolutionizing the program and becoming a perennial 10-win squad.
The floor of Northwestern’s offense caved in last year, and the result was by far the worst team of the Fitz era. Bajakian’s system of read options, long-thought-out counters and relying on scheme over individual talent fits what the program needs to bounce back from what was truly a futile scoring unit.