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Five Biggest Questions for Northwestern in 2020, No. 3: Will Mike Bajakian fix the issues McCall left behind?

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Boston College Football Practice Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Over the past few months, we’ve covered nearly every aspect of the upcoming Northwestern football season. This week, we continue our offseason coverage by looking at the five biggest questions surrounding Northwestern football in 2020.

In the middle of these five ranked questions is whether the offense can revive itself after five largely poor years to end offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s tenure.

Let’s start with a chart (these Tweets may look familiar).

The bottom one is most relevant to this article, so focus your attention on that Jordan-with-a-unicorn horn shape. See all those points clustered around the intersection for the worst in the country? I get it can be confusing, but look at the ranking key — points closer to the border of the circle are good — closer to the center is bad. There was a lot of bad last season for Northwestern’s offense, not that this is breaking news.

Most NU fans know SP+ isn’t necessarily kind to the Wildcats and isn’t totally indicative of the type of season they’ll have. Why? Well, Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald tends to defy numbers and logic. The Cardiac ‘Cats nickname exists for a reason.

But 2019 was different. The bottom finally fell out. The outdated, predictable offense Northwestern employed was unceremoniously exposed after years of being masked by enough timely plays, bail-out defenses and a bit of luck.

Heading into this potential season, there are reasons for optimism about Northwestern’s offense, the simplest being it can only get better. The ‘Cats lead the nation by returning 88 percent of their offensive production from 2019. Clearly, production was low last year, but the key players are back and there is talent on that side of the ball.

The chief complaints during McCall’s final few years were the lack of explosive plays, the conservative and often downright repetitive play calling, and the lack of separation created by receivers leading to a hamstrung air attack. The offensive line was hardly a position of strength during that time but is morphing into one of the team’s more reliable units under new coach Kurt Anderson.

Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has his work cut out for him. There’s one clear thing that will look different to NU fans under the new OC, and that’s pace of play. Bajakian has said the offense will still focus on ball control, meant to wear down defenses. That’s not a new term for the program, and while the team’s time of possession averaged 29 minutes and 52 seconds per game over the last five years, Northwestern didn’t exactly keep defenses off balance or on their heels with the McCall playbook.

That system was somewhat successful at keeping the ball from the opposing team, and that’s what frequently running up the middle will do, but rarely did it attack. McCall peaked in 2012 — since then the Wildcats have ranked an average of 94th nationally in total offense. During those seven years, the highest they’ve ranked is 55, and they’ve ranked lower than 100 four times. No one is disputing the point that offensive shortcomings aren’t limited to last year, but this is the situation Bajakian is assuming.

Now, as Connelly said, big + burly + fast = fan. Fans can only hope that is the new equation on offense. The three issues listed below are most definitely interconnected.

Explosive plays

Northwestern logged just 27 plays of 20 or more yards in 2019, slotting in dead last of the 130 FBS teams. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t an outlier. The six years prior, NU placed an average of 99th in the country in recording plays of 20+ yards, according to cfbstats.com. It’s reasonable to expect a ball control offense won’t be terribly explosive since scoring quickly gives the ball right back to the other team, and the idea is to be methodical and grinding. However, that doesn’t excuse the inability to move the ball to which fans have grown accustomed.

NU’s new offensive coordinator has rarely stayed in one place for long. He’s spent nine seasons as a college OC across four different schools. Using available data from 2010 on, Bajakian’s six offenses ranked an averaged of 50th nationally in plays of 20 or more yards. He’s no Lincoln Riley, but Northwestern doesn’t need him to be.

Play calling

Mike Bajakian can quickly gain the trust of Northwestern fans by doing two things: eliminating the speed option and throwing past (or at least to) the sticks on third down. Those were two McCall/Thorson-era specialities.

NU won’t be going to an air raid system but instead an up-tempo power run game. That should fit the personnel fairly well, as the Trench Cats up front had an underrated 2019 and should be even stronger going forward. It’s been a while since that group could be considered a strong suit, but it’s in the process of becoming just that.

We broke down what a Bajakian offense might look like, and there are definitely patterns to it: early-down runs or run-pass options and carefully planned play-action passes. As Dan said in his piece, Bajakian raises the floor of the offense.

“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.”

Fixing the passing game

We’re going to learn a lot about Northwestern’s pass catchers this season. Under McCall, there wasn’t a ton of creativity employed to get wide receivers open, even with multiple speedsters on the roster. Kyric McGowan, for example, frequently ran deep routes but without much variation and with few distractions created by other receivers.

How much of the blame should be put on the position group versus the scheme itself? We’ll begin to find out since there’s a new system and the same returning talent.

McCall’s system was also notorious for being complex and giving the quarterback a lot of autonomy at the line of scrimmage. That didn’t work so well last season, and those taking the snaps looked left on an island. At times it seemed like Hunter Johnson didn’t know his protections and Aidan Smith simply didn’t know where to go with the ball.

Thus, it’s not surprising one of Coach Jake’s focal points with his signal callers is decision making. While the quarterbacks played poorly last year, it’s only fair to give them so much criticism. The pass catchers (and coaches) have to meet them halfway.

Bajakian’s got a room crowded with proven and unproven talent, and if the position can get back to competent, Northwestern will once again be a formidable foe in the Big Ten West.