After falling to Rutgers 24-7 and scoring any points with only 19 seconds left on the clock, it’s no secret that pressure had been mounting on Mike Bajakian and Northwestern’s offense to produce. That stems beyond just the team’s Week One performance: with Bajakian at the helm, NU’s offense has been one of the worst in the country, averaging under 17 points per game in both 2021 and 2022.
As both the UTEP Miners and Wildcats strolled into the Ryan Field locker rooms at halftime of Saturday’s contest, it was looking as if the same languid NU offense would persist. The team seemed impressive on its first drive, netting 71 yards and a touchdown on eight plays, but then did nothing but punt on its next four possessions.
In the second half, however, that changed radically. The ‘Cats punched the ball into the end zone on each of their first four drives of the third and fourth quarters, and scored points on all meaningful possessions in the half. The final point total: 38, the most in a game for Northwestern since posting 43 against Maryland to start the 2020 season.
Beyond just points accumulated, it was a much more efficient and balanced day for NU on offense, too. The team had a 44% success rate and 62% rushing success rate, plus posted six explosive plays (10+-yard runs and 15+-yard passes). Converting six of 11 third-down tries was also a much more respectable figure.
How were the Wildcats able to snap out of their offensive funk? A significant portion was due to the creativity of Bajakian. Whether varying personnel or utilizing designs to create confusion, here were highlight-worthy elements of the OC’s gameplan on Saturday.
With the ‘Cats and Miners deadlocked even into the third quarter, Northwestern finally broke the tie courtesy of a gorgeous call from Bajakian.
On second-and-10, the Wildcats use 11 personnel with one running back (Joseph Himon II) and one tight end (Thomas Gordon).
To start the play, Gordon fakes as if he’s blocking for Henning, who takes steps back toward the line of scrimmage in a faux screen. A shoulder pump from Ben Bryant captures the eyes of two UTEP defenders. From there, Gordon leaks out right past the Miner defense, muscling over a defender for a score. This play is excellent because it not only builds upon something Northwestern uses on offense — screens — but pairs that with a late release to create eye candy.
Although the first play showcased was a pass, Bajakian’s strengths really manifested themselves in the run game, which the rest of this film room will demonstrate.
Against Rutgers, Northwestern simply did not get adequate touches to its top playmakers, specifically A.J. Henning and Jack Lausch. That changed enormously on Saturday, with the two combining for 10 runs/carries for 114 yards and two scores.
Let’s start with Lausch. The sophomore quarterback got his first run of the year with the Wildcats threatening inside the UTEP 10. Bajakian lined up Lausch under center but kept Bryant on the field — aligned to the slot to start — to generate some confusion.
Before the snap, Lausch motions Bryant closer to the ball, but the run doesn’t follow that direction. Instead, Lausch fakes a handoff to Cam Porter before scampering to the right for six. This play is outstanding because of how it puts the UTEP defensive end in conflict; him having to wait to see who has the ball enables Lausch to get an excellent angle. A good block from Cam Johnson also paves the way.
That wasn’t the only significant Lausch carry of the day. With the Wildcats holding a 21-point advantage, Bajakian turned to the youngster once again in the fourth quarter. While this zone read doesn’t hold as many wrinkles as the prior one, it’s still executed beautifully, courtesy of a tremendous lead by Gordon, strong down block by Johnson and, of course, Lausch’s acceleration — all of which culminates in a 46-yard scamper.
There’s little question that Henning is Northwestern’s most dynamic playmaker and athlete. Bajakian seemed to emphasize getting the Michigan transfer the ball in spades Saturday after he had six touches against Rutgers, including two measly runs.
On the team’s first drive of the game, Henning was readily involved. Here, the receiver collects a jet sweep from Bryant from the left side out of 13 personnel — Duke Olges and Charlie Mangieri help secure the edge to the right, while Lang blocks out in space to set the perimeter. On top of that, Porter helps Mangieri by closing off a UTEP defender and sealing Henning’s lane. This pop goes for 17 yards.
With the element of Henning’s sweeps well established in his playbook, Bajakian utilized that very concept to foster other successful designs. With 8:44 to go, Henning motions from the right to left side of the formation, drawing with him a UTEP defensive back. But, Bryant hands off to Porter, who runs an inside zone up the middle. Having one fewer UTEP player to defend the run works perfectly on this split zone, as Porter sees an opening past Josh Thompson at RT, hits the hole and picks up 16.
Aside from implementing his elite athletes in a slew of ways, Bajakian was also sound in presenting diverse looks in the team’s run game. Below are two examples that I was a big proponent of.
On this first carry, the ‘Cats line up in the pistol, with Bryant in the shotgun and Porter behind him. Olges begins the play aligned as a receiver to the right side.
This isn’t an ordinary run, though. After the snap, center Ben Wrather and right tackle Zach Franks both pull, while Olges attacks straight downhill. That gets two big bodies out in space for Porter, who waits for his blocks and ultimately gains nine. Bryant’s work on this play shouldn’t go overlooked, either: him turning his head to the left before pitching it all the way around to Porter on his right isn’t the simplest or most conventional maneuver, but he completed it quite well.
Even on more basic run concepts, Bajakian’s use of motion paid dividends. Take this tote by Porter, in which Mangieri motions across the formation. The ability of Mangieri to get a head start on whamming Tyrice Knight (No. 10 for UTEP) allows the tight end to work all the way up the A gap before Knight can impact the play. Because of that block and the double from Wrather and Dom D’Antonio, Porter plunges up the middle through a huge hole.
It was far from a picture-perfect afternoon for Bajakian’s unit on Saturday in spite of the point total it accrued. There were still consistent miscues — especially in the first half — whether blown blocks or inaccurate throws.
All in all, though, Bajakian called a very good game, balancing pass and run while still sprinkling in unique looks and traffic for UTEP defenders. It seemed as if Northwestern’s offense attacked the perimeter and between the numbers equally well, consistently befuddling Miner defenders — especially because of decoys.
Whether or not Bajakian’s gameplan looks similar in the next three weeks — starting with a Duke defense that’s allowed just 14 points all year — is yet to be seen. For as innovative as NU was on offense this week, there was scarcely any ingenuity or success in the opener against the Scarlet Knights.
Ultimately, Bajakian is responsible for Northwestern’s offensive output, even if he’s not the one throwing the passes or securing the blocks. Which version of NU’s O appears will dictate much of the rest of its season. But, if Bajakian orchestrates similar concepts that give the ball to the Wildcats’ most explosive playmakers, plus defy what defenders expect, better results should eventually follow.