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Northwestern Football Offense Preview, Coordinator, Depth Chart // B1G 2023

Stop me if you’ve heard this before—Northwestern has a couple talented running backs and a transfer quarterback. Why is THIS Pat Fitzgerald offense different?

Northwestern v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

In its 2019 campaign, the first year after quarterback Clayton Thorson went in the NFL Draft, the Northwestern offense bottomed out: the ‘Cats ranked 120th in Football Outsiders’ FEI offensive ratings and failed about every smell test imaginable. They couldn’t run the ball, had not developed a quarterback to replace the homegrown Thorson, and began a cycle of replacing quarterback with transfer quarterback.

Pat Fitzgerald made a decision after that season to replace offensive coordinator Mick McCall with former Boston College coordinator Mike Bajakian. LincolnParkWildcat met the new hire with his usual amount of enthusiasm, while I met it with the usual amount of scorn and skepticism. In his first year, though, Bajakian’s Peyton Ramsey-led offense performed what we would call “adequately”, avoiding busted drives behind a stable of running backs like Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson.

In the succeeding two years, though, the ‘Cats offense bottomed out again, with transfer quarterbacks Hunter Johnson and Ryan Hilinski failing to take hold of the position and little talent waiting in the wings.

While another moribund 2023 would likely be enough to call 2020 the mirage and 2021-23 the reality of the Bajakian Era, I’d wanted to see if it was anything beyond “bad/transfer QB” that has driven the once-vital Northwestern offense into the ground. At various points, we’ve seen a few things offered up as explanations for the Wildcats’ offense woes:

  • QB instability. Since Thorson left, Northwestern has given appreciable playing time to the following quarterbacks: Hunter Johnson, TJ Green, Andrew Marty, Aiden Smith, Peyton Ramsey, Ryan Hilinski, Carl Richardson, Cole Freeman, Brendan Sullivan. Does that sound good to you?
  • Bad receivers. Name a non-running back Wildcat to catch a pass in the last seven years. If you’re a non-Northwestern fan, I’d be surprised if you got anyone beyond Flynn Nagel, Riley Lees, Ben Skowronek, or Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, the latter because he has a great name. And I doubt you got any of those. Little skill at the skill positions hasn’t helped.
  • No tight ends. Want to get rid of superbacks, Bajakian? Try actually having a pass-catcher at the thiccboi position.
  • A bad offensive line. Adam Cushing’s offensive line got pushed around, Kent Anderson’s line got pushed’s just always been a disaster, right?
  • Pat Fitzgerald’s increasingly cavemannish tendencies. Whether McCall or Bajakian, the vibe around Northwestern football in the last ten years is that they’ve abandoned the spread that put the ‘Cats on the map in the 2000s, resorting to a MANBALL approach that isn’t yielding any results. While that’s not an entirely fair assessment—Northwestern still runs most of its plays out of shotgun and in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE)—the vibe has been that Fitz has leaned more heavily on the run beginning in the Justin Jackson the Ball-Carrier era.

So let’s look at some numbers

There’s a whole lot of jargon to go with those stats—it’s included below. Pass play percentage and plays are taken from TeamRankings.

Northwestern Offensive Rankings, 2008-2022

Year Coord. 1st QB Record OFEI Rk ODE Rk OTD Rk OVD Rk OFD Rk OBD Rk OTO Rk PassPlay% Pass% Rk Plays Plays Rk LnYds Rk Power Success Rk Sack Rk
Year Coord. 1st QB Record OFEI Rk ODE Rk OTD Rk OVD Rk OFD Rk OBD Rk OTO Rk PassPlay% Pass% Rk Plays Plays Rk LnYds Rk Power Success Rk Sack Rk
2022 Bajakian Hilinski 1-11 97 125 124 118 80 49 130 48.04% 65 74.2 31 114 82 39
2021 Bajakian Johnson 3-9 104 120 120 111 102 110 115 48.08% 62 70.9 59 121 15 81
2020 Bajakian Ramsey 7-2 75 81 71 96 79 48 88 42.98% 91 76.8 22 120 96 29
2019 McCall Johnson 3-9 120 125 126 128 110 106 117 38.77% 116 72 57 70 119 87
2018 McCall Thorson 9-5 73 105 94 94 92 72 59 52.08% 28 77.2 19 120 57 53
2017 McCall Thorson 10-3 63 74 63 55 68 36 53 47.76% 63 79.1 11 97 96 77
2016 McCall Thorson 7-6 43 54 47 52 77 33 56 50.42% 38 79 19 68 74 93
2015 McCall Thorson 10-3 103 116 119 118 108 86 64 40.67% 105 74.6 54 84 110 101
2014 McCall Siemian 5-7 95 106 103 108 91 66 100 50.99% 39 82.5 10 83 81 89
2013 McCall Siemian 5-7 69 86 97 82 86 54 47 46.50% 71 77.8 30
2012 McCall Colter 10-3 43 62 62 51 58 21 20 40.44% 105 75.8 39
2011 McCall Persa 6-7 19 23 21 24 12 33 38 45.86% 74 78.5 13
2010 McCall Persa 7-6 57 48 69 61 30 23 82 44.39% 83 74.3 17
2009 McCall Kafka 8-5 70 70 79 86 13 38 78 54.50% 23 82.4 3
2008 McCall Bacher 9-4 58 65 71 54 37 22 90 49.39% 50 75.3 15
Football Outsiders, TeamRankings

Offense Fremeau Efficiency Index ratings (OFEI) represent the per-possession scoring advantage each offense would be expected to have on a neutral field against an average opponent. Offensive drive efficiency (ODE) is scoring value gained or lost per offensive drive. Touchdown rate (OTD) is the percentage of offensive drives that result in a touchdown. Value drive rate (OVD) is the percentage of offensive drives that conclude with a drive end value greater than the drive start value based on field position. First down rate (OFD) is the percentage of offensive drives that earn at least one first down. Busted drive rate (OBD) is the percentage of offensive drives that gain zero or negative yards. Turnover rate (OTO) is the percentage of offensive drives that end with an interception or fumble. [FootballOutsiders]

  • Line Yards per Carry: For 2018, we are experimenting with a new definition for college line yardage based on film study and generalization. Instead of the ALY figure FO used for the NFL, this one is tighter: the line gets credit for rushing yardage between 0-3 yards (instead of 0-4) and 50% credit for yards 4-8 (instead of 5-10). Anything over 8 yards is quantified as a highlight opportunity, and credit goes to the runner. As with the pro definition, lost yardage still counts for 125%. (Garbage time is filtered out for all line yardage averages.)
  • Power Success Rate: This is the same as on the NFL side — percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown.
  • Sack Rate: Unadjusted sack rate for all non-garbage time pass attempts. [FootballOutsiders]

What we found

That was...bleak. But, some preliminary thoughts.

  • Just a different kind of bad? McCall’s offenses were generally better than Bajakian’s, which is a depressing-as-hell conclusion to come to after all this.
  • Offensive line changes. While we reviled McCall’s offensive line coach, former Eastern Illinois HC Adam Cushing, for failing to bring anything in the way of stability—sack rates were terrible and the ‘Cats couldn’t push the ball forward for shit—the new OL under Kurt Anderson (since 2019) has struggled instead in the line yards metric. There’s little push up front, particularly in run blocking. While linemen like Rashawn Slater (San Diego Chargers) and Peter Skoronski (Tennessee Titans) have made their way to the NFL Draft on the first night, they’ve been adept pass-blockers but made little headway in the run game.
  • And what ABOUT running the ball? If anything, Bajakian has been more consistent in committing to the run and to a certain kind of run. While the pass play percentage is little-changed—and is subject to the “are they losing?” phenomenon—Northwestern has struggled since about 2014, the end of the Siemian era, to pick up first downs and has gotten markedly worse at gaining at least a yard. Busted drives are up, which I’m told is Bad, Actually.
  • Holy turnovers, Batman. Dead fucking last in 2022, and bottom 15 three of the last four years. An offense that, for as much as it threw the ball or as wide-open as it was, is just giving it away like WSR on prom night. It feels like little surprise to me that uptick coincides with the beginning of the Northwestern Quarterback Transfer Carousel.
  • Pace might matter. It’s probably not statistically significant for the nerds, but I dropped out of the poli sci stats class that tried to make me learn R, so screw that. Northwestern has gotten slower under Bajakian and late-stage Mick McCall. Outside the outlier year of 2015, when Justin Jackson was so good and Clayton Thorson so new that the ‘Cats sat on the ball and prayed their way to 10-3, Northwestern is throwing less, snapping less, chewing more clock...and winning less. That, to me, is on Pat Fitzgerald finding an offensive coordinator who shares his regressive vision for Northwestern football.

Notes on this Northwestern offense

But, Fitz and Bajakian are going nowhere (until another losing campaign, when AD Dr. Derrick Gragg will be told he can’t fire Fitz but can make him fire another coordinator). So what do we do? Who takes the field?

  • Quarterback “controversy”: It’ll be Cincinnati Bearcats and Eastern Michigan Eagles transfer QB Ben Bryant, who’s racked up almost 6,000 yards passing and 35 TDs to 14 INTs in the last two seasons in Ypsi and Cincy. Right now the narrative, because Pat Fitzgerald gets off on being a dick to the media, is that it’s “anyone’s position.” It’ll be Bryant. The only hope we have is that he’s more Ramsey than Johnson—and, given that Bryant’s actually excelled at another school (unlike Hilinski or Johnson), there’s more reason here to believe.
  • Tight ends could be a strength? Since Cam Green left the program after 2018, only transfer TE John Raine has nabbed more than 20 passes or 200 yards (24 for 233 and 2 TDs in 2020). In 2019 Northwestern tight ends caught seven passes total. But things are...improving? Marshall Lang managed 11 catches for 3 TDs in 2021 and 15 for 192 yards in 2022, joined by pass-catcher Thomas Gordon as well.
  • Running backs remain stable. Cam Porter. Anthony Tyus III. Each a bowling ball with knives, each able to bang inside but also bounce out wide and get some separation.
  • There are no wide receivers. Apologies to the squad assembled. I love you all because you wear purple, and I can’t wait for one of you to be the next Austin Carr or Riley Lees. But...uh...prove me wrong?
  • Offensive line experience: Three seniors across the left—Zachary Franks at LT, Josh Priebe at LG, Ben Wraither at C—bring some age to the table, though only Priebe has considerable experience. The right side will be an adventure, with sophomore RG Josh Thompson and sophomore RT Caleb Tiernan rounding things out.

What’s the verdict?

Best-case scenario, we see an offense reminiscent of 2020, which is basically the Pat Fitzgerald gold standard at this point—limit turnovers, lengthen drives, have a quarterback who can use his legs to extend plays.

Worst-case, Bryant’s a bust, Sullivan’s not ready to take the reins, and it’s more of the same.


In 2023, Northwestern’s offense will be...

This poll is closed

  • 28%
    The worst in the Big Ten
    (38 votes)
  • 56%
    Bad, but surely there’s Rutgers
    (75 votes)
  • 10%
    Mediocre, but they’ve gone 7-2 and 10-3 with mediocre, so...
    (14 votes)
  • 3%
    Actually decent?
    (4 votes)
  • 1%
    I’ve been drinking, it’s going to be basketball on grass again
    (2 votes)
133 votes total Vote Now