C.J. Bacher is as frustrated as any Northwestern fan is right now. He sits in the stands at Ryan Field and sees the same sputtering offense that everyone else does. He has been disappointed watching the Wildcats get drubbed by Wisconsin and Penn State the last two weeks.
The difference is that Bacher once directed that offense as the Wildcats’ starting quarterback from 2006-08, so he knows a little bit more about how it is supposed to operate – and what can be done to fix it – than does the average fan.
Bacher, like most observers, thinks the main culprit in the Wildcats’ current offensive malaise is the subpar performance of the offensive line. But he points out that poor blocking is not the only reason; he sees a couple other significant contributing factors as well.
And, unlike many posters on the WildcatReport message board, Bacher is not so sure that a shakeup of the coaching staff is the answer. He thinks that the issues at hand are more about personnel than schematics.
The good news is that he also sees a bit of a silver lining on the horizon.
Bacher, who still holds the Northwestern single-season record for passing yards (3,656 in 2007), believes, like most casual fans, that the offensive line is public enemy No. 1 when it comes to the Wildcats’ inability to move the ball or score points.
“Most of the issues are just around the fact that the offensive line is not able to open up holes for (running back Justin) Jackson,” he said. “We’re seeing three or four (defenders) in the backfield, sometimes by the time that Jackson is getting the ball. So that’s the No. 1 issue.”
He added, “If we were able to run the football more efficiently, if we were able to open holes for probably the second-best running back in the Big Ten, this would be a totally different offense.”
That would be a welcome change in Evanston. On Saturday, Northwestern went three- or four-and-out on its first seven drives of the second half against Penn State. The Wildcats generated a grand total of nine yards on their 22 plays during that span.
That’s when the Wildcats’ offense becomes its own worst enemy, according to Bacher.
“When you’re in a hurry-up, spread offense and you’re going three-and-out, it looks terrible,” he said. “That three-and-out is happening in about two minutes, real-time, so it just doesn’t look good.”
It also leaves the Wildcat defense out to dry.
Bacher explained that Northwestern’s spread offense is essentially a numbers game. When the defense drop extra men into the box, it becomes very difficult to run those zone-read running plays. But not impossible.
In 2015, remember, the Wildcats had the worst passing attack in the Big Ten, so teams loaded up to stop the run. Yet the Wildcats still ran for 188.5 yards per game. This year, they’re averaging just 114.3. The running back and the quarterback are the same this year as they were in 2015, so it’s hard not to point at the offensive line as the origin of the problem.
Still, running the ball into the teeth of the defense isn’t the philosophy of the spread system. If teams are stacking the line of scrimmage against you, the idea is to throw the ball to make those defenders get out of the box. Because if the defense has extra men inside, chances are they are going one-on-one against receivers on the outside.
That brings up the second problem that Bacher identified: the inability for receivers to gain separation against man-to-man coverage. Again, it’s very similar to the problem Northwestern had in 2015.
So if the Wildcats’ receivers had difficulty getting open in 2015 and again in 2017, what was the difference in 2016, when it wasn’t really an issue? Bacher has the answer. His name was Austin Carr.
“Austin Carr was beating everybody in man-to-man (last year),” said Bacher. “Losing Carr was definitely a huge, huge loss, because he refused to be covered by one man.”
Carr was a human security blanker for quarterback Clayton Thorson last season. The former walkon caught 90 passes for 1,247 yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago and took home the Howard-Richter Award as the Big Ten’s top receiver.
Thorson doesn’t have that go-to guy he can depend on to get open this season. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the Duke loss that Northwestern’s receivers went “0-for-Saturday” in one-on-one situations on the outside, and it wasn’t much different against Wisconsin or Penn State.
“We’re not going to be the team that’s going to pull in two extra tight ends and get in a Power-I and run the ball down your throats. Those linebackers are feeling like they can come up and be really aggressive,” said Bacher. And the Wildcats haven’t been able to make them pay for it with downfield passing.
Of course, any successful passing game is predicated on good pass protection from the offensive line. That hasn’t been the case lately as Thorson has been sacked 12 times in the last two games.
However, the third issue Bacher sees is not Northwestern’s pass blocking. It’s with the performance of the quarterback when he is under pressure.
“I don’t think the pass blocking has been all that bad,” he said. “It hasn’t been good by any means, but (not terrible).
“When there’s a clean pocket, Thorson is maybe the best quarterback in the entire country. He can make throws that no one else can make. He’s got a strong arm, he’s really accurate when he’s throwing from the pocket.
“But the second there’s any disruption in that pocket is when he becomes inaccurate, it’s when he leaves the pocket too early instead of stepping up, and he just doesn’t look comfortable at all.”
Bacher, who had a reputation for standing tall in the pocket in the face of a rush, also thinks that Thorson often leaves the pocket too soon when protection is breaking down.
“One of the things that I’m not seeing enough of is staying in the pocket, taking the hit,” he explained. “Lots of other quarterbacks, they say, ‘I’ve got to squeeze this (ball) for another half-second or second and deliver the ball,’ give up their body, essentially, to make the throw. And that’s something that I think is kind of lacking with Thorson, unfortunately.
“In terms of having all the tools and being a quarterback that can sit back there with a clean pocket, he’s probably the best quarterback in the Big Ten in those situations. (But) it’s just not a great recipe with the offensive line being mediocre or below mediocre with their ability to protect the quarterback.”
Bacher doesn’t want to be “the former quarterback being critical of the current quarterback.” He sees plenty of positives in Thorson and said that “if Thorson played for Oklahoma or Alabama, we’d be talking about him for the Heisman.”
So, one question remains: what can Northwestern do to remedy the situation?
From a play-calling standpoint, Bacher would like to see more screen passes and moving the pocket. The problem is that those things don’t play to Thorson’s strengths.
“The issue is that Thorson is much better with a clean pocket, in the pocket, than throwing on the run,” he said. “Outside the pocket, it doesn’t seem like we get all that much production. It seems like (offensive coordinator Mick) McCall is between a rock and a hard place with his play calling, just from a personnel standpoint. He’s about putting players in place to be successful; he understands the limitations that Thorson has.”
Bigger picture, Fitzgerald repeatedly talks about “coaching harder” and “working harder” to improve his team, but that kind of talk rings hollow to fans, many of whom advocate a coaching change. Offensive line coach Adam Cushing, in particular, has drawn the wrath of many of the Northwestern faithful, but McCall’s name has also been mentioned.
Bacher, however, doesn’t think that a coaching change would do much good, though he acknowledges that Fitzgerald could feel pressure to make a change in his staff at the end of the season if things don’t turn around.
“It seems to me like more of a personnel issue than a schematic issue,” he said. “This is the same offense that Dan Persa ran (in 2010). It’s the same offense we ran in 2008. It’s hard to win football games when you can’t win in the trenches.”
He also points out that Jackson battling injuries that have hampered his performance isn’t helping matters. “When the best player on the offensive side of the ball is not able to play at 100 percent, that takes a toll on the entire offense’s mentality,” he said.
Bacher isn’t sure if the problems on the O-line are with recruiting or development. He points out that it’s difficult to project which high school linemen will become successful in college because they are usually bigger, stronger and more physically dominant than anyone else on the field as preps.
“The guys in the trenches on the other side of the line of scrimmage, in the box, are playing better than our guys. So I don’t know that a coaching change is the thing that’s going to get that type of thing fixed,” he said.
Even Thorson’s issues are not necessarily things that will improve with better or different coaching.
“He could improve his pocket presence, but that’s really, really difficult to coach. You’ve got to imagine that they’re harping on it all day,” he said, recalling his days at Northwestern, when he’d hear about leaving the pocket too early “over and over.”
“When the pocket breaks down or someone breaks free on the edge, his pocket presence needs a little work. It’s kind of an instinctual thing more than something you can coach…There’s only so much an offensive coordinator can do for something that seems so instinctual.”
It may seem like Bacher is painting a pretty bleak picture. Despite the fact that there are no easy cures for the Wildcats’ ills, he thinks that Northwestern could turn things around relatively quickly.
The reason is simple: the schedule lightens up considerably from this point. Other than perhaps Michigan State, there are no other opponents that will be able to exploit the Wildcats’ shortcomings like the last two have.
“I think we’re going to be okay. I think our defense over the last couple weeks has shown a lot,” Bacher said. “The issues that we’re seeing up front on the offensive side of the ball can be heavily attributed to the fact that we’re just playing two teams (Wisconsin and Penn State) that are really well known for their front seven. They’re really good up front.”