By Kevin Sweeney
However you measure it, it’s been a very long time since Northwestern scored its last touchdown. No matter who trots out at quarterback, the Wildcat offense has shown no signs of life in the past month. In the process, they have set Northwestern on its way to its worst season in the Pat Fitzgerald era.
Most have looked at the disaster that is this Northwestern offense and attempted to find the right person to blame. The truth is, it’s on everyone involved. It starts at the top: offensive coordinator Mick McCall hasn’t been creative enough in finding ways to move the ball. But both quarterbacks who have seen consistent time deserve some blame as well– they’ve made mistakes, turned the ball over and missed most of the rare open throws they’ve had. We also can’t absolve the skill position players: injuries to Isaiah Bowser, Bennett Skowronek, and JJ Jefferson haven’t helped, but drops have been a common theme and few players have shown an ability to consistently create separation.
Quite frankly, I’m not sure it matters who is to blame. Right now there isn’t a single statistic that paints Northwestern as anything but one of the worst offenses in FBS football.
Something has to change, and it has to change soon.
And it starts at the top.
This season can’t be saved. Northwestern could still technically make a bowl game, but it would require winning out. Even with a relatively weak schedule to close the year, that feels highly unlikely at this point. Northwestern shouldn’t be favored in any of its remaining games with the exception of its matchup with UMass.
However, the team that drubbed the ‘Cats from the opening kickoff on Saturday night can teach Pat Fitzgerald a lesson or two about what he needs to do this offseason.
Indiana may not have gone a month without a touchdown last season, but they were far from world-beaters on offense. They ranked seventh in the Big Ten in S&P+ offense and 88th nationally in scoring offense. After a 4-1 start, the Hoosiers lost six of seven games to close the season. Then, a change happened.
Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord retired in late December after a 40-year career. A quick read through the comments on when the news first broke, and it’s pretty clear that Hoosier fans weren’t exactly heartbroken to see him go. In came a breath of fresh air in the form of Kalen DeBoer, one of the brighter young coordinators in college football. DeBoer had just completed a season in which he had led the Fresno State offense that averaged almost 35 points per game on a team that won 12 games.
Bringing in DeBoer has paid immediate dividends. IU has scored over 30 points in all but one game this year. As a result, the Hoosiers are on their way to what could be their best season in 50 years.
Starting quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has dealt with injuries, and it hasn’t mattered. In fact, backup quarterback Peyton Ramsey won the Manning Award last week for the best quarterback in the week in college football after throwing for over 350 yards against Nebraska. Put on the tape from Saturday’s game, and you’ll see a well-schemed, well-coached offense that mixed run and pass, showed the ability to take the top off the defense and was never predictable.
This wasn’t an offense full of elite recruits. Indiana hasn’t landed a class ranked higher than eighth in the Big Ten in the past five years, and Northwestern outranked them in two of those five classes. All but four players on the roster were three-star recruits or lower, per 247Sports. Penix Jr. clearly has a big arm, and the Indiana receivers are athletic on the outside. Still, IU is hardly overwhelming teams with talent– the success the Hoosiers have had offensively can be directly correlated with hiring DeBoer.
That success shows us that Northwestern’s offense doesn’t have to be a multi-year fix. The Wildcats’ top three running backs can all return next season. Every wide receiver on the two-deep depth chart other than Bennett Skowronek will still have eligibility, and Skowronek could still redshirt if he only appears in one more game this season. Four starters on the offensive line will be back. It’s even possible that all four quarterbacks who have appeared in a game this season could return. Improvement has to happen with these players no matter who is coordinating them, but there’s no reason the ‘Cats can’t be good at the skill positions next season. And if Hunter Johnson can ever find the form that made him a five-star, watch out.
But none of that development will matter if Pat Fitzgerald doesn’t make a change at offensive coordinator. Firing people is tough, especially when they are long-time colleagues and friends. I certainly wouldn’t want to walk into a room and tell someone I’ve worked with for more than a decade that I have to let him go. But being a head football coach at the FBS level requires making difficult decisions and having tough conversations. When you have the worst scoring offense in college football, a move has to be made.
Northwestern is a far more attractive place to work than it ever has been. The ‘Cats have the facilities and recent success to go out and recruit, and the money to spend to hire a quality coordinator. Perhaps that guy is like DeBoer, currently leading outstanding offense at the Group of Five level. Or maybe it’s a lower-level assistant on another power conference staff. It might even be Chiefs QB coach and former Northwestern QB Mike Kafka.
Back in 2008, after two seasons of struggles on the defensive side of the ball, Pat Fitzgerald made one of these tough decisions and fired defensive coordinator Greg Colby. That move led to the hiring of Mike Hankwitz, a veteran in the business who has helped transform the Wildcat defense into a unit that is consistently among the best nationally.
It’s time Fitzgerald makes another tough decision. With the right man leading the offense, Northwestern can contend in the Big Ten West again next season and beyond.
If that’s Fitzgerald’s goal as he states, the decision is simple.