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December 3, 2013

Season Rewind: Offense

Our Season Rewind series evaluates the performance Northwestern's entire team in 2013. This first installment focuses on the Wildcat offense.

Even a 37-point showing against Illinois in the season's final game couldn't mask the problems that plagued Northwestern's offense this season. After such a promising opening slate of performances, in which the Wildcats put up at least 30 points in each of its first five games, the wheels fell off the previously unstoppable offensive machine.

The Cats wouldn't score more than 24 points in a game until last Saturday's meeting with Illinois, and they failed to score a touchdown in regulation against Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State. After scoring a touchdown in the second quarter against Nebraska, Northwestern wouldn't make it back to the end zone until a Christian Jones touchdown against Illinois, more than 10 quarters later.

Injuries certainly played a large role in the offensive ineffectiveness that has led some fans to call for a re-evaluation of offensive coordinator Mick McCall's job status. Star running back Venric Mark was plagued by a hamstring injury early in the year that forced him to sit out almost the entire non-conference slate, and he injured his ankle just minutes into the game against Wisconsin, sidelining him for the remainder of the season. Starting quarterback Kain Colter also missed a significant amount of time, including last week's game against Illinois. Toss in injuries that hampered players like Mike Trumpy, Stephen Buckley, Dan Vitale, Trevor Siemian, Treyvon Green, Tony Jones -- shall we go on? -- and McCall was left with few players to execute his scheme.

MVP: Colter proved his worth when he was off the field more so than when he was actually playing. Though the senior certainly made his fair share of plays -- his two touchdowns against Ohio State come to mind -- Northwestern's struggles when he wasn't available proved his true value. Without Colter's running threat, defensive linemen and linebackers could tee off on Siemian. It wasn't pretty at times.

Player who will be missed: It can't be anyone but No. 2. Colter has meant a tremendous amount to this Northwestern program, both as a player and a leader. Northwestern fans will miss seeing him turn sure sacks into first down runs.

Pleasant surprise: You could make an argument here for Christian Jones or Tony Jones, but both of those players were expected to contribute. Green, however, came back from injury to steal the show. He had an up-and-down season, but ended up with 736 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 5.4 yards-per-carry.

Telling numbers:

  • 35, number of sacks allowed. Northwestern's offense line was the biggest question coming into the season, and the unit did little during the year to quash the concerns. Pass protection was a particularly big weakness, as teams blitzed the Wildcats mercilessly, especially when Colter was out and there was little threat of a running game. Colter and Siemian often ended up on their backs while in the pocket.

  • 14.6, points per game in regulation during NU's seven-game losing streak. If you can't score, you can't win. It sounds simple, but Northwestern really struggled -- especially in the red zone. They were among the most efficient teams in the country in that category, converting 44 of 46 chances, or 95.7 percent. However, their touchdown percentage was just 52.2 percent, the lowest in the Big Ten. More than half Jeff Budzien's 25 field-goal attempts were from 30 yards or less.

    High point: The first half of the Ohio State game. There's no doubt on this one. After hyping the game for two weeks -- or a whole offseason, depending on how you look at it -- Northwestern took on then-No.4 Ohio State in Evanston. Hours after students and fans packed the lakefill for ESPN's College GameDay, the football team did its part. The Cats played their best game of the season and were firing on all cylinders with the return of Mark to the lineup. With two Colter touchdowns and two Budzien field goals, Northwestern's offense was looking good and built a 20-13 lead in the first half against one of the nation's top teams. At halftime, it looked like the Cats might pull the upset.

    Low point: There was the Vitale cut block followed by the Trumpy fumble in the Iowa game, but those were more singular mistakes. The goal-line sequence against Nebraska was a failure of the entire unit and the offense's nadir. After a Tyler Scott interception set them up first-and-goal at the Nebraska 7, Green ran for six yards on first down, to the 1. Surely, Northwestern could gain 36 inches on the next two plays to seal the win, right? Wrong. On second down, Green lost a yard; and on third, Colter tried a keeper around the right end and lost two. NU had to settle for a measly 21-yard Budzien field goal, setting the stage for the Hail Mary that ripped the Cats' guts out and was replayed oh, about, 1,000 times that week on SportsCenter.

    Final analysis: Not much went right in the latter part of the season for Northwestern's offense, and the unit was definitely to blame for quite a few of the Cats' losses as the defense often played well enough to win. Even with the injury bug sweeping its way through Evanston, the offense was too stagnant and too predictable to be acceptable. C-.

    Next up: Defense

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