Commentary: 2010 Mid-Season Report Card: Offense
by Jonathan Hodges

Going into the 2010 season, many 'Cats fans were worried about the NU offense, especially since Northwestern seemingly couldn't run the ball in 2009 (NU ranked 95th nationally and 8th in the conference in rushing yards per game) and they lost QB Mike Kafka to graduation and the NFL.  Also, the receiving corps lost its top two guys (Zeke Markshausen and Andrew Brewer) who combined for over 43% of NU's receptions in '09.  This left an offensive squad with no running game, a new quarterback, and a new set of wide receivers, which led to many questions going into the new season.

Despite the 'Cats' relatively weak schedule through the first six games of the season, NU fans already have a good handle on the offense.  Yes, there is no running game to speak of, but Dan Persa has taken over at QB and as the leader of the offense and the team.  Jeremy Ebert has turned it on at WR and has more than made up for the loss of last year's seniors as he leads the conference in receiving yards (and is fifth nationally) through six games.  Also, some true freshmen have already been thrown in the mix, particularly at the WR position.  Northwestern is putting up a solid 425.7 yards per game and 27.7 points per game, which has led to five victories, but there is still a lot to work on across the board.


It's pretty hard to deny Persa a high grade after completing 78.0% of his passes, going 138-of-177 passing with 10 TDs through the air to just 2 INTs.  He's also posted the fourth highest passing efficiency nationally (173.3) and has shown the ability to lead the offense down the field time and time again, putting the 'Cats in a position to win every game they've played with him at the helm.  His feet have also helped the 'Cats, as he leads Northwestern in rushing with 295 yards on the ground (with sacks included) and 3 rushing TDs.  Removing sacks, he's run for 380 yards at a solid 5.3 yards per carry clip.

The slight downgrade comes due to his turnovers; his 2 INTs both came in the red zone, and he also has two lost fumbles on the year, with one being lost in the red zone.  Although it's expected for QBs to make mistakes, his have been costly; the only upside is that his turnovers came in wins.  Another reason for not attaining the highest grade is the lack of depth behind Persa.  In limited play, redshirt freshman Evan Watkins has looked shaky, and that's when he was allowed to throw the football, going just 2-of-5 passing for 31 yards, and spending most of his garbage-time duty handing off.  Behind Watkins, there are two true freshman QBs who remain untested at the collegiate level.

It's clear that Persa IS Northwestern's offense in 2010, so his health is essential for NU's bowl hopes going forward.  If he can keep up his amazing passing accuracy, though, expect the 'Cats to win some more games down the stretch, and if the offense limits its mistakes, look out for some upsets down the road.

Running Backs:  D

The problems with the Northwestern running game go beyond the running backs, but they sure aren't helping anything.  The QB is on track to lead the team in rushing for the second straight season and NU still hasn't found a feature back, instead resorting to a rotation of their two best options on any given Saturday, a pair that has seemingly changed every week.  The RBs get a passing grade, but not a good one.

As a group, the RBs are averaging just 3.2 yards per carry, a number that just won't cut it.  The Wildcats started the year with true sophomore Arby Fields as the starter, but after putting up a -7 net rushing yard performance at Vanderbilt and losing costly fumbles at Rice (lost at the goal line) and against Central Michigan (allowing a late rally), he's been benched and hasn't seen playing time in NU's last two games.

Jacob Schmidt has been used in a variety of roles and has the second-most carries of any RB on NU's roster, with 46, for a net of 158 yards (3.4 yards per carry).  No, he isn't explosive, but he gets the job done as a short yardage back, blocker, and receiver out of the backfield (he has 13 receptions for 107 yards on the year equating to a respectable 8.2 yards per catch).  He also leads the 'Cats in rushing TDs on the year with four.  His biggest bugaboo so far has been fumbling; he fumbled twice against Vanderbilt (neither was lost) and lost one against Illinois State, at which point he moved back on the depth chart.  He has since had more ball security and subsequently moved back up into a co-starter role.

Redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy has emerged as the second co-starter at this point in the year after seeing his first collegiate action in garbage time against Illinois State (where he scored a TD) and then got some meaningful action as he came out to start the second half against Central Michigan and has played a significant role since that point.  Overall, he's averaging 3.4 yards per carry and has 2 TDs on the year, and his workload looks to be significant during the back half of the year.  Against CMU he proved to be a good North-South runner who can break through some tackles, something that other RBs have had more difficulty doing.

Senior Stephan Simmons has just 19 carries on the year and has been used sparingly at RB as of late, instead focusing on special teams as the primary kickoff returner.  Scott Concannon has been used sparingly this year (just 5 carries) after seeing a good amount of runs in 2009 (68).  Finally, true freshman Adonis Smith got his feet wet with two carries (for one net yard) at Minnesota and had one carry for five yards against Purdue.  It's clear that the coaching staff has a plan to increase its usage of Smith as this season wears on, so there is some potential remaining for a positive change in the running backs this season.

Wide Receivers/Superbacks: A-

The receiving corps has done its job and done it well.  As a group, all WRs and superbacks have caught 119 balls on the year (85% of NU's receptions, with the remainder going to running backs), all 10 passing TDs, and 1,540 receiving yards (90.9% of NU's receiving yardage).  They are averaging an impressive 12.9 yards per reception and have caused no turnovers (neither of Persa's 2 INTs on the year were the fault of a WR, and they haven't lost any fumbles on the year after catches).  Also, drops have been few and far between, which has definitely helped keep Persa's completion percentage high.

The star of the group is turning out to be the aforementioned Jeremy Ebert, who leads the Big Ten in receiving yards, and has 35 receptions on the year for 560 yards (that equates to a great 16.0 yards per reception).  He also leads the team with five receiving TDs.  Ebert finds a way to get open early and often and also knows how to pick up yardage after the catch.  It's clear that Persa finds him often, and that's not a bad thing.

Superback Drake Dunsmore is Persa's second favorite, hauling in 22 passes as he creates size mismatches in the open field.  He's caught 3 TDs so far.  He did fumble in NU's most recent game, but the ball was fortunately recovered by the 'Cats.  Look for Persa to continue to go to him.  The other superback on the 2-deep, Josh Rooks, is primarily used as a blocking back, although he does have 1 TD grab on the season.

The next set of receivers includes Demetrius Fields, Sidney Stewart, and Charles Brown, who are all averaging between 11 and 12 yards per catch.  They add nice depth to NU's WR corps and allows the 'Cats to rotate WRs in and out in order to help tire the defense; the best thing is that they are interchangeable, allowing Northwestern to pull off those substitutions without a drop in performance.

Worth noting is the true freshman trio of Venric Mark, Tony Jones, and Rashad Lawrence.  Jones and Lawrence both have long grabs of 45+ yards, with Jones hauling in his first collegiate pass for a 45 yard TD at Minnesota.  They all have nice speed and it's clear that the coaching staff wants to utilize this asset now.  Mark does have a fumble (on an end-around handoff), but this group has otherwise not shown its youth during games.  Look for NU to go to these weapons more as the season progresses.

The only knock on this unit is downfield blocking; although they aren't a primary cause for NU's lack of any run game, they aren't without blame.  But, if they continue to produce in the passing game they will remain as one of NU's best units.

Offensive Line:  C-

The other unit that deserves much of the blame for the 'Cats' running troubles is the offensive line.  Coming into the year, there were high hopes for the OL: LT Al Netter and C Ben Burkett came in with two years of starting experience and had potential to reach the all-conference team.  Top flight recruit RT Patrick Ward worked his way into a starting role, LG Brian Mulroe also secured a starting bid, and at RG experienced players Doug Bartels and Keegan Grant both looked to be solid in that spot.

Unfortunately, they just haven't looked very good through six games this year.  Northwestern ranks 98th nationally in sacks allowed (giving up 17, or 2.83 per game for -88 yards total), which equates to one sack every 11.7 pass attempts.  The 'Cats are running for a total of just 3.7 yards per carry (not including sacks), and rank 73rd nationally in rushing yards per game (143.3) despite running the ball over 56% of the time (corrected for sacks).  None of those are great numbers.

It's fair to say that this OL is decent (at best) at pass blocking (although Persa's running ability helps avoid some sacks), and just plain bad at run blocking.  I honestly do not know why this is the case; it's likely a mix of individual breakdowns, technique as a group, and offensive scheme.  It's clear that NU will continue to try to run the ball, despite the fact they have not been successful doing so against FBS opponents since the beginning of the 2009 season.  Hopefully they can figure out a way to progress in run blocking just enough to give opponents something to worry about on the ground, otherwise NU will likely see significant regression of its offense against some stout Big Ten defenses down the stretch.

A final significant problem is penalties: the NU OL has accounted for 16 of the 'Cats' 46 penalties on the season, including 8 holds, 6 false starts, 1 personal foul, and 1 ineligible receiver downfield.  The holding penalties, in particular, have been costly, including 2 such calls on Burkett against Purdue that forced NU to end up kicking a FG (including the final offensive drive where the potential game-tying FG was missed).  This has been a big contributor to NU's overall penalty troubles, as they now average 7.7 penalties per game (2.1 penalties per game more than Fitz's worst full season in terms of penalties in '09).

This unit still has a lot of talent and potential, and the question is: can they finally put it together in the second half of the season (while facing much tougher defensive fronts)?  Based on what we've seen, the answer is likely no, but hopefully the coaching staff can put together a plan to take advantage of their strengths, minimize their weaknesses, and avoid costly penalties.

Overall Grade:

Despite a complete lack of balance, the Northwestern offense has been good enough to generate five wins through the first half of the year, including two rather comfortable wins over Rice and Illinois State, which isn't that common of an occurrence.  The passing game, which many expected to lose a step with so many new starters, is humming along as good or better than it was last year, with Persa showing his prowess as an accurate passer with a dangerous running ability.

Yes, NU still lacks a decent running game, but the 'Cats reached 8 wins last year without one, and they have the tools to succeed with a pass-first offense.  The question is: can the Wildcats be successful against much tougher defenses during the second half of this season?  The average national ranking in total defense of NU's 5 FBS opponents during the first half: 70.4.  Average ranking of NU's 6 remaining opponents' total defense: 35.0 (with the last 4 opponents in the top 30 nationally).

Needless to say, much of this is up to Dan Persa along with the play calls that the coaching staff decides to employ.  The pressure will be on, and it will be up to the 'Cats to both try to continue their current level of success while also correcting some things (penalties, individual breakdowns) in order to be successful down the stretch.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.