Commentary: CJ Is Our Quarterback
by Jonathan Hodges
In his second year as NU's starting QB, this Wildcat player took a lead
into the 4th quarter at Ryan Field only to watch it evaporate as NU
lost the game thanks to multiple turnovers credited to the him.
Who is it?
If you answered CJ Bacher AND Brett Basanez, you are right. On
Sept. 6, 2003, the Basanez-led NU squad came into the 4th period
leading Air Force 21-7 (a year after being embarrassed 52-3 in Colorado
Springs). Brett threw 3 interceptions in the final period (one
that was returned 70+ yards for a TD) which led to the tide turning and
Air Force coming out victorious 22-21. Fast forward to September
29, 2007 and CJ Bacher took a 16-14 lead into the fourth quarter
against Michigan only to throw 2 interceptions and fumble twice in the
4th quarter as NU watched the Wolverines win by a final score of 28-16.
While it is still relatively early in CJ's career to begin making
further comparisons to Basanez's record-breaking performance at
Northwestern, there is no doubt that he has the potential.
Through the first 5 games of the season he has thrown for 1247 passing
yards and 4 touchdowns. Compare this to last year with Kafka and
Brewer's combined stats for the YEAR: 838 yards and 1 TD pass (they
started a combined 7 games). While NU's offensive strategy seems
to have shifted in favor of the pass this season, the fact is that
Bacher has done a nice job of running the offense, gets a bunch of
yards passing, and gives Northwestern a shot to win games.
Nonetheless, it is concerning that Bacher throws as many interceptions
as he does. After 10 games as the starter, here are his stats:
207-359 (57.7%), 2419 yards, 10 TDs, 15 INTs. Many of the
interceptions have seemingly doomed the 'Cats' chances at staying in
games: NU had 5 turnovers against Michigan and Ohio State in 2006, and
5 against Michigan in 2007.
Also, since CJ Bacher's last TD pass (to Ross Lane at the end of the
Nevada game this year, coincidentally NU's last win), he has thrown 7
interceptions and fumbled 3 times - accounting for all of NU's
turnovers for the season.
Are all of those turnovers necessarily CJ's fault? The answer is NO.
NU's last 3 opponents have brought the pass rush and have been
successful at disrupting Northwestern's offense: racking up 11 sacks in
that span (in addition to the turnovers), while hurrying/knocking down
CJ or forcing him to throw the ball away numerous additional
times. Facing that kind of pressure, it is doubtful that many
college level quarterbacks could be successful.
There are two primary reasons that NU is facing this kind of pressure:
1. Offensive Line:
Going into the season, 'Cats fans knew it would be potentially rough
going with a relatively inexperienced OL - especially beyond the 4 guys
with the most experience. Rees is a nationally-recognized center,
Thiry is big guy with a lot of experience under his belt, and Crum and
Belding had a lot of playing time last year, but beyond that is a
2-deep littered with sophomores, redshirt freshmen, and even true
freshmen who still have a lot to learn. While this unit has
performed alright considering the inexperience, the fact is that
opponents can easily see this and use it to their advantage.
We've seen Duke, OSU, and Michigan (in the 4th quarter, at least) put
the pressure on CJ with numerous different blitzes, few of which were
effectively picked up by the offensive line. It is tough picking
up that 5th or 6th man who is coming into the backfield, but Bacher has
been given little time to throw - especially given the fact that the
pocket has been collapsing on top of him in a matter of a couple
seconds. Also, we saw RT Mattes back into CJ to unintentionally
cause a sack against Michigan. No doubt that the OL can use some
improvement - and hopefully with the experience of the past few games
behind them the unit can step things up (something I believe they are
capable of doing).
2. Strategy: Under
Walker, while NU ran the spread, the 'Cats were still arguably a
run-oriented offense - featuring 1,000 yard rushers like Damien
Anderson (2000), Jason Wright (2002 and 2003), Noah Herron (2004), and
Tyrell Sutton (2005 and 2006). This year, though, the tide has
shifted to a pass-first type of mentality, something that is affecting
the offense in a significant way. In Northwestern's first drive
of the season, 7 of the 9 plays were passing attempts, which showed the
change in strategy right off the bat. NU has run the ball only
46.6 percent of the time this year (176 carries vs. 202 passing
attempts). In comparison to past seasons: 2006 saw NU run 56.0
percent of the time and 2005 NU ran 47.4 percent of the time (of course
2005 was Basanez's senior year when he had a 63.6% completion rate for
3622 yards, 21 TDs, and only 8 INTs). And unlike past years NU
hasn't been able to adjust to how the defense is playing - which means
we have seen drives like one against Michigan when NU picked up 3
straight first downs running the ball, only to throw 3 straight
incompletions to end the drive. The run/pass mix seems to be
nonsensical at times, and the opposing defense usually seems to know
what is coming. And once Northwestern has shown its cards as a
pass-happy team, the opposing defense has risen to the challenge and
blitzed - and done so effectively.
CJ is Our Quarterback
To take one from Bears' coach Lovie Smith's quote-book, CJ is our
quarterback. He gives Northwestern by far the best chance of
winning the game. Now the 'Cats have to give him some protection
AND call an effective mix of plays in order to utilize his
skills. We saw some of this last week with some designed Bacher
runs (something that was seemingly avoided prior to now) yet still
utilizing his passing ability. Now the coaching staff has to mix
things up - a handoff to Conteh, a slant to Peterman, a designed QB run
to the outside, an option play, a pass to Dunsmore down the middle -
not just three straight drop backs when the blitz is obviously
coming. I will not pretend to know effective strategy in and out,
but the fact is that the current mix is not consistently working and
needs some improvement. Once that comes, then the OL must protect
- then we will see CJ at his best.
This coming week will be a big test for NU - Michigan State has shown
that it can effectively put the pressure on the passer and will most
definitely come after Bacher on this coming Saturday in front of its
home crowd. Northwestern will have to effectively counter the
blitz with solid strategy, physical play by the OL, and CJ securing the
football and stepping up/moving in the pocket (or running with the
ball, if the opportunity arises). The offense is a work in
progress, but it has already shown it can move the ball well - now the
next step is putting more points on the board after eating up that
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