Commentary: CJ Is Our Quarterback
by Jonathan Hodges

Quick Quiz:  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.

Blame Game

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 yardage.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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