Sept. 18, 2014

The Great Bug-Tussle

There was much anticipation throughout Wildcat Nation regarding whether or not the ‘Cats would rebound from the previous weekend’s abysmal performance against Cal as they prepared to face the Northern Illinois Hush Puppies at Dyche’s Ditch last Saturday.  Would HC Fitz and his coaching staff finally conceive offensive and defensive game plans better suited to utilize the quality field play capabilities of their many playmakers on both sides of the LOS more efficiently and effectively?  Would the individual players, who seemed to operate as independent entities during portions of the Cal game, regain their collective commitment to excellence and coalesce into a cohesive, fundamentally sound team dedicated to execute those games plans more consistently?  I truly believed that each NU player, embarrassed and disgusted with his own dismal field play against the Care Bears, would flush the memory of those failures to take it out on the NIU Hush Puppies. 

I couldn’t have been more mislead by HC Pat Fitzgerald’s well-chronicled football philosophy of a team and its players recognizing and learning from the shortfalls and mistakes of their prior game and then flushing it – to purge the whole damn thing from their memory banks – as they prepared for their upcoming foe (NIU) with greater resolve and determination to “get it right” and bring home the “W.”  This mental exercise of exorcising the demons discovered during review of the last game is a fantastic coaching concept that allows the individual player to assess his field play rationally and objectively, to assume ownership of his failures then to take the necessary measures to ensure those failures to execute don’t reoccur in future games.  

Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, that turnaround in mental commitment towards continued improvement just didn’t happen.  In fact, it got worse when playing the Hush Puppies.  

In retrospect, the grapple between the ‘Cats and Hush Puppies, the projected cat versus dog fur-ball, could best be described as “The Great Bug Tussle.”  Most especially in H-1, the competitive interplay between both teams resembled two sow bugs going face-to-face, pushing one another around Ryan Field in a titanic pillow fight in their bid to best the other, and consequently, going nowhere fast for the effort.  This “battle of the banana slugs” wasn’t merely an exercise in futility, it progressively transitioned into a comedy of errors, highlighted by numerous blunders and dunderheaded field play by members from both teams, as the game wore on. 

In the end, the team who captured the “W” flag was the team who made the fewer blunders.  And it wasn’t the ‘Cats. 

How the Hush Puppies Gummed
the ‘Cats Into Submission

Calling Out Mick McCall

Please understand that the following perspective is strictly my personal opinion, nothing more.  However, I’m not apologizing for it, either.

IMHO, ‘Cat OC Mick McCall is as stubborn as he is arrogant regarding his offensive schemes for the 2014 campaign.  Somewhere, somehow, he has gotten it into his thick skull that NU’s O should aspire to emulate the BuckNut offense.  His offensive game plans over the past 2 games explicitly depend on a power ground game to set up NU’s passing attack.  The major flaw in this plan: the ‘Cat O doesn’t possess the personnel to do so – in particular, the team is missing a LOS-controlling OL or a bruising heavy RB.  And it’s absolutely destroying NU’s ability to control the ball and game clock and subsequently, to score points. 

Exacerbating the whole scenario is McCall’s frustrating penchant to keep to the preconceived script of plays per down & distance, in spite of whether or not the opposing D has planned for and implemented an effective counter defense against those plays.  One example in the NIU game was the use of the jet sweep.  Obviously, the Hush Puppy defensive brain trust recognized NU’s liberal use of this latest ground game twist in attacking the defensive edge - an alternative to the read option – and configured a strategy to defend that point of attack.  Whenever the ‘Cats ran the jet sweep (or the read option or a slip screen, for that matter), the outside LB to the side of the attacked edge and the FS (acting like a 2nd LB in rush support) both sprinted to that edge and drove past the LOS into NU’s wide backfield to catch the ball carrier just before or at the time he planted his foot to turn downfield.  Using the sideline as another defender, this inside-out rush support from the NIU secondary squeezed the target rush area allowing the pursuit to attack the ball with abandon.  Any hesitation by the ‘Cat ball carrier when making his cut towards the LOS, then this sellout pursuit would blow up this edge play for little to no gain or worse, a TFL.  After the 3rd such failed execution, it became apparent that the Northern coaching staff had established the appropriate reads for their D to stone NU’s jet sweep (or read option or slip screen) in its tracks.  Conventional wisdom would conclude that these defensive edge attack runs by McCall had been neutralized soundly and it was time to shelve this play set and employ some other rush package at another point of attack along the LOS. 

But no… McCall kept calling these defensive edge plays a number of times per quarter and virtually every attempt was stoned - often handcuffing the ‘Cat O into subsequent long distance downs, which placed even more pressure on QB Trevor Siemian and his receiving corps to bail NU’s offense out from behind its self-inflicted proverbial eight ball and sustain the current drive.   Not the best strategy to lessen the performance challenges of the ‘Cats’ inconsistent passing attack by its OC, to be sure. 

”You Have Been Found Lacking”
A major contributor to NU’s performance woes on either side of the LOS has been the general the lack of discipline by the ‘Cat OL - highlighted by frequent boneheaded offensive holding and illegal blocking calls which frequently reversed substantive yardage gains.  In particular, the ‘Cats’ starting LOT had a painfully penalty-laden afternoon. 

Making matters worse still was the OL’s inability to neutralize Northern’s pass rush - even against 3-DL sets - giving up 6 sacks while backing up the ‘Cat offense 40 total yards in the process.  The most putrid piece of NU’s blocking breakdown pie was that the Wildcat OTs simply did not engage their DE blocking targets soon enough off the snap of the ball, routinely allowing those edge pass rushers a full 3-4 strides across the LOS to compress the ‘Cat backfield in towards the QB.  By the time those OTs locked horns with these edge rushers, the hand-fighting tandem was a scant 1-2 yards from Siemian.  To the most casual fan witnessing such action unfold before him on the green grass of Ryan Field, this piss-poor pass protection technique by NU’s OTs was way more than just inefficient, it was as fundamentally unsound as it was game-changing.  The ultimate head-scratcher was that this wholly disastrous pass blocking methodology was a coached technique - conceived and implemented by the OL coach and the OC as part of their original game plan - one that, in the final analysis, severely compromised NU’s passing attack in the worst way.  It forced Siemian to constantly shift his attention from going through his downfield receiver progressions to focusing on protection breakdowns occurring all around him, compelling him to avoid a pass rush that was often at his level or in his face mere moments after completing his drop-back and setting his feet for the throw.  It made the simplest pitch-n-catch pass attempts an adventure. 

Couple these OL woes with the receiving corps’ all-too-frequent dropped passes, and it’s a recipe for point production failure.   Most notable of all dropped receptions in last Saturday’s game was the perfectly-placed pass from Siemian to a wide-open WR, Miles Schuler, who had gained 3 full yards of separation from his cover DB at the NIU 5, only to inexplicably muff the bean as it hit his mitts free and clear.  Coaches make decisions and playmakers make plays.  Schuler, a transfer senior in his last season of eligibility, looked like he’s not quite personally prepared to execute as a primary playmaker in the unforgiving glare of the bright spotlight that is B1G football.  His completion gaffe was a momentum-changer.   

On the defensive side, personal fouls by NU defensive personnel reared its ugly head which contributed heavily towards sustaining possession of the pill during 2 of 3 TD drives for the Hush Puppies.  Then there are the damn explosion plays that the NU defense gives-up with frustratingly expected frequency – like that 59 yard bomb, off a 2nd & 19 yard down, for Northern’s game-clinching TD that shoulda, woulda, coulda been defended and broken-up had the cover DB maintained his poise and kept sprinting hard with the target NIU receiver.  A lack of discipline, to be sure.

The only conclusion one could make at all this was that Fitz and his coaching staff, somehow, some way, lost connection with their players and their field play on many levels – both in preparation and in game-time performance. 

Soft Shoe
With that hard conclusion of Fitz and his coaching staff losing connectivity with their players, especially in the heat of the game-time battle, fresh in mind, one is drawn to ask the equally hard question: How?  

IMHO, the less-than-stellar field play exhibited by Wildcat players in all phases over these first two games of the 2014 campaign have their roots in HC Pat Fitz and his decision to conduct a pillow-soft, very limited full contact pre-season.  The hard truth is that the 2014 Wildcat team, as a whole, has shown little, if any, of the necessary mental toughness and resiliency to act boldly and decisively in the face of adversity when playing opponents like the Cal Care Bears and the NIU Hush Puppies, who, quite frankly, are not that high quality themselves.  These characteristics of toughness and resiliency are more a product of nurture - by the coaching staff - than it is nature - as commonly found in the DNA of the individual Division 1A player.  And this nurture is forged in the crucible of intense competition – the kind of competition that comes to the fore during full-contact drills and scrimmages where hard-nosed contact is a necessity to survive and succeed; and where the best players bring-out their best field play.  Consequently, those best players then become a team’s most reliable playmakers and go-to leaders.   

Perhaps pre-season injuries to projected primary playmakers like WR Christian Jones and DT Sean McEvilly compelled Fitz to take this toned-down, milquetoast approach to full contact drills in order to avoid further casualties from friendly fire.  Whatever the reasoning, the absence of impassioned live hitting during Camp Kenoshia practices was noted and reported as such in the biggest of ways when viewed firsthand by the talking heads who host the Big-Ten Network’s travelling circus for pre-season analysis and hype.  So it’s my opinion that all the negative consequences to this predominately soft approach to pre-season preparation has come to roost for Fitz and his ‘Cats and were on display, in all its ugliness, during last weekend’s game against the very beatable Hush Puppies.  And it will be almost impossible to reverse these negatives when neck-deep in the thick of in-season competition.  The zero-zero score at the end of H-1 and the virtual white flag waved by Fitz and the NU coaching staff in mid-Q4 underscores this point. 


Unfortunately, at this early moment in the 2014 season, I see little leadership on the field or on the sidelines.  Virtually everything regarding in-game strategies and play-calling among Fitz and his coaching staff seems steadfastly pro-forma and prearranged.  NU’s opponents rarely, if ever, appear surprised or unprepared when countering whatever the ‘Cat brain trusts on either side of the LOS throws at them.  Strategic innovation and imaginative plays designed to exploit opponent weaknesses, which formed the foundation to the spread offense in seasons past, are peculiarly absent.  And when expected results are not delivered or mistakes are made, Fitz goes ballistic rather than calmly, coolly taking control of the strategy or game scenarios to reverse the trend.  In post-game interviews, Fitz sings the one-note song of Wildcat losses due to a string of one-on-one breakdowns.  Well, what ever happened to the Wildcats being the team to deliver those one-on-one breakdowns on their opposition?  Such a deep, probing question deserves an equally deep, unambiguous retort… and Fitz has yet to provide a viable or believable one.  

It’s very difficult for me to articulate my deep feelings after witnessing this “bug tussle” between the ‘Cats and Hush Puppies.  Unfortunately, it may not be the last one in the 2014 season.  Fitz is in dire need of being served and noshing on a heaping helping of humble pie, coupled with a soul-searching review of past poor decisions regarding personnel and team preparation.  Mick McCall simply must resurrect that innovative forward-thinking profile when constructing initial offensive game plans and introducing effective in-game adjustments that were commonplace with his OC coaching tenure at BuGS-U and in his seasons through 2012 as OC for the Wildcats.  Likewise, DC Doc Hankwitz has got to get his defensive squad back on track to operate as a comprehensive force rather than the hap-hazard collection of individual parts seen in NU’s first 2 contests of 2014.    

The Western Illinois Feather-Weights are next up for the ‘Cats.  On paper, this team appears to be a relative weak sister to what the Wildcats possess position-by-position.  However, 2nd-year HC Bob Nelson had his Feather-Weights primed and ready when his team ignored pre-game prognostications, faced the Big Bad Badgers of Wisky and held their own for the first half, giving the Badgers all the competition they didn’t expect, and more, from a motivated underdog.   They will be just as motivated for a ‘Cat team dealing with their own internal demons.      

The Waterboy
“Win with Grace, Lose with Dignity”

The Waterboy is a former football player and a Northwestern alumnus.  Aside from these facts, he has no affiliation with Northwestern University.  The commentary he posts here is his own, and does not necessarily reflect the views of

© 2014 The FEWGroup   "The Purple belongs in Pasadena!"