McCall-ing the shots

Dusting off some box scores from yesteryear, Purple Reign tries to use stats as a crystal ball and guess what we'll be seeing from the NU offense under coordinator Mick McCall. Inside, a look at McCall's tenure as an O-coordinator -- first at Bowling Green and then at NU -- and what patterns to look for in his third year calling the shots.

Alright, not exactly sure what I have here. But I spent too much time researching this to not go ahead and write about it. At the moment, I am looking at so many different things that I am not sure exactly what – if anything – stands out. But like my high school history teacher used to preach, "The reason we write is so we can synthesize the ideas that we have jumbled up in our heads."

So maybe, just maybe, by the end of this we'll have something interesting. Nay – we will have something interesting. Just stick with me…

OK, so here's where I started. I am especially curious about Mick McCall, Northwestern's offensive coordinator, and what he'll do this year with all that's missing from last year's squad. I don't think you can overstate the importance of offensive coordinators in college football nowadays, especially with how much offenses have evolved in the last few years.

Just think: In the last three years, Florida and its goofy offense has won two titles; Missouri and its prolific offense rose to No. 1 in the polls; Oklahoma and its nutty offense broke all sorts of records and appeared in the national title game; Rich Rodriguez's offense* came within a whiff of the national title; Kansas and its well-oiled offense went to the Orange Bowl; Hawaii went to the Sugar Bowl, for God's sake. So offense – in particular, the spread offense – has been the story of college football the past few years. And McCall – who falls from the Urban Meyer coaching tree – is part of this revolution.

* It is interesting to think how different the college football landscape would be if Rich Rodriguez and his West Virginia Mountaineers hadn't lost to Pittsburgh in 2007. That Backyard Brawl – the wonderful moniker they have for the annual Pitt versus West Virginia game – was supposed to be a lopsided affair. WVU was ranked No. 2 in the nation, and after No. 1 Missouri lost to Oklahoma earlier that day, all the Mountaineers had to do to punch their ticket to New Orleans was beat Pitt, which came in at 4-7.

Pitt, of course, won the game, 13-9. "It was just a nightmare," Rodriguez would say afterward. "The whole thing was a nightmare."

Not only did the upset allow for two-loss LSU to sneak into the national title game – being held down the road in New Orleans, no less – but it had a drastic effect on the national coaching scene. I can't believe that Rodriguez would have left for Michigan before WVU's bowl game, which he ultimately did, if that bowl game was for the NATIONAL TITLE. But having lost to Pitt, Rich Rod was suddenly available, while Michigan alum Les Miles – who coaches LSU – was suddenly UNavailable now that his squad was title game-bound. So Michigan, having already ousted Lloyd Carr, would likely have targeted Miles had WVU not lost and was instead getting ready to play for a title. Didn't turn out that way.

Another possible twist of fate from that Backyard Brawl result: Maybe OSU would have won the national title if they played WVU and not LSU. LSU was a stout, Saban-built team that season, plus the title game was in N'Awleans. Oh, the possibilities…

Shoot, I'm rambling. Back to the point: The import of offensive coordinators. Anyway, not only has college football changed because of the tectonic offensive shifting going on, but Northwestern is an especially interesting case.

Because apparently, the Cats lost some offensive personnel.

Save Stephen Simmons, who had only 66 carries last season, NU's top running options for 2009 are Jeravin Matthews, Alex Daniel and Arby Fields. Those three have zero career carries. Combined.

And at receiver, the quartet of Zeke Markshausen, Jeremy Ebert, Andrew Brewer and Sidney Stewart is projected to step in for the top three receivers from 2008, all of whom have departed; the No. 4 receiver was Tyrell Sutton. Those four newbie wideouts have only 52 combined career catches. The QB is gone too.

So between the unprecedented offensive evolution taking place in college football – precipitated by the proliferation of the spread – and NU's exodus of personnel, I am especially interested in McCall. He came to Northwestern last year and guided the Wildcats offense to a nine-win season.*

* I spoke with McCall earlier this summer, and wrote about what he said here and here. Cliff Notes: He thinks that the offense will hum along despite all the players who are gone and the dearth of experience.

My fascination with McCall fueled some research. I tried to figure out what we should expect this season from the Cats' offense. Now, this is an inherently difficult (maybe impossible) task because McCall only has two years as an offensive coordinator – one at Bowling Green and one at Northwestern.* Two years is a small sample size, especially at two different schools and especially with the ever-evolving personnel in college that could make the game-plan one year radically different than the next. Like, for example, if your quarterback – we'll call him Mike K. – has a career-long run of 55 yards but a career-long pass of 39. And suppose, for argument sake, that Mike K. has eight career interceptions and three career passing TDs. That, for example, might be a guy you shape a game-plan around...

* McCall's route to NU is an interesting one. He coached the QBs and running backs at Southern Colorado from 1979 to 1982. Then he went to Idaho State in Pocatello, Idaho, until 1987 to coach running backs and tight ends and act as special teams coordinator. After that, he went to Oregon State to coach receivers and tight ends, and after that he was a high school coach in Colorado for 10 years, winning the Denver Post Coach of the Year award in 1998 following a state title. He then was the quarterback/running back coach at Wyoming before he met up with Urban Meyer at BGSU. He wasn't fast-tracked through the college football ranks, that's for sure. His story makes me like him all the more.

Thus, I'll concede that my quest to use past stats as a crystal ball is imperfect. But there were some interesting things that I uncovered looking at McCall's two years at the helm of two different offenses. After spending an embarrassing amount of time Monday looking at stats from the '07 Bowling Green squad and the '08 NU squad, I found some things worth noting.

I started with the quarterbacks' numbers. For the 2007 Falcons, that was Tyler Sheehan, and for last year's Cats, it was C.J. Bacher.

The first striking statistic was this: In 2007, with McCall as O-Coordinator, Sheehan threw 36.6 passes per game – 476 attempts over a 13-game campaign. That's nothing special, really. Not until you juxtapose it with Bacher's 2008 pass-per-game number: 37 (408 attempts in 11 games).

So in two different seasons, with two different quarterbacks and two different teams, McCall's quarterbacks passed it 37 times per game. Probably not purely coincidence.

Making those numbers more interesting is a look at what those quarterbacks did in their other seasons as starters. In 2008, after McCall had left Bowling Green, Sheehan passed it just 400 times in 12 games – more like 33 passes per game. That's not insignificant. And in 2007, under then-NU coordinator Garrick McGee, Bacher threw the ball 521 times in 12 games – about 43 attempts per game.

Without McCall, Sheehan passed it markedly less, and Bacher passed it way more. I think that's instructive because different coordinators had these quarterbacks do different things: One passed it 521 times in a season, the other passed it 400 times. But under McCall they put the ball in the air about equally. Hmmmm.

And what's more – the receiving corps. In 2008, when Bowling Green didn't pass it nearly as much without McCall, the Falcons returned each of their top four receivers. Also, those NU receivers from 2007 – when Bacher passed 43 times per game – well, three of the top four were back in 2008. So the QB and receivers were the same for Bowling Green and Northwestern, yet the passing numbers were discernibly different. Double hmmmm.

Now, one thing that a Wildcat fan may point out as a variable is the health of Tyrell Sutton, who of course had some injury issues at NU. Well, in 2007, when Bacher was averaging all those throws, Sutton missed five games. In 2008, with less throwing, Sutton missed four games. So that really wasn't a huge factor.*

* In the five games Sutton missed in 2007, Bacher threw it 46 times per outing – a bit over his average, sure, but two of those games went into OT, allowing for extra throws. In the four games that Sutton missed in 2008, Bacher actually missed two himself. But in the other two – WITH Bacher and WITHOUT Sutton – C.J. threw it 31 times per outing. I can't explain why he would throw less without his starting tailback…

OK, so the starting quarterbacks threw it 37 times per game. Gotcha. But what does 37 attempts per game mean in terms of the teams' total offense? Well, for the 2007 Falcons, 55.5 percent of the plays were passes – 522 out of 940.

To figure out the same stat for the '08 Cats – what percent of plays were passes – I had to account for the two games that Bacher missed and Kafka played. In those games, the play-calling was totally different. Kafka, for example, threw it a total of 43 times in those two games; we'll talk about those two contests in a moment.

Thus, I excluded those two games – against Minnesota and Ohio State, one win and one loss – and looked at the rest of the season. Sans the Mini and OSU games, there were 415 passes out of 822 plays, or 50.4 percent passes. Fifty-five and 50.4 aren't nearly as striking as the similarities between the passes-per-game stat, but it's close.

It seems all the closer when you do account for those Kafka games. Because in those contests, you can see how wildly McCall changed up the play-calling. Not that this was a problem – again, NU was 1-1 in those two games. In fact, you could claim McCall's flexibility, his willingness to not be an ideologue about scheme, is a plus.

But let's look at those two Kafka starts. Again, it's Kafka who will start this season at QB, so this is interesting. To me, at least. And I guess if you've made it this far, you're at least remotely interested, or so horribly bored you're going all the way. Either way I'm honored.

OK, so like I said, Kafka threw a total of 43 passes in his two starts. And that's while Bacher is throwing 37 per game; obviously things changed a bit. But remember how NU threw it 50.4 percent of the time with Bacher starting? Well, with Kafka it was 66 percent running plays – 84 rushes out of 127 plays.

Here again we should mention Sutton's injuries. This is interesting to remember: Sutton missed both of those Kafka starts. If you forgot that, you may think, Well, they must have just been handing it to Tyrell. But that wasn't the case. There was a real devotion to the run, even though the team's best runner was MIA. (In fact, if you only look at rushes for Kafka himself, the Cats still ran it 44 percent of the time. With just Kafka.)

That brings us, finally, to this season. What will McCall do? Well, McCall can execute the coach-speak manual as masterfully as the spread O, so the ensuing quotes only tell you so much (read: very little).

When Purple Reign chatted with Coach, he said, "We're just going to do whatever the defense gives us."

He went on: "I'm excited for (Kafka) to throw the ball. Everybody thinks he's just going to run the football, but he can get it done in the passing game, too. I don't foresee it that way, that we'll only be able to run."

More: "We're going to spread them out and make them play honest. Mike (Kafka) and (backup quarterback) Dan (Persa) both give us the ability and the threat to run the football, yet they've worked extremely hard on being able to throw the football, especially from spring on."

Yet more: "(Kafka) has gotten a lot better passing the ball. He's very comfortable and he's got a very strong arm. We're really excited about the development and the growth that he's had. He's been working really hard this summer to hone his mechanics and we look for him to have a good season throwing the ball."

Let's hope so. Some message board folk have already floated the idea of letting Dan Persa run the offense because Kafka's passing résumé leaves something to be desired. While that may be premature, McCall did indeed seem more comfortable running with Kafka last season than throwing.

Dating back to Bowling Green, the stats suggest that McCall wants to pass it about 37 times per game, or about 50-54 percent of the time, or both. Again, two years is an incredibly small sample, especially with all the changes that take place in college football. But there was nonetheless some congruency between McCall's two seasons as an OC.

Purple Reign has no interest in manufacturing controversy. But what happens if Kafka can't run the McCall archetype offense? Maybe a better question is, Does McCall even have an archetype? Will McCall change his style, like he did last season with Kafka starting?

This season should tell us a lot about McCall, and how much he is willing to tailor his O to the QB. And if anything changes, it will be interesting to see if it's the QB or the offense.

To reach David Vranicar, publisher of Purple Reign, please write to northwestern.scout@gmail.com.


Purple Wildcats Top Stories