This shift represents the most significant change in the Wildcats' offensive results this season. The Cal and Syracuse defenses might be susceptible to aerial attacks, but even so, the passing game looks markedly improved.
Naturally, the first players that most fans turn to after an increase in yardage are the two players throwing the ball—Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter. But those two will immediately pass credit along to the receiving corps. After the ‘Cats beat Syracuse on Saturday, both quarterbacks were effusive in their praise for the wideouts.
"When you look at something we were trying to fix coming into the season, it was definitely getting the ball downfield and having some big plays in the passing game," Colter said after the game. "We have receivers all over the board who are willing to go out there and make plays and it's really their moment to step up."
"I think we just really have a lot of confidence in the guys on the outside and those guys can make plays," Siemian added. "We're just giving them chances to go get the ball because they've shown they can capitalize on those opportunities."
Wide receivers Tony Jones, Christian Jones and Rashad Lawrence have led the charge. Superback Dan Vitale, who has become a key target in the Northwestern offense, significantly boosted the vertical game. The list of contributors is long and diverse, with 11 different Wildcats grabbing at least one reception through the first two games.
After a career game against Syracuse on Saturday, in which he racked up nine receptions for 185 yards and a touchdown, Tony Jones pointed to his mental game as the biggest improvement since last season.
"I'd say [the turning point] was definitely in the spring," Jones said after the game. "I feel like mentally I've just gone to a different place as far as being locked in and mentally focused. I think that's definitely made a big difference in terms of catching the ball better."
Rodger Sherman of SBNation pointed out earlier this week that Jones has 45 more receiving yards so far this season than the entire Michigan State offense combined. Jones is as encouraged as anyone by the performances of his group so far.
"I think right now we're playing pretty consistently, and that's the biggest thing," Jones says. "Our focus is definitely there and it helps that we've got so much depth in our group. We've got talented guys all across the board that are eager to make big plays."
Head coach Pat Fitzgerald is of course thrilled to see his receiving corps performing so well, but he says they've always been tremendous players. The difference is the opportunities.
"I think they played well a year ago, but we were just running the ball really well," Fitzgerald says. "It's hard to have 50/50 balance if you're running the ball as well as we were. I thought they played well and were blocking well and everything. There's some plays we'd like back, but that's done. But so far this year they've played really well."
Christian Jones highlighted wide receivers coach Dennis Springer as another key orchestrator behind the success.
"All through camp and spring ball, he's continuously riding guys and pointing out mistakes," Jones says. "You could think you went out and had the best practice ever and then come back and watch film and think you had a terrible day because he'll point out so many things that you could still be doing better."
Rashad Lawrence has had a long time to get used to the throwing style of Trevor Siemian; after all, the two played on the same high school team in Orlando. But no matter who's under center, Lawrence says his job is always the same.
"I don't even notice which quarterback is in on a drive until we watch film the next day sometimes," Lawrence says. "There's no pick up or drop off. I'm just on the outside catching the balls that come to me. We've known what we can do for a while now. This is just a confirmation of who we are."
The game plans will fluctuate throughout the year based on opponent weaknesses, injuries and other factors. Fitzgerald will always operate under the strategy of "use whatever means necessary to win the game," whether it's through the air or on the ground, deep balls or quick outs, risk taking or cautious waiting. Whatever works.
But if anyone doubted the raw ability of the deep receiving corps on this team, these two games have swept aside any uncertainty. Once Big Ten defenses start lining up to challenge the Wildcats, this group of receivers will continue to be a critical weapon.
"We've got to up our intensity and up our focus for those teams," Christian Jones says. "It's all about the win for us, and if that means going out there and blocking 60 guys, then that's what's going to happen.
"It's all about reacting to what's going on out there because Big Ten games can change so fast and those defenses are so unpredictable. That's really what makes this receiver group so special: their ability to control and react to the game."