It was hard to believe that the first points Northwestern allowed in 2013 were off of a fake field goal. I was taken aback, of course, by the rarity of the play: special teams fakes are seldom seen outside of Madden games or scrimmage sets, and I was even more surprised by the aplomb with which Cal ran it. But the most shocking part about that first score was that it wasn’t that shocking.
When teams are as mismatched and unfavored as the Golden Bears were that night, they pull out all the stops to scoop an advantage. A great team sends its offense out to get the first down; a good team settles for three; an underdog cuts loose something you can’t gameplan for. As Memorial Stadium was whipped into a frenzy, I remember thinking that the Wildcats of last year would have probably ran something like that in the same situation.
Northwestern was the underdog for much of 2012, and the playcalling reflected it. Kain Colter was split wide without warning, Venric Mark excelled in the read-option and Trevor Siemian had ample opportunities to flash his arm in play action. Everything the Wildcats did was marked by a sense of urgency, and the result was one of the faster, more electric teams in program history. Even when favored in the Gator Bowl, NU made it interesting.
That Cal game featured an entirely new Northwestern team. It was one adorned with a preseason AP ranking and one with a very limited Mark, but most noticeably, it was one that genuflected to head-scratching conservatism in playcalling. It certainly didn’t stop on Opening Night.
With two plays to win the biggest regular-season game in Northwestern history, Venric Mark and Kain Colter combined for four yards on inside runs. With Colter and Mark out and the Cats reeling in Wisconsin, Trevor Siemian threw 34 passes — few of which travelled more than 10 yards — while Treyvon Green and his six yards per carry average went unused. With a chance to put away Nebraska and salvage bowl eligibility, Northwestern took first-and-goal and ran three times for three yards.
The defense failed to make in-game adjustments; the offense failed to compensate for one of the worst O-lines in the country. Mike Trumpy options happened. And a team with historically bad luck, both in games with injuries, fell back on its crutches and never took accountability. Northwestern’s season reached its nadir seemingly every week, yet the changes we expected to see never came.
The calls for Mick McCall’s job are misguided, and the idea that next season will be a clean refresh is simplistic. The problem with Northwestern’s playcalling reflected the program’s problem at large: expectations were set too high and too fast, and as a result, personnel was forced to unnaturally adjust to the culture. The Wildcats began playing like a team that had everything to lose, rather than the team that had nothing to lose a season ago, and subsequently hewed to overcautiousness.
NU made October 5th the hype machine that it was, then froze up when they had a realistic chance to actualize expectation. Two weeks later, Northwestern still felt it had the world to lose, and bewilderingly chose to sit back and wait for overtime in Iowa. Even with the proverbial dumpster fire turning to full apocalyptic explosion, the Wildcats felt comfortable against Michigan.
When we look back on Northwestern’s 2013 season, we won’t remember the playcalling. We’ll remember the rash of injuries, the freak plays and the first College GameDay visit in two decades. Because in time, the Wildcats will come into the role of expected winners, in a process that’s more organic than one-year turnaround and “5:03” sweatgear. In time, the Wildcats will in fact have something to lose, and they’ll find a more effective way to play so that they don’t lose it. We’ll remember the plays they didn’t make in 2013, but the ones they didn’t call will fade away.