With so much up in the air, this would seem a good time to be grounded. In terms of expectations and, more literally, in terms of play-calling.
It comes as news to no one, but Northwestern lost a lot on offense from a year ago. Like, a whole lot. The quarterback, the top three receivers, a running back who amassed more than 1,200 career receiving yards. Add it all up – or subtract it, as it were – and the offense may want to travel by ground this fall.
What’s more, the Wildcats’ presumed starting QB, Mike Kafka, is the guy who last season set a single-game Big Ten rushing record. And he’s also the guy whose career touchdown-to-interception ratio is – deep breath – three-to-eight.
But NU offensive coordinator Mick McCall, well, he’s not convinced that air traffic will be shut down.
“I’m excited for (Kafka) to throw the ball,” McCall said in an interview with Purple Reign. “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.
“We’re just going to do whatever the defense gives us.”
And that’s the offensive plan heading into the season – take whatever is there.
McCall, a former Bowling Green assistant entering his second season with the Wildcats, doesn't feel impelled to pass it simply to spite the run-run-run assumption. But he’s also not going to run the ball blindly just because he has a quarterback who’s fleet of foot.
No, he simply plans to keep his options open.
“You know, we’re just going to take what the defense gives us. They can’t defend everything,” said McCall, also the Cats’ quarterbacks coach. “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.”
Kafka, a senior who figures to be the starter this fall, started two games last season, and the ground game thrived. Against Minnesota, he scampered for 217 yards – a Big Ten record for a quarterback – and the next week he had 83 yards against Ohio State – the only Big Ten player to rush for at least 80 yards against the Buckeyes. And don’t forget, NU didn’t have Tyrell Sutton in either of those games. So Kafka really shouldered (legged?) the load.
But while Kafka proved his prowess as a runner, the passing game hardly flourished in those two outings. On the season, NU averaged 37.7 rushing attempts and 35.2 passing attempts per game. In Kafka’s two starts, however, the Wildcats ran it an average of 42 times and threw it a total of 43 times. The Cats also had 143 and 177 yards, respectively, in Kafka's two starts; they averaged 221 in their other 11 games.
In addition, 2008’s full-time starter, C.J. Bacher, averaged 37 passing attempts and 7.6 rushes per game. In Kafka’s (admittedly small) two-game sample size, he averaged 21.5 pass attempts and 28 rushes.
Thus, there has been some speculation that a Kafka-led offense won’t be able to get it done through the air.
Not so, says McCall.
“(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.”
Kafka, for his part, is pretty confident himself.
“I don’t listen to (people who doubt my arm),” said the 6-3 senior at the Big Ten media day. “I don’t really concern myself with it. I’m confident in my ability, and I know my teammates are confident in my abilities. We’re going to need to throw the ball to be successful, and we’re going to need to run the ball to be successful too. I know coach McCall put together a good plan to help us expose whatever defense we play.”
And that, of course, is the plan: Taketh what the defense giveth. With Kafka at the healm, McCall is confident that Northwestern can do just that.