After Penn State debacle, it's past time for Northwestern to shuffle offensive staff


After Penn State debacle, it's past time for Northwestern to shuffle offensive staff
  1. After Penn State debacle, it's past time for Northwestern to shuffle offensive staff
    Northwestern's offense was a pitiful mix of boring and bungling in the first half Saturday against Penn State, so the Wildcats responded like this after the intermission: Three and out. Three and out. Three and out. Detect a pattern? The Wildcats went nowhere against fourth-ranked Penn State,…
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Northwestern's offense was a pitiful mix of boring and bungling in the first half Saturday against Penn State, so the Wildcats responded like this after the intermission:

Three and out.

Three and out.

Three and out.

Detect a pattern? The Wildcats went nowhere against fourth-ranked Penn State, which cruised to a 31-7 victory before a decent Ryan Field crowd of 41,061.

The Wildcats fell to 2-3 (0-2 Big Ten), relegated again to hoping to improve enough to make a third-tier bowl game.

Photos from the Northwestern-Penn State game at Ryan Field in Evanston on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017.

Northwestern's big picture is about as ugly as this season's outlook. NU hasn't finished in the top 80 in scoring offense among FBS teams since 2012.

The offensive staff appeared in jeopardy last season after a 1-3 start. But then the Wildcats scored 38 points at Iowa and 54 at Michigan State, and to cap the season, Justin Jackson rushed for 224 yards in the Pinstripe Bowl against Pittsburgh.

Now? After NU barely avoided being shut out for the first time since 2015, coach Pat Fitzgerald has a mess on his hands.

The offensive line is atrocious, quarterback Clayton Thorson (19 of 36, 142 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions, four sacks) has regressed and the receivers rarely get separation. The Wildcats are wasting Jackson's talents — and their fans' time.

Programs will be permitted to add a 10th full-time assistant coach Jan. 9. That will allow Fitzgerald to do something long overdue — shake up his offensive staff.

"I'm sure there are a million answers flying around on the internet," he said.

Just one, actually. NU fans don't understand why Fitzgerald treats his assistants like tenured professors. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall is in his 10th season. There has been only one staff change since 2008, when receivers coach Kevin Johns left for Indiana.

"Those types of feelings as a fan are absolutely fair," Fitzgerald said. "I have zero issue with that.

"I look at things holistically. I always have and always will. It starts with me. I'm the one who's responsible, so I'm the one who has to get it fixed."

The shame of it is NU's defense performed admirably in holding Heisman Trophy favorite Saquon Barkley to minus-1 rushing yard in the first half. Barkley finally broke free for a 53-yard score in the third quarter, using a screen from an official who inadvertently tripped safety Godwin Igwebuike.

NU's offense was so ineffective, the defense was on the field for 14 possessions by Penn State (6-0, 3-0).

"Our defense gave us a chance to win," Thorson said. "They played well and we didn't."

The Wildcats' only score came with less than two minutes to play, when backup quarterback Matt Alviti scooted in from 1 yard out.

Alviti completed 4 of 7 passes and, more importantly, rushed three times for 20 yards. Back when NU's offense was humming, it had both a passing (Trevor Siemian) and running (Kain Colter) threat at quarterback.

Why doesn't Alviti, a fifth-year senior, get a chance to impact the game?

"Earlier in his career, he wasn't healthy," Fitzgerald said. "Now that he is, maybe he should be."

The coach then asked me, cordially: "You busy Monday? Come on up. We'll get a plan together. We'll have some fun. I'll buy lunch."

tgreenstein@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

Wildcats 2-minute drill

Out of play: Officials were jus…

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