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October 9, 2009Look at the box score of Northwestern's 27-21 victory over Purdue last weekend and you will find a study in contrasts.
Let your eyes wander down the page to the number 88. That's how many plays the Wildcats ran against the Boilermakers, a season high and far more than the Boilermakers' 54. NU's big edge in plays led to almost 36 minutes with the ball, including 22 minutes in the first half alone.
With those disparities, you'd expect the Cats to have a major edge in total yards. But bring your eyes back to the top of the page -- you're in for a shock. The surprise isn't so much how close the teams were in total yards, 375 to 311. It's that Purdue, despite running 34 fewer plays, had 64 more yards of offense than NU.
The statistical anomaly is another example of the often frustrating dichotomy of NU's offense this season. While the Cats have averaged 76 plays per game, best in the Big Ten, they have been unable to burn opposing defenses with big plays, opting instead for a methodical attack that grinds out a handful of yards at a time but doesn't stretch the field with big gains.
Only one of the Cats' 88 plays against Purdue went for more than 20 yards, while a whopping 76 of them netted fewer than 10. But even after a game where the offense average 3.5 yards per play, offensive coordinator Mick McCall had no problem with his offense's slow but steady movement.
"It is what it is," he said. "As long as we get a first down, we get the ball for four more downs. If we're possessing the football, we're in good shape."
McCall's offensive philosophy was very different when he ran the offense at Bowling Green, where he directed a high-powered aerial attack. Back then, 88 plays went a lot further for McCall, to the tune of 476 total yards for the Falcons in their 28-24 win over NU in the 2003 Motor City Bowl.
At Northwestern, McCall has adopted coach Pat Fitzgerald's mantra: "Take what the defense gives you." This season, defenses have been conceding the short pass, and the Cats have capitalized with long, clock-killing drives.
"We've seen defenses sometimes play into our scheme," said junior receiver Sidney Stewart, whose 22-yard reception was the Cats' longest play from scrimmage against the Boilermakers. "We have deeper routes off those plays, but if they're going to play 'bend but don't break' defense, we don't mind going underneath."
NU quarterback Mike Kafka went one step further, arguing the Cats' ability to rack up yards underneath will force defenses to bring their safeties up, giving NU opportunities for big plays.
"We're not gonna force things," Kafka said. "If the defense gives us underneath, we'll stick with the short throws and pick up first downs. When they start getting greedy and come up, that's when we'll go over the top."
Big plays or not, running nearly 90 plays - 40 on back-to-back 20-play drives in the first half - takes its toll on opposing defenses. Though Purdue was able to keep NU out of the end zone on both marathon possessions, the Boilermakers had nothing left in the tank late in the fourth quarter, when the Cats drove 67 yards in 11 plays for the winning touchdown.
The drive ended with three rushes by Kafka for 11 yards and the winning score against a defense that had no push at the line of scrimmage. If the Boilermaker defensive line hadn't been forced to bang heads in the trenches so many times, Kafka might not have been able to power into the end zone.
But don't give NU's plethora of plays all the credit. On the biggest drive of the season, Kafka and the offense simply would not be denied.
"In the fourth quarter, we do see that teams tend to get an inch or two slower than they usually are," Stewart said. "But for us, it was kind of an 'attitude' drive. We just stepped up and got it done when it counted."