Northwestern offense aims to go totally 80s

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald likened last week's offensive struggles at Penn State to "having a road map to get home, and it's the wrong map."

The map the Wildcats followed led to several quick dead ends, particularly early in the game. After averaging 82 offensive plays through the first five weeks, Northwestern snapped the ball a season-low 61 times in a 39-28 loss to Penn State. More unsettling: after averaging 51.4 rushing attempts in the first five games (40 in each game), the Wildcats had less than half of that (25 attempts) against Penn State. The total plays marked Northwestern's lowest since running just 57 in a horrendous loss to Army last season.

So when Fitzgerald talked this week about getting back to the "blueprint," it doesn't necessarily mean rotating quarterbacks Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter differently, or using dynamic running back Venric Mark in new ways. Northwestern knows who it is on offense, but it needs more opportunities to showcase its identity, beginning Saturday at Minnesota.

"Blueprint-wise, we didn't do anything different than we normally would have," offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. "We didn't have as many plays, and that was us just not converting."

Asked if he has a target number of plays per game, McCall said, "We'd love to get 80."

Northwestern eclipsed 80 plays in wins against Boston College and Indiana, and came close (76) in a victory against Vanderbilt. To get there this week, the Wildcats must start off much better than they did in Happy Valley. Northwestern ran just eight plays in the first quarter and went three-and-out on its first four offensive possessions.

Although the offense woke up a bit late in the second quarter and in the third, the slow start gassed the defense, which couldn't make a stop to possibly seal a win after Northwestern took an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter.

"If you look at who we are, we're an up-tempo, no-huddle, possession-through-plays offense," Fitzgerald said. "And we got away from that [at Penn State]."

McCall wants to have balance -- "Run the ball when we're supposed to pass it and pass it when they think we're going to run," he said -- but the key to improvement starts with the run game.

Top rushing threats Mark and Colter combined for only 18 attempts at Penn State. McCall would like to get Mark, the Big Ten's fifth-leading rusher, 25 touches per game, whether it's as a rusher or a receiver. Colter, who has been most effective as a slot receiver and running the zone read at quarterback, also needs to be a bigger part of the plan going forward.

"There's times where you like him in space," McCall said of Mark. "But there's also times where you like to get him the ball, because he hides in behind there, and he can hit the darn thing and away he goes. Any time you can get Venric Mark 25 touches in a game, that's pretty good."

McCall then added: "Everybody needed to touch the ball more last week. Kain and Venric, they need to touch the ball a bunch."

Both McCall and Fitzgerald downplayed the potential difficulties of managing two quarterbacks, or a shift this season to a more run-based offense. Their road map to success is there, but they have to stay in their lane this week in Minneapolis.

A good indicator Saturday is whether they reach 80 offensive plays.

"It's not a panic mode," McCall said. "It's more just a sense of urgency, and let's get going."