McCall unheralded in NU's success

Northwestern had been a pass-happy offense for the past decade, and it was anticipated such a trend would continue forward into the 2012 season. However, offensive coordinator Mick McCall had other plans. The fifth-year assistant transformed the Wildcats' attack as necessary throughout the season, leading it to success.

This past week, a nationally unfamiliar name popped up on several coaching search lists: Mick McCall.

The Northwestern offensive coordinator still remains an outsider for the jobs, and will in all likelihood return to Evanston next season. It begs the question: where is his recognition?

McCall rarely sees television cameras turning his way and seldom earns conversation from analysts. He does not command attention. He even lacks a Wikipedia page. But let's get one thing straight: McCall is an incredibly valuable member of this staff.

It took the fear of losing him to another job that made me realize his worth. Shame it took that long.

One of my favorite moments from covering NU this season was a simple one. At the Wednesday practice leading up to the Illinois game, when players split up into position groups, the quarterbacks as always jogged over to McCall. On that day, the offensive coordinator (and quarterbacks coach) wasted little time doling out instructions.

Granted, I could have misheard things from my spot on the sidelines. I distinctly remember seeing, though, McCall demonstrating to Trevor Siemian appropriate dropback techniques. While I obviously know little about the nuances of playing quarterback, and refuse to explain further for fear of inaccuracy, a couple of things stood out.

Siemian stood there comfortably, asking for confirmation when needed and watching with full attention. McCall looked at ease dealing with players, and despite swapping quarterbacks "1-a" and "1-b" in and out at will, he always seemed to have their respect. All season, media members sat patiently waiting for one of the guys under center to complain and it never really happened. It was hard to argue with how this offense clicked, and that began with McCall.

On top of that, this limited but telling view during practice left me with a lasting impression. Despite the complexities of offense, and the several wrinkles of NU's in particular, it all comes down to constant improvement.

It seemed like McCall, the primary mastermind of this unit, focused on that very thing. From week one to the memorable finale against Illinois, the offense continually evolved. And it was difficult to argue with the results.

Few people knew what to expect from this team heading into the season except for six or seven wins. On the fly, this coaching staff learned where its strengths were. There was no agenda and no obvious effort to please players. Although Pat Fitzgerald plays a large role in everything, including decision making regarding this offense, McCall helped to reinvent this unit time and time again. Farewell to a pass-oriented attack, and in with the run game. Even after Syracuse, it would have seemed a strange joke to suggest that this team could win games when struggling through the air. Then it started to happen.

In the season-opening win, the passing game anchored the Wildcats. Kain Colter and Siemian combined to throw 32 times for 213 yards and three touchdowns. A Siemian throw to Demetrius Fields cued a sigh of relief and a 42-41 win. Just like in the days of Dan Persa, passing saved the game. Venric Mark, despite running for 82 yards, received little attention. Perhaps he had cemented his role as starting running back. More were concerned about which quarterback was better at airing the ball out, and whether Fitzgerald and McCall trusted Colter to make big throws.

McCall could have kept filling the pass attempts quota, sticking to the tried and true methods. But for some reason, he kept changing his ways. McCall has run a successful NU offense these past five years. Nothing impressed me more – and I think fans should agree – than his ability and willingness to change strategy this season. He is responsible for the offense, and this to me was his finest job yet.

NU was 4-0 earlier this season, and everything was working. Both quarterbacks continued to flourish and the Cats had just pounded South Dakota. They refused to take Indiana for granted, though, and decided their best chance to beat an upset-minded opponent lay in deception. Kain Colter split time between wide receiver and quarterback. He caught nine passes for 131 yards. He added 161 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. It came out of nowhere. Indiana was left gasping for air after a stunning performance. The offense excelled, and surely it would continue that same method, right?

Everything hit the wall against Penn State, as NU saw understandable struggles against an excellent defense in a difficult environment. Then, the next week at Minnesota brought miserable weather, and the Cats struggled to do anything through the air. At that critical juncture, it was not about style points. It was about winning, and the offense shifted again.

Rather than placating egos and padding statistics, the NU offensive game plan basically centered on avoiding turnovers. It was painful to watch. NU took a 21-10 lead early in the second quarter and never scored again. The Cats hung on to win, throwing for just 67 yards, and who was anyone to question the offense?

The group dominated in ways no one expected. Mark emerged to run for an incredible 1,310 yards. And though it looked crazy half the time, NU stayed in every ball game shuffling two quarterbacks. Nothing arrived at a clear consensus. Siemian may throw 40 or 4 times against Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl. It just depends on what the coaching staff chooses. What an amusing concept that is.

In 2012, the NU offense looked about to fall apart at every moment. Nothing seemed stable and everything seemed hectic. At times, there were two confident quarterbacks. At others, there were none.

With change and uncertainty, nothing missed a beat on offense. Much of the surprising 9-3 regular season record can be attributed to McCall – the man preparing game plans and giving his bunch the best chance to win.

Half of me wants to say that McCall might very well deserve a head-coaching job elsewhere. Despite an unimpressive resume in comparison to other candidates, his work with this offense should not be ignored.

The other half wants him to stay and continue to excel. Imagine what he can accomplish with Colter and Mark returning for their senior seasons. It figures to be exciting.

I get ahead of myself. With this offense, it's hard to predict anything. Well done, Coach McCall.

Follow on Twitter: @NicholasMedline

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