Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bacher has concentrated on his footwork during the off-season to cut down on his interceptions.
Everyone wants to point to C.J. Bacher's right arm as the key to Northwestern's season.
Seeing as how the Wildcats went 5-0 last year when the senior quarterback threw fewer than 2 interceptions - but 1-6 when Bacher tossed at least 2 picks - it hardly takes a third-year medical student to make that anatomical observation.
But new Northwestern offensive coordinator Mick McCall, shortly after arriving from Bowling Green in January, came in and pointed to something else:
"He noticed that in games last year I was getting a little lazy with my footwork," Bacher said. "Throwing off my back foot a little bit. Being a little too slow in the 'quick' game."
Bacher's feet didn't drag on every play. But when they did, he found himself taking too much time backpedaling into position to throw.
That led to too many off-balance passes - particularly ones where he had too much weight on his back foot - and goes a long way to explain why Bacher was the Big Ten's only quarterback to finish with as many interceptions (19) as touchdowns (19).
That ratio outshined Bacher's 3,656 passing yards, which wound up second in the league and 15th in the country.
"We've put a lot of emphasis on footwork," Bacher said, "and I think it has gotten a lot better."
If Bacher maintains quick feet all year on his three-step drops, then makes the easy throw once in the pocket as McCall's offense calls for him to do, Northwestern's bid for a bowl berth should be as easy as 1-2-3.
That's a nod to the experience and talent the Wildcats retain from last year's 6-6 season - a crew good enough to be bowl-eligible but not sexy enough to receive one of the Big Ten's eight postseason berths.
Northwestern's depth chart for Saturday's opener against Syracuse features just four new starters on offense, four on defense (because senior defensive tackle John Gill is suspended for one game) and none on special teams.
With veterans virtually everywhere, the off-season's biggest issue was teaching the incumbents how the demands brought in by McCall (the no-huddle) and new defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz (an attacking 4-3 scheme and a renewed emphasis on the basics).
To speed the process along, third-year coach Pat Fitzgerald conducted an uncommonly rugged training camp where the Wildcats hit a ton and did a lot of scrimmaging with the "ones against the ones."
Remember, Northwestern finished next-to-last in the Big Ten in almost every defensive category - including yards allowed (410.5 per game), points allowed (31.0 per game), sacks (18) and turnovers forced (16).
"We wanted to improve fundamentally and technically," Fitzgerald said. "We wanted to become better tacklers on defense. We wanted to take better angles and play better team defense. And the only way you can do that is to put our guys into as many scrimmage reps as we possibly can."
To a man, the Wildcats love their new defensive style.
"We just have been focusing on attacking," said senior outside linebacker Prince Kwateng. "Attacking the gaps. Attacking the ball. Just from blitzing, from everything. That should force us to get more turnovers.
"I felt like last year we didn't create enough turnovers and that really hurt us offensive and defensively."
Conversely, the Wildcats' offense plans to be all about turnover avoidance. Some might view their rejiggered style as dinking and dunking down the field. NU views it as controlling the game.
"It's look for your read down the field and then come down to the backs," Bacher said. "There's been a big emphasis on checking down, not trying to make the tight fits. Not trying to make the great throws, just making the smart throws."