The Defense’s Tipping Point

No unit had more questions facing them entering this season than the defense. Northwestern struggled against the run and struggled against the pass. These players had to answer for those mistakes this year. And eight games, it is safe to say they largely have.

The numbers are not super despite this apparent improvement.

The Wildcats are giving up 393.8 yards per game (10th in the conference) and 272.4 passing yards per game (11th in the conference). The saving grace has been a rushing defense that gives up a comparatively paltry 121.3 rushing yards per game (fourth in the Big Ten). Compared to last year, those numbers are improved — last year, NU gave up 177.3 rushing yards per game, 230.4 passing yards per game and 407.7 yards per game. And, in the most important number, Northwestern is giving up 22.3 points per game this year compared to 27.7 last year.

The defense is better. Our eyes can tell us that.

Yes, the Wildcats are giving up more passing yards, but the communication issues that plagued the team last year in the secondary are non-existent to this point in the season. The team is stout against the run and doing a better job getting pressure on the quarterback. Northwestern has 19 sacks and has forced 15 turnovers this season compared to 17 sacks and 20 turnovers last year.

This defense is making more impact plays this season.

Yet, the Wildcats are not quite at the point of relying entirely on the defense. The defense remains half the reason the Wildcats have lost two double-digit leads in their two losses this season. Perhaps that is unfair with some of the struggles the offense has had, but you cannot come back if you do not score.

After all, it was even against Syracuse where Northwestern’s defense seemed to shut off and allow Syracuse to pass its way back into the game. Even in the win over Iowa last week, there was discomfort after Northwestern failed to score in the fourth quarter and fumbled at the goalline about how the defense would respond.

The constant criticism of the defense, especially when playing with a lead, is that it goes into the soft zone making tackling quickly more important while conceding medium-range yards. And there is no denying that the Wildcats are getting beat in the fourth quarters — officially, by a score of 70-48.

Defensive play-calling aside, the Wildcats have shown a tendency to struggle late in games. Whether that is conditioning or the offense being on the field for too long the Northwestern defense has consistently hit a wall at some point in several games this year.

If there is one thing this season has taught us as football fans it is the link between the offense and defense and their performance. The Wildcats say they want to run 80-plus plays per game. By running their fast-paced offense and staying on the field it is Northwestern hoping to wear down the defense themselves.

However, this year, Northwestern has found itself on the wrong end of the play counter. Opponents have run 682 plays (75.8 plays per game) to Northwestern’s 656 (72.9 plays per game). In Big Ten play, the Wildcats have run only 339 plays (67.8 plays per game) and opponents have run 399 plays (79.8 plays per game). That disparity is pretty large and significant and we have seen it play out on the field. This is especially when you consider opponents hold an advantage in time of possession.

Things have gone horribly wrong in the fourth quarters of several games this year. The chart below is a game-by-game look at the plays run through three quarters and the fourth quarter defensive stats for Northwestern in fourth quarters this year:

Opponent Plays/Yds. through 3 Qrtrs. 4th Qrtr. Plays Yards Gained Points Scored Final Score
@ Syracuse 73 plays/445 yards 25 plays 171 yards 14 points 42-41 NU
vs. Vanderbilt 52 plays/264 yards 17 plays 65 yards 3 points 23-13 NU
vs. Boston College 47 plays/265 yards 20 plays 82 yards 3 points 22-13 NU
vs. South Dakota 52 plays/170 yards 4 plays 10 yards 0 points 38-7 NU
vs. Indiana 54 plays/303 yards 14 plays 102 yards 7 points 44-29 NU
@ Penn State 65 plays/272 yards 35 plays 186 yards 22 points 39-28 PSU
@ Minnesota 55 plays/263 yards 19 plays 103 yards 0 points 21-13 Minn.
vs. Nebraska 61 Plays/385 yards 23 plays 149 yards 13 points 29-28 Neb.
vs. Iowa 60 plays/238 yards 19 plays 117 yards 7 points 28-17 NU
Average 57.7 plays/289.4 yards 19.6 plays 109.4 yards 7.7 points

A few things to note that are not displayed in the chart.

Syracuse began its comeback in the third quarter and had four consecutive drives that ended in a touchdown. Obviously, the Orange ran a lot of plays before the fourth quarter, surpassing the Wildcats’ current average. Before that run of scoring drives, Syracuse ran 56 plays with only one drive of more than 10 plays and gained only 277 yards. Those numbers, if they had stayed consistent in the fourth quarter, do not seem so bad.

Obviously, the two losses stand out where big fourth quarter drives led to Northwestern’s demise. But the seeds were laid before that in the first three quarters and particularly in the third quarter of these games. There seems to be something of a tipping point if Northwestern allows around 60 plays through three quarters. Particularly if the offense is not staying on the field and sustaining drives.

This is where the offense needs to play a role in stemming the tide. Taking a look at the fourth quarter in the last four games, Northwestern’s offense has been on the field for 68 plays (17.0 plays per game), gaining 245 yards (61.3 yards per game) and scoring 7 points (1.8 points per game). This includes the offense running 14 plays for 20 yards against Minnesota and 12 plays for 29 yards against Penn State.

Those numbers simply will not maintain a lead and will not give the defense the rest they need. Particularly if they are on the field a substantial portion of the game. This leads to the feeling of “it’s a matter of time” before the lead dissipates.

The Wildcats defense is much improved. They are playing better. They are not an elite defense and the Cats cannot be characterized as a team dependent on their defense. The offense has to pull its weight, sustain drives and give the defense rest. And that goes for the entire game.

It was clear in the two losses that the defense was tired. It is not an excuse necessarily for the way the Wildcats loss, but it makes the task difficult. It was hard to ask the team to do much more than it had, and, as you can see in the chart, Northwestern was playing with fire some when it came to its defense. Fortunately, in those games, the offense came through.

If there is something Northwestern has learned in the first nine games it is the delicate balance it needs to find of offense and defense to keep its defense fresh and maintain not only leads but maintain strong, sometimes dominant play, from this defense.

  • Fanaticat

    The one area where we need to improve, which will reduce the length of drives both by yards and number of plays, is forcing turnovers. In this area we are not on pace to improve from last year. Particularly interceptions, of which they’ve had many in their hands but failed to hold on. Two of those chances could have won the Nebraska game. Recovering fumbles as well – there were I believe 2 forced fumbles in the 4th quarter against PSU but we were unable to recover them, either of which may have won us the game.

  • diden

    Hey, we beat Minnesota…

  • Indycat15

    Looking at that photo of Martinez trying to escape in the end zone…how did the refs miss that safety call!? How sweet were those jerseys?! How did we lose that game?!
    Also, I’m glad that we’re getting the lakeside practice fields, but man oh man does Ryan Field need a refurb. The stands could be right on top of the field a la Purdue’s Ross-Ade stadium. That photo really shows how far away the fans are from the field relative to other B1G venues.
    Random 2 a.m. thoughts.

  • Henry in CT

    We have had only one game this year that wasn’t a nail-biter in the fourth quarter and in most we were hanging on for dear life at the end. It is one thing to say that you are able to win the close games but anyone who watches NU knows that nearly all of those games were close because we blew big leads. Say what you want about the defense seeming to be better this year but to me it stinks just about as bad as it has every other year. Fortunately the schedule has been extremely weak and the offense with Colter at the helm is cause for some optimism for the last three games.

    • Rossington

      Oh, Henry, must the glass always be half empty?

      • Henry in CT

        I think that it is a sign of progress that many here are not constantly trying to put a good take on a bad situation. Over the years it has always been about the defense which is really about not enough athleticism, critical injuries on defense always happening, wearing down as the season goes on and in each game, etc. Has this really changed?

        • Richard

          The D-line is more athletic than the last few iterations. In fact, we haven’t had a D-line this athletic (or at least effective) since Wootton was a ‘Cat.

          It’s also been a while since we’ve had a CB as athletic as VanHoose.

  • Watching and (Mostly) Waiting

    While our 4Q trend is horrifying, and worth analyzing, so we look for common themes. Defensively, each of the games in question seemed to have their own personality (injured secondary vs. NEB, incredible tip-your-cap catches vs. IU, gassed vs. PSU, etc.). I thought the defense held strong when needed against Vanderbilt, Minnesota, and even Iowa. (If Iowa had hit explosion plays the way Indiana did, would have been much more in doubt. Wasn’t pretty but defense ultimately sealed the deal.) Most frustrating moment of Iowa was not on defense, but was our paltry 3-and-out after Iowa scored to make it 28-17. Definitely agree with LTP’s delicate balance comment, and the recurring theme for me (first three games, IU, PSU, MIN, IA) is not on defense, but rather the offense drying up in the second half.

  • WildcatAlumn01

    A piece of your analysis that is missing is Yards/Play. I’d rather have 1 play (Venric run) for 80 yards and take 12 secs time of possession to score a TD, than have 13 plays, 6:30 time of possession and get a field goal. That is why the # of plays and time of possession statistics can be a bit misleading at times. Not to say our defense did not wear down due to it the NEB & PSU losses. However, if you look at the Iowa game, our time of possession and # of plays were horrible and we still dominated the game for the most part.

    • PDXCat

      It would be nice to see the Cats offensive numbers broken down the same way. Looking at the defensive numbers (I’m a data analyst; can’t help it), plays per quarter is the same for 1-3 and 4th. When you go to yards per play, it’s 5.0 for 1-3 and 5.6 in the 4th. Not a big deal? For a 4-down series that’s an extra 2 yards. How many 4th and shorts have we allowed? That’s telling. Also points per quarter goes from 4.9 to 7.7 in the 4th. A field goal. So the defense isn’t necessarily working more, just having more happen while they’re out there. Is it the 3 and outs? Can’t be helping. But that 5 yards a play number. That strikes me as high. Wonder what ours is . . .

  • jpklock

    So, I took the same opposing offense stats chart that you built, and I modified it to do a simple comparison of the average of the first three quarters, against the fourth quarter. What I found was that the 4th quarter was within 4 plays of the average for the first 3 quarters in all but two games:

    South Dakota was averaging 17 plays/quarter, but fielded only 4 plays in the 4th. Penn State was averaging 22 plays/quarter, and fielded 35 plays in the 4th.

    In EVERY other game (including Nebraska, Minnesota, BC, and Iowa) the 4th quarter saw what I’d call “about as many” plays from our opponents’ offenses as the average of the prior 3 quarters.

    In terms of yards/play, if we say that 15 yards more or less than the average of the 3 prior quarters is insignificant, then we’ve given unexpectedly poor 4th quarters to two opponents (Vandy and SD, at -23 and -47 respectively) and given unexpectedly good 4th quarters to four opponents: Nebraska (+21 / 14%), Syracuse (+23 / 13%), Iowa (+38 / 32%), and Penn State (+95 / 51%).

    On the whole season, that puts us giving up an average of an extra 13 yards in Q4, relative to the average of Q1-3. Take out the clear outlier (Penn State) and that drops to a 3 yard average differential.

    I kind of think that part of what’s happening in our 4th quarter is pure narrative: we have the perception that we flag in the 4th (set up by our very first game, though it wasn’t repeated– at ALL– until five weeks later), and so we’re fitting every story into that narrative.

    Yes, the 4th quarter is hard, and yes, we’re mildly underperforming in the 4th against most opponents (and SPECTACULARLY underperforming in the 4th against Penn State).

    It turns out, a 12 point lead with 15 minutes to play is not safe in the Big Ten (news flash: it never has been!)

    That said, you might be onto something with the idea of a 60-play “tipping point”. Or maybe I just like that idea, because it integrates well with my other theory, about our players not having the same endurance as their opponents… :)

  • Old Fat Bald Guy

    Very good analysis, PR-R. I think the early three-and-outs are even more damaging than the late ones. In the Minnesota game, the offense did almost nothing in the second half and the defense still had some juice at the end.