Sorry Pat Fitzgerald, not all stats are for losers. Or maybe we are not calling these stats. Maybe these should be considered “battles.”
There are certainly some numbers you have to win — score, for one. Getting more yards or more turnovers do not guarantee wins by any stretch. But there are certain markers a team has to win to compete and be in the game. Losing these markers generally mean a loss.
It has been no secret that Northwestern has had its struggles moving the ball. The team ranks near the bottom in the nation in many offensive categories. The defense is good, but not a lockdown unit able to win games by themselves. They need the offense to provide some support. And they are still susceptible to big plays — see Nebraska second half and the entire Iowa game.
The first half of the Michigan game showed exactly where Northwestern has struggled most. Trevor Siemian threw two interceptions, setting Michigan up with a short field. The Wildcats could not get good punts to set up the defense with some field to work with. They were asking the defense to do a lot – and to Northwestern’s credit, they did.
So in these final few games, it has become pretty clear what Northwestern’s offense has to key in on to give themselves a chance.
Those three things? Turnovers, field position and big plays.
They all play with each other. They tell you how good each phase of the game is doing — offense, defense and special teams. For a good chunk of this season, Northwestern has struggled with each of these three segments of the game. Sometimes they have not — could the offense have asked for more with Ibraheim Campbell returning an interception 70-plus yards to the 18-yard line? The ESPN reporters were discussing that there was “division” on the sideline. The defense had the feeling they had to go win the game themselves.
They almost did. But that is not a sustainable formula for the Wildcats.
So how does Northwestern do in these three battle areas?
Let us start with turnovers. The Wildcats last year were actually pretty good at creating turnovers with 17 in 12 games. The Wildcats committed 26 on their own, which put them in a big hole.
This year has seen a somewhat similar story. The Wildcats have struggled containing their own turnovers and struggled to create their own.
|Opponent||TOs Forced||TOs Committed|
|vs. Cal (L)||2||2|
|vs. NIU (L)||0||1|
|vs. WIU (W)||4||2|
|@ PSU (W)||2||1|
|vs. Wis. (W)||4||0|
|@ Minn. (L)||1||1|
|vs. Neb. (L)||0||1|
|@ Iowa (L)||1||1|
|vs. Mich. (L)||3||3|
As you can see in the chart above, when NU forced more turnovers than it committed it is a perfect 3-0. When it has the same number of turnovers or fewer, the team is 0-6.
Certainly this does not describe everything with Northwestern. The only turnover in the Nebraska game amounted to an arm punt in the first half. The game was decided in the second half where the Cornhuskers just steamrolled the Wildcats. Iowa and NU did not play a close game despite the turnovers being even.
It does not tell the entire story. But you can also see how much opportunity and momentum can be gained from forcing a turnover.
Northwestern converted both turnovers against Penn State into points and they were huge momentum plays. All the turnovers against Wisconsin helped turn the tide and one even took points off the board with Godwin Igwebuike getting one of those in the end zone.
There is an undeniable correlation though. Turnovers can be a major decider of games.
So what about field position?
Knowing this offense struggles so much to move the ball, getting a short field is almost essential to its success. Establishing good field position also means the punt game is working and pinning the opponent deep. So special teams comes into the occasion too.
|Opponent||NU Field Position (Past 50)||Opp. Field Position (Past 50)|
|vs. Cal (L)||NU 31.8 (1)||Cal 31.4 (3)|
|vs. NIU (L)||NU 24.8 (2)||NIU 28.8 (2)|
|vs. WIU (W)||NU 45.6 (4)||WIU 23.8 (1)|
|@ PSU (W)||NU 44.6 (5)||PSU 24.0 (1)|
|vs. Wis. (W)||NU 33.3 (2)||Wis. 26.8 (2)|
|@ Minn. (L)||NU 21.8 (0)||Minn. 29.1 (0)|
|vs. Neb. (L)||NU 19.2 (0)||Neb. 41.9 (3)|
|@ Iowa (L)||NU 30.8 (1)||Iowa 37.8 (3)|
|vs. Mich. (L)||NU 28.3 (3)||Mich. 41.1 (4)|
Field position proves to be a much trickier proposition. The one that is clear is that the Wildcats often have horrible starting field position and they are more likely than not giving up better field position than they should. Opponents are starting on average past the 25-yard line. Meanwhile, the Cats are are starting well inside their 30 except for the three wins.
What these numbers seem to suggest though is the Wildcats special teams have given up a shorter field in losses than in wins.
We already know Northwestern just does not return punts and the team does not have a great kick returner. Neglecting this aspect of the game has put more pressure on the defense to create turnovers for field position or on the offense to go a long, long way. And the way this offense has performed throughout the season, that is a big ask.
The field position battle is a statement of NU’s struggles with special teams this year. In NU’s best games, Chris Gradone was able to pin teams deep (look at that Wisconsin game!). And that gave the defense the ability to make one mistake or have some breathing room to make plays. There is clearly very little margin for error. And even a good drive from the offense can end without points because they start so deep.
And that leads to the last stat to track this year. Big plays.
For the purposes of this post, we are going to call big plays any play of 20 yards or more. The Wildcats have had precious few plays over 30 yards and no big scampering runs to put on the highlights, so we know this is an area they struggle.
|Game||NU Big Plays||Opponent Big Plays|
|vs. Cal (L)||2||2|
|vs. NIU (L)||4||4|
|vs. WIU (W)||3||4|
|@ PSU (W)||6||2|
|vs. Wis. (W)||2||4|
|@ Minn. (L)||1||5|
|vs. Neb. (L)||2||5|
|@ Iowa (L)||3||7|
|vs. Mich. (L)||0||1|
In Big Ten play, you can see how much Northwestern has struggled to generate those momentum-changing plays that can flip the field pretty quickly. The kind of plays that get teams excited and turn the tables. You can also see how awful and offensively challenged that game against Michigan really was.
Except for the Penn State game, Northwestern just has not generated offense. And it has not generated offense in a stark way. It is somewhat shocking to see how much the Cats have struggled.
In fairness, Northwestern found its most success against Michigan when it focused more on throws that took the ball out of Siemian’s hands quickly instead of needing to protect him long enough to throw downfield.
When we take all these numbers together what do we get?
Well, we see a pattern of a team struggling in two phases of the game specifically — offense and special teams. The field is rarely flipped and field position is lost because of these. There are not many big plays, and turnovers can be absolute killers.
The thought is that Northwestern has to win two of these categories to win. So how did they end up doing?
|vs. Cal (L)||1|
|vs. NIU (L)||0|
|vs. WIU (W)||2|
|@ PSU (W)||3|
|vs. Wis. (W)||2|
|@ Minn. (L)||0|
|vs. Neb. (L)||0|
|@ Iowa (L)||0|
|vs. Mich. (L)||0|
The evidence is pretty damning. Particularly the last four weeks. The Wildcats failed to win the turnover battle, to win field position or to create big plays. That makes winning the game tough. Particularly with the team’s offensive struggles.
The defense is good, but cannot do everything by itself. Northwestern is struggling in all three phases of the game this year. And, since that last win, it seems to have gotten worse.
These are battles that have to be won for Northwestern to succeed this year. The correlation is too hard to ignore right now. When the Wildcats dominate field position, they have found success. That takes a defense getting opponents off the field quickly, special teams executing on punts and punt returns and the offense flipping the field at a bare minimum.
These are all related and that is why they have been categories to watch all season and for the rest of the season.