The three stats that matter, and are not for losers

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.

Nick VanHoose has had his ups and downs this season. Photo by Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Nick VanHoose has had his ups and downs this season. Photo by Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Tony-Jones-tight-ISO-on-YAC-vs-SDWe 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?

Opponent Categories Won
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.

  • PurpleHayes

    I’m a big believer in stats, properly applied. (I’m an actuary, how can I help myself?) Sometimes the numbers merely confirm and validate your understanding; other times they deepen it, or even open your eyes. In this case, great research and presentation PRR, though I believe it mainly confirms what we careful observers already knew intuitively. What strikes me is not the trend, but the harsh “no-exception” aspect to your findings. Tells you our observations (and these numbers) are more than casual correlations. They are the story. A couple of exceptions to some other rules did stand out from Saturday, however: my guests at the game asked me what it takes for NU to win. I said “turnovers”, because with a few 90+ yard exceptions, our offense couldn’t move the ball consistently, so they needed a short field. On Saturday, we created the turnovers but didn’t capitalize like we did against PSU. We have been an erratic team at creating TO’s but consistently low in committing them. On Saturday we both failed to take advantage and became TO-prone ourselves. And we paid for it.

  • royko

    On field position, we’ve never won a game where we’ve averaged starting beyond 33.3, and we’ve never won a game where our opponent has averaged starting beyond 26.8. Opponent’s field position has really tanked in the last three weeks. In Michigan, the turnovers might explain that, but in Iowa/Neb, we only gave up one TO and still gave them amazing field position. Similarly, our field position tanked in Minn/Neb, but has rebounded since then (somewhat). Also, our worst stretch giving up big plays was Minn through Iowa.

    “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.”

    Yeah, but I think a successful quick passing game would start opening up both our running game and deeper passes. Defenses get tired pretty quickly, and they’ll be less willing to send extra men at the QB if they don’t think they can get to him in time.

  • nucats96

    We are overlooking the fact that the last 2 drives we had against Michigan were greatly aided by them playing soft. They rarely blitzed and only rushed 4. i.e. what we do when we have the lead. They brought heat on the last 2 point conversion and guess what happened. Drives we put together when the other team plays soft defensively are really the only drives we can hope for it seems.

    • Teddy Purplestein

      Agreed. I don’t think fixing the offense is as simple as calling the kind of plays we ran in those last two drives; Michigan wanted to run clock. Credit the offense – they were able to capitalize when they finally got the soft look they wanted and had two long drives to almost win the game.

      But for the remaining games, it’s hard to see it working. Opposing defenses will keep the DBs close and bring pressure. Protection will break down before long plays can develop and the short plays will be covered. Hopefully Siemian gets rid of the ball faster but he’ll be throwing into tight coverage.

    • bd8

      UM was getting plenty of pressure rushing 4 anyway, esp. against the NU tackles.
      What made the last 2 drives successful was that McCall finally got out of his coma and rolled out TS at times and went for the quick passes, rather than dropping him back (which is when TS would get sacked).

  • Purple Haze

    Guys. If you looking for some optimism, check out the basketball squad. They might surprise this year and the frosh are fun to watch.
    After watching the ‘cats and the Bears this weekend, I need a break from awful special teams, offenses and questionable coaching moves or coaches who refuse to accept reality.

    • NUinNY

      I think the basketball team is going to notch a few surprises this year. We’re at least a year away from the tournament, but it’s still going to be a good season.

  • Alum Dad

    Just sold my four tickets for Saturday’s game on StubHub. I originally bought them (from ND) for $290 total. I netted $291.60 from StubHub. That probably makes me one of the few to make money on NU football tickets this year!!

    Glad I don’t have to make the trip to South Bend now, especially considering the frigid weather forecast. I will be in front of the television on Saturday, hoping for the best, and expecting the worst, but at least I will be warm.

  • Bob Parkman

    In the long run (meaning adequate sample size), stats matter a lot as they reflect reality, i.e. performance.

    Still going to South Bend. I’ve never been there for a game and that’s part of the attraction…to see how real fans cheer. It’s almost Pavlovian.

    • Yosh

      ND as a football venue is way overrated. Go to the SEC if you want a real experience.

  • great post. Tough to overlook those numbers.

  • bd8

    Another telling stat – only 35% of NU 1st downs have come via the run.
    Most of the conference is at around 50% on getting 1st downs by the run, if not a good bit more so.
    Even Mich. St. – which has the top rated pocket QB in the conference has had more 1st downs via the run than pass.