Confused? Check out the glossary here.
1. The breakthrough in present tense
Graphs are useful. Twenty years from now, a progression chart like the one below will pretty clearly tell us, "See right there? That was the peak for Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern. And that year right there? That was the breakthrough." But a breakthrough is only a breakthrough until the next one, and a peak is only a peak when you stop rising.
That said, in my 2033 Northwestern preview for SBN, I could very well be describing either 2012 or 2013 as the breakthrough season for Pat Fitzgerald's Wildcats. For more than a half-decade, Northwestern oscillated between below-average (84th in the F/+ rankings in 2007, 73rd in 2010) and good (42nd in 2008), rose and fell according to good breaks and experience level, and established itself as decent in every possible way. But the Wildcats were downright good in 2012, cracking the top-30 overall (29th), playing pretty well on both sides of the ball (and dominating in special teams), and winning 10 games in a season for the first time since 1995 and the second time in more than 100 years.
With most of its noteworthy names back in 2013, Northwestern could make a run at 10 wins again this fall. And with recruits taking notice -- there are only four former four- or five-star recruits listed below, but Fitzgerald already has commitments from three in the 2014 recruiting class -- this surge could plant the seeds for sustained quality in years to come. The offense began to come together in 2011, and while the defense was still lacking in the depth department, it was above average in 2012 for the first time in three years.
Of course, with so many Big Ten teams clumped together, somebody's going to be losing a lot of close games and ruing what could have been in 2013. And commitments in July don't automatically result in signees in February. There is still a lot of work to be done here. For all we know, 2012 was the breakthrough and the peak. But we talk about ceilings and floors a lot in these previews, and after last year, we can quite possibly say that both are higher for Northwestern than they have been for a while.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 10-3 | Adj. Record: 9-4 | Final F/+ Rk: 29|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||at Syracuse||42-41||W||24.9 - 29.0||L|
|8-Sep||Vanderbilt||23-13||W||30.0 - 20.8||W|
|15-Sep||Boston College||22-13||W||28.8 - 28.3||W|
|22-Sep||South Dakota||38-7||W||28.9 - 22.4||W|
|29-Sep||Indiana||44-29||W||37.5 - 32.8||W|
|6-Oct||at Penn State||28-39||L||24.3 - 24.8||L|
|13-Oct||at Minnesota||21-13||W||27.3 - 24.8||W|
|20-Oct||Nebraska||28-29||L||14.6 - 29.0||L|
|27-Oct||Iowa||28-17||W||39.9 - 31.1||W|
|10-Nov||at Michigan||31-38||L||34.5 - 34.0||W|
|17-Nov||at Michigan State||23-20||W||34.0 - 34.0||W|
|24-Nov||Illinois||50-14||W||32.9 - 38.9||L|
|1-Jan||vs. Mississippi State||34-20||W||21.4 - 20.7||W|
|Points Per Game||31.7||42||22.5||29|
|Adj. Points Per Game||29.2||57||28.5||65|
2. Hey kids, do you like fun?
Northwestern began the season with a win over Syracuse that featured three first-half lead changes, a 22-point third-quarter lead for Northwestern, and two more lead changes in the final three minutes. The Wildcats combined for 73 points with Indiana, 67 with Penn State, and 69 with Michigan, and three games in a late-season, four-game stretch were decided by a combined 11 points.
Blown leads made a 10-win season almost seem disappointing -- NU was up 28-17 on Penn State heading into the fourth quarter, 28-16 on Nebraska with six minutes left, and 24-14 on Michigan late in the third quarter and lost all three games -- but one has to admit that, for better and for worse, Northwestern was fun to watch in 2012. And things got more wild and entertaining as the season progressed.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 8 games): Northwestern 27.0, Opponent 26.5 (plus-0.5)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 4 games): Northwestern 35.3, Opponent 34.5 (plus-0.8)
The fourth-quarter issues were real and verified by the advanced stats below. In terms of Off. and Def. S&P+, Northwestern ranked 74th and 37th, respectively, in the first quarter, 49th and 57th in the second, fourth and 95th in the third, and 91st and 92nd in the fourth. There is quite obviously still some work to be done here in terms of overall depth, but the late leads showed what the Wildcats might be capable of at some point in the near future. At least, that's what Northwestern fans think, anyway.
|Q1 Rk||74||1st Down Rk||60|
|Q2 Rk||49||2nd Down Rk||36|
|Q3 Rk||4||3rd Down Rk||38|
3. Finish your drives
This week at Football Study Hall, I posted some data related to the art of finishing drives. Sometimes in a given season, teams are good at creating opportunities but don't necessarily take full advantage of those opportunities, and sometimes a team is Northwestern.
The Wildcats advanced inside the opponent's 40 on 52 percent of their drives, an almost perfectly average 61st in the country. But they averaged 4.41 points per trip, 45th.
In terms of what we traditionally think of as the red zone (the 20), Northwestern crossed the 20 on 38 percent of their drives (68th) but averaged 5.66 points per trip (35th). In Red Zone S&P+ above, the Wildcats ranked eighth in the country. The Venric Mark-Kain Coulter run combination proved particularly effective near the end zone; each scored 12 touchdowns, and Northwestern was quite competent in taking advantage of the opportunities it created for itself.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Trevor Siemian||6'3, 210||Jr.||*** (5.6)||128||218||1,312||58.7%||6||3||5||2.2%||5.7|
|Kain Colter||6'0, 190||Sr.||*** (5.7)||101||149||872||67.8%||8||4||12||7.5%||5.0|
|Zack Oliver||6'4, 235||So.||*** (5.6)||2||2||14||100.0%||0||0||0||0.0%||7.0|
|Matt Alviti||6'0, 176||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Venric Mark||RB||5'8, 175||Sr.||*** (5.6)||226||1,371||6.1||6.5||12||+21.5|
|Kain Colter||QB||6'0, 190||Sr.||*** (5.7)||158||958||6.1||5.3||12||+18.4|
|Mike Trumpy||RB||6'1, 210||Sr.||*** (5.6)||76||349||4.6||4.2||3||-1.0|
|Treyvon Green||RB||5'10, 215||Jr.||** (5.3)||22||73||3.3||7.6||1||-2.3|
|Trevor Siemian||QB||6'3, 210||Jr.||*** (5.6)||16||78||4.9||2.5||1||+0.7|
|Tim Hanrahan||RB||6'0, 195||Jr.||NR||8||31||3.9||1.8||0||-1.0|
|Malin Jones||RB||6'0, 205||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Keith Watkins||RB||5'11, 175||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
4. One flashy backfield
Behind a solid line that featured three multi-year starters, the Northwestern running game was a strength, featuring decent efficiency with quality explosiveness. Running back (and punt returner extraordinaire) Mark and triple-threat QB Colter (he was at different points in 2011 the team's best quarterback, running back, and receiver) proved quite capable of going a long way in the open field.
Combined with a perfectly efficient passing game, the Wildcats were quite strong on standard downs, capable of staying on schedule and ahead of the chains most of the time. Both Mark and Coulter are seniors in 2013, as is veteran Mike Trumpy. A couple of relatively highly touted (i.e. high three-star) backs await their turn, but this year belongs to the seniors.
The biggest issue for the run game comes up front. The backfield may be loaded, but the line has to replace three players who combined for 97 career starts. The left side of the line (Brian Mulrow, Patrick Ward) was both experienced and effective, but now the Wildcats start over a bit behind center Brandon Vitabile. Northwestern was good in most run-blocking scenarios and fantastic in short-yardage. Struggles in this regard could produce a lot more passing downs than this offense is equipped to handle.
|Rashad Lawrence||WR-Z||6'2, 185||Sr.||*** (5.7)||55||34||321||61.8%||5.8||15.7%||70.9%||5.6||42.3|
|Christian Jones||WR-H||6'3, 225||Jr.||*** (5.7)||50||35||412||70.0%||8.2||14.3%||62.0%||8.3||54.3|
|Tony Jones||WR-X||6'0, 185||Jr.||*** (5.5)||50||29||335||58.0%||6.7||14.3%||62.0%||6.7||44.2|
|Dan Vitale||FB||6'2, 220||So.||** (5.4)||36||28||288||77.8%||8.0||10.3%||72.2%||7.5||38.0|
|Kain Colter||WR||6'0, 190||Sr.||*** (5.7)||29||16||169||55.2%||5.8||8.3%||44.8%||5.6||22.3|
|Venric Mark||RB||5'8, 175||Sr.||*** (5.6)||29||20||104||69.0%||3.6||8.3%||69.0%||3.4||13.7|
|Kyle Prater||WR-X||6'5, 215||Jr.||***** (6.1)||17||10||54||58.8%||3.2||4.9%||52.9%||3.3||7.1|
|Cameron Dickerson||WR-Z||6'3, 200||So.||*** (5.5)||15||9||54||60.0%||3.6||4.3%||60.0%||3.6||7.1|
|Mike Trumpy||RB||6'1, 210||Sr.||*** (5.6)||12||8||56||66.7%||4.7||3.4%||75.0%||4.8||7.4|
|Pierre Youngblood-Ary||WR-Y||6'3, 185||So.||*** (5.5)||1||1||1||100.0%||1.0||0.3%||100.0%||0.6||0.1|
|Mike McHugh||WR-X||6'3, 185||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
5. One decidedly unflashy receiving corps
Yeah, we'll say "unflashy" is a word now. There was efficiency in the Northwestern passing game; Colter completed 68 percent of his passes, and Northwestern ranked a healthy 24th in Passing Success Rate+. But there was absolutely no explosiveness to be found, no hope of turning a seven-yard pass into a 50-yard touchdown. Northwestern receivers combined to average just 9.9 yards per catch last year, one of the worst averages you'll find. Only one of the top eight wideouts managed better than even a paltry 6.8 yards per target.
Completions are important, and Northwestern returns quite a few targets who produced catch rates of 65 percent or better, but without big plays, offenses quite often bog down. That Northwestern still scored quite a few points was encouraging, especially considering the awkward one-quarterback-for-standard-downs (Colter), one-for-obvious-passing-situations (Trevor Siemian) arrangement.
If there is big-play hope here, it probably comes from Christian Jones; in the final four games of the regular season, he caught 10 passes for 177 yards. Yes, he also caught five for just 39 yards in the bowl game, and yes, he averaged just 9.8 yards per catch in the first seven games of the season, but we're looking for hope here, not proof.
|Brian Mulrow||LG||40 career starts|
|Patrick Ward||LT||39 career starts|
|Brandon Vitabile||C||6'3, 300||Jr.||*** (5.7)||26 career starts|
|Neal Deiters||RG||18 career starts|
|Jack Konopka||LT||6'5, 285||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13 career starts|
|Chuck Porcelli||RT||2 career starts|
|Paul Jorgensen||RT||6'6, 295||Jr.||*** (5.6)|
|Hayden Baker||LG||6'2, 280||Jr.||NR|
|Matt Frazier||RG||6'4, 290||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Shane Mertz||LT||6'8, 295||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Geoff Mogus||LG||6'5, 280||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Adam Depietro||RG||6'5, 270||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Eric Olson||RT||6'6, 285||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Ian Park||C||6'4, 295||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Q1 Rk||37||1st Down Rk||36|
|Q2 Rk||57||2nd Down Rk||116|
|Q3 Rk||95||3rd Down Rk||69|
6. Opponents knew they could pass
Well, opponents not named Mississippi State, anyway.
After two years in the desert -- 101st in Def. F/+ in 2010, 90th in 2011 -- Northwestern's defense discovered competence once again in 2012. That's a good thing. The Wildcats improved to 46th in Def. F/+, one of the biggest leaps in the country.
So as we talk about this unit's weaknesses, use that as a backdrop; it could have been a lot worse, and it was rather recently. But it could still be a lot better. Northwestern was average against both the run and pass and struggled mightily to close drives. The Wildcats coulld leverage you into passing downs pretty well, but they were terribly inefficient on such downs, and if you got into the red zone, you were probably scoring.
And then there were the aforementioned depth issues. The starting ends combined for 65.5 tackles; the backups logged 20.5. The starting tackles combined for 35.5 tackles; the backups combined for 15.5. And while the starting linebackers combined for 246.0 tackles (!), the backups combined for 22.0 (!!).
Passing-downs struggles are particularly demoralizing to thin defenses. You think you're just about off the field, and then you have to start all over again. But while the standard downs defense was solid, NU just couldn't do much to get opponents off the field. Opponents knew they could pass on the Wildcats when they needed to, and they did just that, throwing 74 percent of the time on passing downs (almost eight percent more than the national average) with few repercussions.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Tyler Scott||DE||6'4, 265||Sr.||** (5.4)||13||34.5||4.7%||12.5||9||0||5||3||0|
|Sean McEvilly||DT||6'5, 275||Jr.||*** (5.5)||13||16.0||2.2%||1.5||1||0||1||0||1|
|Dean Lowry||DE||6'6, 230||So.||*** (5.7)||13||11.5||1.6%||3||1||0||1||0||1|
|Chance Carter||DT||6'3, 270||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||10.0||1.4%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Deonte Gibson||DE||6'3, 240||So.||*** (5.6)||12||8.0||1.1%||2.5||2||0||0||0||0|
|Will Hampton||DT||6'3, 285||Sr.||*** (5.5)||13||5.5||0.8%||2||0||0||1||0||0|
|Max Chapman||DE||6'3, 230||So.||*** (5.6)||11||1.0||0.1%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ifeadi Odenigbo||DE||6'3, 220||RSFr.||**** (5.9)|
|Greg Kuhar||DT||6'3, 275||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Tyler Lancaster||DT||6'3, 250||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Damien Proby||MIKE||6'0, 235||Sr.||*** (5.7)||13||93.0||12.7%||4.5||0.5||0||3||0||0|
|Chi Chi Ariguzo||WILL||6'3, 220||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||73.5||10.0%||10.5||3||2||5||0||4|
|Drew Smith||SAM||6'1, 205||So.||*** (5.5)||13||14.0||1.9%||3||2||0||1||0||0|
|Collin Ellis||SAM||6'2, 225||Jr.||*** (5.5)||11||7.0||1.0%||1||1||0||0||0||0|
|Timmy Vernon||MIKE||6'3, 225||Sr.||NR||13||1.0||0.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jaylen Prater||WILL||6'0, 215||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
7. Find a blitz
Ends Tyler Scott and Quentin Williams combined for 13.5 sacks, many of which came on standard downs. These are solid totals, but the pass rush disappeared on second- and third-and-long. Linebackers combined for just 7.5 sacks, and while the best blitzer (Chi Chi Ariguzo) is back and new potential starter Drew Smith (still a second-stringer as of mid-April) made a promising two sacks in minimal playing time, it's safe to say that improvement is still needed here.
Really, the biggest improvement in terms of passing downs pass rush might come from up front. Two stars of the 2012 recruiting class enter the rotation after redshirt seasons, and one of them is Ifeadi Odenigbo, who at 220 pounds probably isn't big enough to be an every-down presence but could certainly contribute as a pass rush specialist.
If the Wildcats can figure out how to harass quarterbacks a bit more effectively, the line's strengths -- slicing into the backfield against the run -- could be more pronounced. Active tackle Brian Arnfelt is gone, but Will Hampton and Sean McEvilly each have potential, and the linebacking corps does still return Ariguzo and Damien Proby.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Ibraheim Campbell||S||5'11, 205||Jr.||*** (5.6)||13||74.0||10.1%||0.5||0||2||12||2||0|
|Daniel Jones||CB||5'11, 170||Jr.||** (5.4)||11||31.0||4.2%||0||0||0||4||0||0|
|Nick VanHoose||CB||6'0, 185||So.||** (5.4)||10||29.5||4.0%||0.5||0||3||7||0||3|
|Traveon Henry||S||6'1, 200||So.||*** (5.7)||10||19.0||2.6%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|C.J. Bryant||CB||5'11, 175||Jr.||*** (5.5)||10||10.0||1.4%||0||0||0||0||1||1|
|Davion Fleming||S||5'10, 200||Sr.||*** (5.5)||12||10.0||1.4%||0.5||0||0||0||1||0|
|Jarrell Williams||CB||5'11, 190||So.||*** (5.6)||9||5.0||0.7%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Jimmy Hall||S||6'2, 205||Jr.||*** (5.6)||9||4.5||0.6%||0.5||0||0||1||0||0|
|Mike Eshun||CB||5'8, 170||Jr.||NR||5||2.0||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Dwight White||CB||5'10, 178||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Godwin Igwebuike||DB||6'0, 190||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
|Kyle Quiero||DB||6'3, 190||Fr.||*** (5.7)|
8. The names are back
There are certainly question marks here. We don't know if the pass rush will improve, and in losing safety Jared Carpenter and corners Quinn Evans and Demetrius Dugar, Northwestern finds its defensive backfield depleted a decent amount.
But the names return. (I'm not talking about the quality of the actual names themselves, of course, but it's difficult to beat Chi Chi Ariguzo, Ibraheim Campbell, Nick VanHoose, and Ifeadi Odenigbo in that regard.) Ariguzo was one of the Big Ten's better play-makers, Ibraheim Campbell was perhaps the player most directly responsible for Northwestern's solid big-play prevention (the problem in the passing game was preventing the steady eight-yard gains, not 80-yard gains), and Tyler Scott really is a solid pass rusher from the end position. The star power is solid here; we just don't know if the depth is any better, and that's a problem.
|Brandon Williams||6'2, 185||Sr.||64||39.9||2||18||21||60.9%|
|Jeff Budzien||5'11, 165||Sr.||1||45||0||0.0%|
|Jeff Budzien||5'11, 165||Sr.||50-50||13-13||100.0%||6-7||85.7%|
|Venric Mark||KR||5'8, 175||Sr.||21||19.8||0|
|Tony Jones||KR||6'0, 185||Jr.||7||23.9||0|
|Tim Hanrahan||KR||6'0, 195||Jr.||2||11.0||0|
|Venric Mark||PR||5'8, 175||Sr.||15||18.7||2|
|Special Teams F/+||4|
|Field Goal Pct||2|
|Kick Returns Avg||75|
|Punt Returns Avg||4|
9. One fine special teams unit
Kickoffs really weren't Northwestern's thing; the Wildcats weren't very good in kick coverage, and their primary kick returner (Venric Mark) didn't average even 20 yards per kick return. But this unit still ranked fourth in Special Teams F/+ thanks to solid hang-time from punter Brandon Williams, tremendous place-kicking from Jeff Budzien (perfect from inside 40 yards, almost perfect from outside), and ridiculous punt returning from Mark.
All three of those players return. As with the rest of this Northwestern team, the strengths of this unit could be as strong or stronger, and the weaknesses might be just as weak.
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||51|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||54|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||+14 / +15.5|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||13 (7, 6)|
10. A top-25 team could go 10-2
Northwestern's 2013 team should look quite a bit like its 2012 team, one that, despite its weaknesses, finished in the F/+ top 30 and was a handful of plays away from 12-0. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 projections are conservative here -- that's what happens when your five-year averages and recent recruiting are both average and not great -- but it's certainly easy to see the Wildcats producing a level similar to that of last season.
What I don't know for sure is how much better they could be. And that's obviously because of the "strengths are stronger, weaknesses might be weaker" aspect. Northwestern couldn't close out drives on defense, and there's no indication that this will simply improve just because. The Wildcats had no big-play threats in the passing game, and there's no reason to think that's changed. Pat Fitzgerald did an incredible job of making sure his squad achieved near its capabilities, but I'm not sure the capabilities are much stronger in 2013.
But I can say this: If Northwestern can improve to just top-20 or top-25 level, there are a lot more wins to be found this fall. Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State all visit Evanston, and while trips to Wisconsin and Nebraska await (and it should be noted that the season opener against Cal's new Air Raid in Berkeley could be quite difficult for a team with a minimal pass rush and thin secondary), this schedule has certainly taken shape rather favorably. A top-20 team could go 10-2; but a top-40 team could go 6-6. Which one is Northwestern?
Make no mistake, though: whether top-20 or top-40, Northwestern should be damn fun to watch again.