2012 Northwestern Football Preview: Sample Sizes And Slipping D

CHESTNUT HILL, MA - SEPTEMBER 03: Kain Colter #2 of the Northwestern Wildcats scrambes as Max Holloway #56 of the Boston College Eagles pressures on September 3, 2011 at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.The Northwestern Wildcats defeated the Boston College Eagles 24-17. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Pat Fitzgerald keeps winning close games and producing bowl bids at Northwestern -- the Wildcats have reached the postseason for for consecutive years for the first time ever. But cracks on defense (and disappointing performances versus lesser teams) have held his team back in recent years. Can that turn around in 2012 with an inexperienced defense and a tough schedule? Related: Northwestern's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Wildcats football, visit Northwestern blog Sippin' On Purple, plus Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire and SB Nation Chicago.

It's time to check in. A year ago, I raved about how Northwestern continued to thrive in close games and pull out winning records despite consistently mediocre (at best) statistics.

Quite simply, Northwestern just keeps figuring out how to win close games. And it's driving the stats crazy. Under Fitzgerald, Northwestern has gone 21-9 in games decided by eight points or less. Take bowl games -- which Northwestern is obviously never, ever, ever going to win again (last bowl win: January 1, 1949) -- out of the equation, and they're 21-6. 21-6! That's like a hitter posting a .425 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) one year, then hitting .450 the next. [...]

It's not supposed to happen that way. One of the mores in most sports is that things like close games and turnovers balance out after a while. But this isn't the case with a Northwestern team whose record under Fitzgerald would be something around 28-35 if they were to win close games at a normal, closer-to-50% rate.

So how good a coach is Pat Fitzgerald? Northwestern's on-field performance and recruiting levels aren't really any better now than they were in his first couple of years on the job, and that is certainly on him (though it is obviously a more difficult part of the job at a school like Northwestern) ... but as a pure game coach, there might not be a better one in the country. It takes both recruiting success and coaching acumen to win big, and there's nothing suggesting Northwestern will ever win bigger than they have so far under Fitzgerald ... but that might be okay for Northwestern fans. The last time Northwestern finished with three consecutive winning seasons was when they went 5-4, 6-3 and 5-4 under Ara Parseghian from 1958-60. Winning consistently at Northwestern is a feat, no matter how you're winning. Now if Fitzgerald could just do something about the Wildcats' crazy bowl losing streak...

In a somewhat backhanded way, this was clearly intended as a compliment toward the job Pat Fitzgerald is doing in Evanston, a place to which you are probably never going to sign a Top 10-15 recruiting class. (Then again, Stanford and Vanderbilt are beginning to shed the can't-recruit-to-a-smart-kids-school meme…) But in the following days, Northwestern fans showed skepticism regarding the positive part of what I said.

while its certainly possible that Fitzgerald’s coaching is the reason for that strong record, I think it’s a phenomenon more likely caused by good luck. A 30 game sample size isn’t very large; I haven’t run the numbers but assuming a 50% chance of winning every game decided by 8 points or less, it doesn’t seem that outrageous for a coach to go 21-9 instead of the expected 15-15. in fact if you ran 120 such simulations to account for every FBS team (assuming a 50% chance of winning every close game), you’d surely get a few teams well over .500 and a few well under .500.

Mathematically speaking, this is dead-on accurate, of course. Though I try not to, I am at times just as guilty as everybody else of reaching broad conclusions based on small sample sizes in college football, simply because the alternative isn't any fun, and because when discussing game results, it takes decades to reach any sort of statistically significant conclusion; that, also, isn't any fun.

Rodger Sherman, kindly editor of SB Nation's Sippin' On Purple, responded as well.

Connelly is certainly right in that after a certain point, it's likely that years and years of close, fluky victories - whether they be via absurd amounts of fumbles or simply just being close games - has to have some reasoning behind it. But his selection of Fitzgerald came off as strange. When Fitz received a ten-year extension last week, we as a community praised him. But we didn't praise his in-game coaching skill. We praised his dedication to the school, his energy, his role as the face of NU football and the recruiting success that could come along with it. We didn't talk about his clutch late-game decisions or his smart gameplanning. In fact, we almost viewed those as mitigating factors: in fact, this site is not unfamiliar with criticism of Fitz's conservative playcalling in many late-game scenarios, with the only standout being the praised "Heater" call at the end of the Outback Bowl. In short, while we're seemingly discontented with all the non-game aspects of Fitz, NU keeps inexplicably cutting it super close on the field. Perhaps year after year we just keep on bringing in players who are naturally predisposed to close game situations, but that's not even a sentence that makes sense.

As the discussion continued, the thought seemed to emerge that a lot of Northwestern's close wins came against lesser teams who shouldn't have been close in the first place, and there is certainly evidence to back that up: Northwestern 23, Vanderbilt (who went 2-10 that year) 21 in 2010. Northwestern 30, Central Michigan (3-9) 25 in 2010. Northwestern 27, Eastern Michigan (0-12) 24 in 2009. Northwestern 24, Duke (4-8) 20 in 2008. Et cetera.

This discussion was a partial impetus of the Covariance measure I discussed last year. While quality is quality (and Northwestern has been pretty mediocre in the "quality" department for a while, ranking 74th, 82nd, 47th, 65th, 73rd and 59th in F/+ rankings during Fitzgerald's six-year tenure), do some teams tend to play better against better competition (and worse against worse)? Is part of the explanation for Northwestern's close-game record the simple effect of them playing poorly against poor teams?

Actually, yeah. In four of the last five years, Northwestern has ranked 79th or lower in Covariance (if you play better against better teams, your ranking is lower, if that makes sense). In 2009, when they tried really hard to lose to 0-12 Eastern Michigan, 1-11 Miami (Ohio), 3-9 Illinois, and 4-8 Indiana and did lose to 4-8 Syracuse (and still went 8-5 with wins over 11-2 Iowa and 10-3 Wisconsin), the Wildcats ranked 117th of 120 teams. In 2011, they ranked 119th. Fitzgerald seems to subscribe to the "save something for the big boys" theory of coaching, and while that has created for a higher number of close games than Northwestern fans would prefer, the Wildcats do still win most of them. They went 2-2 in one-possession games in 2011 -- they lost to 3-9 Army in the process but also beat 9-4 Nebraska -- and went to their fourth consecutive bowl game for the first time ever. But after two straight years of ranking worse than 90th in Def. F/+, Fitzgerald probably needs to do some shoring up in 2012 if he wants to continue that streak, close games or no.


Related: Check out Northwestern's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's more of what I said about Northwestern last year:

Thanks to defensive regression, the Wildcats have slid backwards a bit since their nine-win season in 2008. The offense should be as efficient as ever in 2011, but without any added big-play threats, the ceiling is only so high. The defense did not benefit from [quarterback Dan] Persa's absence and Watkins' turnovers, but they weren't very good before Persa's injury either, and they will be severely limited if they cannot figure out how to get pressure on the quarterback.

The 2011 Wildcats are experienced and, in theory at least, healthy. Those hater statistics probably don't see too high a ceiling here, but we just have to assume that they'll once again put together enough close wins to still be playing in late-December or (because they're in the Big Ten) January 1.

Northwestern basically played three seasons in 2012.

First Three Games: Opponents 30.9 Adj. Points per game, Northwestern 27.5 (minus-3.4)
Next Six Games: Northwestern 33.2 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 31.8 (plus-1.4)
Last Four Games: Opponents 28.2 Adj. Points per game, Northwestern 27.9 (minus-0.3)

A defense that was dreadful through two months finally began to figure things out late, and an offense that shouldered the weight of the team for two months lost a little steam. The Wildcats failed to hold any of their first five Big Ten opponents under 5.9 yards per play, and they failed to average better than 5.0 yards per play in any of their final three games. But for the year as a whole, the defense was clearly the problem. Will that change in 2012?

Offense

I recently spoke of Purdue's unique offensive situation: they have three returning starters at quarterback. As rare as that may be, top this: Northwestern's leading returning passer, rusher and receiver are the same person. Junior Kain Colter is one of the most unique talents in college football, and he will ply his odd trade for another couple of seasons in Evanston. Colter attempted 126 rushes and 82 passes and was targeted by 60 passes, making him last year's No. 2 passer, No. 1 rusher and No. 2 receiving target. He lined up everywhere on the field except left guard, I think, and it will be fascinating to see how Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Mike McCall use him now that starting quarterback Dan Persa and leading receiver Jeremy Ebert are gone.

Spring gave the impression that, barring unforeseen changes, Colter's receiver days might be done. He will enter the fall as the presumptive starting quarterback. That makes sense. Colter matched Persa's average of 6.6 yards per pass attempt (including sacks) and completed 67 percent of his passes in 2011. He is much further along as a rusher (5.8 yards per non-sack carry), but his arm is not a total liability. He was sacked far too much in 2011 -- 9.9 percent of his pass attempts -- but considering Northwestern's two other quarterbacks didn't fare much better (Persa was sacked 9.5 percent of the time, sophomore Trevor Siemian 7.1 percent), that probably had as much to do with the line as with Colter. The line was one of the better run-blocking units in the Big Ten (they ranked 28th in Adj. Line Yards), but pass protection was an issue no matter who was behind center. The line is in an interesting place in 2012: four linemen with starting experience return (a healthy 73 career starts), including two-year starters Brian Mulroe (left guard) and Patrick Ward (right tackle), but the line must still replace a pair of four-year starters (tackle Al Netter, guard Ben Burkett), and that is almost always a tricky proposition. Still, as many as four seniors could end up starting up front, so experience cannot really be considered a liability.

The pass protection will need to improve a bit because if Colter is a full-time quarterback, that means the Wildcats are tasked with replacing their top two receivers (Ebert and Colter) and an explosive tight end (Drake Dunsmore). The three combined to average 9.2 yards per target in 2011; the top five returning receivers combined to average just 7.7. Senior Demetrius Fields is now the de facto leader at receiver, while junior Rashad Lawrence and sophomore Christian Jones are interesting options. Of course, the prospects for the receiving corps change if former five-star USC signee Kyle Prater is declared eligible. He should find out in July whether his hardship request (he transferred back to Northwestern to care for a local family member) is granted by the NCAA. The junior did not see many targets at USC, but five-star recruits are a rarity for Northwestern, and he would boost the upside (perceived, at least) dramatically.

Whether Prater is eligible or not, the Wildcats should have a lovely, efficient running game. Not only is Colter dangerous, but the running back position is intriguing with sophomore Treyvon Green, junior Mike Trumpy, incoming freshman Malin Jones and others. Green was far from explosive as a freshman, but he held his own; Trumpy, meanwhile, has quite a bit of upside but is coming off of an October ACL injury. Return specialist Venric Mark was explosive in limited opportunities and could be used in interesting ways (he's listed as a receiver on the roster and a running back on the depth chart).

Northwestern's offense has been routinely efficient, and it was again in 2011, ranking 15th in Success Rate+. But the Wildcats had intriguing big-play ability last year thanks to Ebert and Dunsmore, both of whom are now gone. With Colter, Green, Fields, etc., Northwestern will certainly be efficient again; but big plays are perhaps the most effective way to avoid close games versus bad teams. Will Prater, or anybody else, keep the explosiveness potential high?

Defense

In 2010, Northwestern's defense prevented big plays reasonably well but played terribly inefficiently, ranking 105th in Success Rate+. In 2011, it got worse. The Wildcats remained inefficient (105th in Success Rate+ yet again) but began to spring leaks on the back end of the defense as well, falling to 106th in PPP+ (big-play prevention). The line held up reasonably well against run-blocking, but the linebackers appeared nonexistent, unable to prevent big gains on the ground and unable to reach the quarterback against the pass. And now, the closest thing to a strength (defensive tackle) has been hit by graduation.

A while back, Pat Fitzgerald decided that it was easier to recruit good linebackers than defensive linemen, and that he would recruit with a 3-4 in mind. For a while, Northwestern fans have been anticipating a move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 for that reason. This spring, however, the Wildcats continued to operate out of a 4-3. Among other things, that shows faith in the depth he and his staff are building up front. The loss of tackles Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli (combined: 9.0 tackles for loss, four sacks) could hurt unless senior Brian Arnfelt and youngsters like junior Will Hampton and sophomores Chance Carter and Sean McEvilly step up. Those four players combined for just 17.0 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss last year; their potential is mostly unknown.

The good news, however, is that the defensive end position is quite a bit more exciting than last year despite the loss of leading line tackler Vince Browne. Sophomore Tyler Scott held his own, Quentin Williams led the ends with 5.5 tackles for loss, sophomore Davon Custis was a high-three-star recruit, and a pair of redshirt freshmen (Max Chapman and Deonte Gibson) could break into the rotation.

For better or worse, there is experience at linebacker. Senior David Nwabuisi (8.5 tackles for loss, three passes broken up, two forced fumbles) is perhaps the best pure playmaker on the defense, but the excitement dulls out fate that. Three-star sophomores Chi Chi Ariguzo and Colin Ellis could still improve a decent amount, and incoming freshman Ifeadi Odenigbo is both the rare four-star signee for Northwestern and a high school track star; his ceiling is enormous, but you never want to find yourself saying "[Random unit] could improve because of [incoming freshman]." Don't rely on first-year guys if you don't have to.

Front seven improvement is key for two reasons: a) as a whole, the front seven wasn't great last year, and b) the secondary is terribly inexperienced and could need some help with a good pass rush. There is hope that athleticism can make up for youth, but the two leading returning defensive backs are both sophomores: safety Ibraheim Campbell (3.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, four passes broken up) and cornerback Daniel Jones (10.0 tackles). After those two, only five other defensive backs made even a single tackle last year (combined: 28.0 tackles). Campbell is a keeper, but after that the unknowns are even greater than they are at tackle.

Defining Success

Judging by how they tend to perform versus poor teams, perhaps this is a good thing: eight of Northwestern's 12 opponents are projected 51st or better in 2012. The Wildcats have an interesting home schedule -- Vanderbilt, Boston College, South Dakota, Indiana, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois -- that could produce anything between a 7-0 and 3-4 record. With a tough slate and a defense that really might not be too much better, we'll say that a fifth straight bowl would represent decent success.

Prognosis

It was not the intent to post about Northwestern on the sixth anniversary of Randy Walker's passing, but that's how it worked out.

Walker was an offensive visionary and, by all accounts, an incredibly likable man; after Walker's tragic death, Pat Fitzgerald was asked to take over earlier than anticipated (he was just 31 at the time), and thanks to some combination of close wins and solid coaching, he has certainly kept the program afloat. But "staying afloat" with six to eight wins can only remain a goal for so long before Glen Mason Territory takes over and fans get awfully impatient. Fitzgerald signed some intriguing freshman defenders in the 2012 recruiting class, and his offense remains entertaining and effective. But at some point, the defense will need to bounce back if Fitzgerald wants to take a sustained step forward from the 50th or 60th percentile, where most of his teams have resided.

For more on Wildcats football, visit Northwestern blog Sippin’ On Purple, plus Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire and SB Nation Chicago.

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