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1. Memorable isn't always good
It's been a strange year or so in Evanston.
First, a program that has tended to fade into the background, winning either six or seven games six times in the nine seasons between 2003-11, went out and won 10 games (for just the second time since 1903) in 2012, capping the season with a Gator Bowl romp over an SEC team -- yes, it was Mississippi State, but it still counts -- and a spot in the postseason AP top 20. As a result, in 2013 Northwestern was ranked in the preseason polls for the first time in 12 years.
Then, the team went out and cut its wins in half, starting 2013 with a 4-0 record and reaching as high as 16th in the polls before losing seven games in a row, including four straight by eight or fewer points.
Finally, the program became one of the offseason's primary conversation topics when its departing quarterback spearheaded an effort to form a player union, with courts supporting the attempt and head coach Pat Fitzgerald very much turning up his nose at it.
Northwestern built a lot of positive buzz in 2012, spent most of it in 2013, and has made unique news (good and/or bad) off the field in 2014. Speculating on how the union battle might affect the on-field product seems pretty much impossible -- there's really no precedent for this -- so we won't. But there have certainly been more unique occurrences than normal for which the coaching staff has had to account in recent months.
Combined with last season's frustration, that could create a pretty volatile situation in Evanston this fall. Volatility can work in either direction, however -- rallying cry vs. team divider. We'll see what it means for the Wildcats, who now have much more to prove than they did a year ago.
2. Regression to the mean is harsh
During my first couple of years of writing these offseason previews, I became fixated on Northwestern's gaudy record in close games. From 2007-10, the Wildcats went a ridiculous 20-8 in games decided by one possession. That's not supposed to happen. It was fascinating trying to figure out the root cause of this. Were they letting inferior teams hang around too long before finally asserting themselves? Had Fitzgerald and his staff figured out ways to maximize the Little Things™ and close out tight games?
Was Northwestern lucky as hell? Was this all a sample-size issue that would work itself out over time?
The 2013 season certainly struck a blow for those latter two options. From October 5 to November 16, the Wildcats lost games in the following ways:
- They led Ohio State, 23-20, heading into the fourth quarter of one of the biggest home games in school history -- "College GameDay" in town, nearly 50,000 in attendance -- but gave up 20 points in the final 12 minutes and fell by 10 after the Buckeyes returned a desperation fumble for a score at the buzzer.
- They allowed just 299 yards to Minnesota and forced punts on seven of the Gophers' first nine possessions, but they lost two second-half turnovers (including a pick six) and managed to fall, 20-17.
- After allowing 102 yards and a touchdown in Iowa's first two possessions, they allowed just 203 yards the rest of the way, but they lost two more fumbles and fell in overtime, 17-10.
- Despite another pick six, they took a 24-21 lead over Nebraska with just 80 seconds left in Lincoln. Then this happened.
- In a game that featured 14 punts (eight from Northwestern) and saw the Wildcats stall and settle for field goals in their only three good drives of the game, they held a 9-6 lead in the closing seconds against Michigan before the Wolverines pulled off the quickest offense-to-field goal team transition in the history of football to force overtime. And in the third overtime, they fell, 27-19.
A finished drive here, a fumble recovery there, and a knocked-down Hail Mary, and this team finishes 8-4. Instead, Northwestern missed a bowl for the first time since 2007. Close-game luck boosted some shaky Northwestern teams and got them to bowls earlier in Fitzgerald's tenure; it did the opposite in 2013.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 5-7 | Adj. Record: 5-7 | Final F/+ Rk: 59|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|31-Aug||at California||103||44-30||W||24.6 - 30.8||L|
|7-Sep||Syracuse||75||48-27||W||45.1 - 36.4||W|
|14-Sep||Western Michigan||117||38-17||W||34.1 - 25.1||W|
|21-Sep||Maine||N/A||35-21||W||24.8 - 33.4||L|
|5-Oct||Ohio State||9||30-40||L||39.4 - 24.3||W||3.6|
|12-Oct||at Wisconsin||19||6-35||L||21.6 - 29.3||L||3.3|
|19-Oct||Minnesota||55||17-20||L||21.1 - 22.9||L||1.2|
|26-Oct||at Iowa||29||10-17||L||35.3 - 27.5||W||0.9|
|2-Nov||at Nebraska||39||24-27||L||27.4 - 25.2||W||3.1|
|16-Nov||Michigan||37||19-27||L||20.2 - 24.3||L||-0.7|
|23-Nov||Michigan State||6||6-30||L||33.5 - 37.9||L||-0.1|
|30-Nov||at Illinois||71||37-34||W||24.0 - 31.9||L||-1.3|
|Points Per Game||26.2||83||27.1||69|
|Adj. Points Per Game||29.3||58||29.1||76|
3. The offense gave out first
Bad fumbles luck and pick sixes played a significant role in Northwestern's 2013 misfortune. But so did bad offense.
In the first five games of the year, despite injury struggles for star running back Venric Mark, the Wildcats established a pretty high level of play, averaging 6.4 yards per play and 39.0 points per game against mostly mediocre-to-poor defenses. But over the six losses that followed, NU only once averaged even 5.0 yards per play (exactly 5.0 against Iowa), scored more than 20 points just once, and scored 10 or fewer points in regulation four times.
Things completely fell apart for the Northwestern offense, and in the final two games of the year, the defense gave out as well.
- Adj. Points Per Game (first 5 games): Northwestern 33.6, Opponent 30.0 (plus-3.6)
- Adj. Points Per Game (next 5 games): Opponent 25.8, Northwestern 25.1 (minus-0.7)
- Adj. Points Per Game (last 2 games): Opponent 34.9, Northwestern 28.8 (minus-6.1)
(Luckily, one of those two final games was against Illinois, so the Wildcats still managed to finish on a winning note.)
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||45.9%||33||Succ. Rt. +||112.0||25|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||30.6||85||Def. FP+||98.4||76|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.9||96||Redzone S&P+||103.0||48|
|Q1 Rk||57||1st Down Rk||42|
|Q2 Rk||17||2nd Down Rk||60|
|Q3 Rk||89||3rd Down Rk||40|
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Trevor Siemian||6'3, 210||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||177||296||2143||11||9||59.8%||19||6.0%||6.5|
|Zack Oliver||6'4, 235||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Matt Alviti||6'0, 185||RSFr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Clayton Thorson||6'4, 200||Fr.||4 stars (5.9)|
|Treyvon Green||RB||5'10, 215||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||138||736||8||5.3||5.5||38.4%|
|Stephen Buckley||RB||6'0, 180||So.||2 stars (5.4)||50||265||1||5.3||4.8||42.0%|
|Venric Mark||RB||5'8, 175||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||31||97||0||3.1||3.0||29.0%|
|Trevor Siemian||QB||6'3, 210||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||29||144||0||5.0||2.0||51.7%|
|Warren Long||RB||6'0, 180||So.||3 stars (5.6)||11||39||0||3.5||2.5||36.4%|
|Dan Vitale||SB||6'2, 225||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||4||27||0||6.8||6.4||50.0%|
|Justin Jackson||RB||5'11, 180||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Auston Anderson||RB||5'9, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.7)|
4. Another year, another quest for play-makers
Despite itself, Northwestern's offense was balanced and relatively efficient in 2013. The Wildcats ranked 16th in Passing Success Rate+ and 43rd in Rushing Success Rate+, and as long as they stayed on schedule, good things tended to happen.
But with almost no big-play threat whatsoever, Northwestern had to pull off eight or 10 snaps of error-free football to avoid falling behind schedule; that tended to be too difficult.
Trevor Siemian split snaps with Kain Colter over each of the last two seasons and was asked to take most of the snaps in obvious passing situations. That did his stat line no favors, but assuming he's allowed to take all of the first-string snaps this year (as in, blue-chip redshirt freshman Matt Alviti doesn't take his job or at least force him to split it), he'll be given some easier throws and opportunities.
Still, Northwestern needs big plays. The Wildcats had only 18 gains of 30+ yards last year, 107th in the country, and while running back Treyvon Green showed some jets here and there, the receiving corps just didn't have much to offer. Eight Wildcats caught at least nine passes last year; only one of them averaged more than 12.4 yards per catch (Rashad Lawrence), and three averaged 7.1 or fewer.
A quick, short passing game is fine and can often be rather efficient, but you still need players who can break a tackle and burst upfield occasionally.
That last year's top three targets return is a good thing, especially considering both Tony Jones and Christian Jones caught more than two-thirds of their targets. Can someone like former blue-chipper Kyle Prather (nagged by injuries for much of his career) or four-star Rutgers transfer Miles Shuler stretch the field a bit?
5. Old Venric
But at least Northwestern gets Venric Mark back. The senior from Tomball, Texas, erupted for 1,371 rushing yards with 6.5 highlight yards per opportunity and 12 touchdowns in 2012 and averaged an other-worldly 18.7 yards per punt return with two more scores. Granted, he's not much of a weapon in the passing game, but he was a constant big-play threat for the Wildcats in 2012.
In 2013, Mark played in just three games while battling an ankle injury. Green and Stephen Buckley got experience and showed potential of their own in Mark's absence, but if Mark is full-strength this fall, chances are good that offensive coordinator Mick McCall will figure out how to use him and the other backs. McCall's proven willing to experiment to get play-makers on the field -- case in point: Colter ending up as the Wildcats' leading rusher, passer, and receiver heading into 2012 -- and having three worthy running backs is a pretty good problem to have.
(Mark's presence could also reinvigorate a special teams unit that fell from fourth to 72nd overall last year.)
|Tony Jones||WR-X||6'0, 195||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||80||55||616||68.8%||22.3%||66.2%||7.7||-29||7.1||87.6|
|Christian Jones||WR-H||6'3, 225||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||77||54||668||70.1%||21.4%||58.3%||8.7||41||8.8||95.0|
|Dan Vitale||SUPER||6'2, 225||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||57||34||382||59.6%||15.9%||50.9%||6.7||-46||6.9||54.3|
|Cameron Dickerson||WR-Z||6'3, 200||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||17||11||125||64.7%||4.7%||64.3%||7.4||-8||9.0||17.8|
|Kyle Prater||WR-X||6'5, 225||Sr.||5 stars (6.1)||14||9||59||64.3%||3.9%||54.5%||4.2||-50||4.9||8.4|
|Treyvon Green||RB||5'10, 215||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||14||10||71||71.4%||3.9%||53.8%||5.1||-44||5.4||10.1|
|Venric Mark||RB||5'8, 175||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||7||5||62||71.4%||1.9%||71.4%||8.9||4||7.4||8.8|
|Stephen Buckley||RB||6'0, 180||So.||2 stars (5.4)||6||5||51||83.3%||1.7%||25.0%||8.5||-3||11.5||7.3|
|Mark Szott||SUPER||6'4, 240||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Mike McHugh||WR-Y||6'3, 185||So.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Andrew Scanlan||WR-H||6'2, 200||So.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Jayme Taylor||SUPER||6'4, 225||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Miles Shuler (Rutgers)||WR||5'10, 175||Jr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Garrett Dickerson||SUPER||6'3, 235||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)|
|Brandon Vitabile||C||6'3, 300||Sr.||3 stars (5.7)||38|
|Jack Konopka||LT||6'5, 300||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||25|
|Paul Jorgensen||RT||6'6, 295||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||12|
|Geoff Mogus||LG||6'5, 295||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||11|
|Ian Park||RG||6'4, 295||So.||3 stars (5.5)||8|
|Matt Frazier||RG||6'4, 290||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||4|
|Adam DePietro||LG||6'5, 285||So.||3 stars (5.6)||1|
|Shane Mertz||RT||6'8, 305||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0|
|Hayden Baker||C||6'2, 290||Sr.||NR||0|
|Eric Olson||LT||6'6, 290||So.||3 stars (5.6)||0|
|Sam Coverdale||OL||6'6, 265||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Brad North||OL||6'2, 280||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Tommy Doles||OL||6'6, 270||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Blake Hance||OL||6'5, 265||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
6. A dynamite line
This doesn't really help in terms of big plays in the passing game, but Northwestern should have one of the nation's better run-blocking fronts in 2014. The Wildcats ranked 23rd in Adj. Line Yards last fall despite the lack of a field stretcher, and the entire two-deep returns intact. That's three senior starters and seven players with starting experience (99 career starts).
Their pass protection numbers were awful, but a lot of that had to do with Colter managing to get sacked 16 times in 98 pass attempts, a Braxton Millerian sack rate. Siemian still got sacked six percent of the time, but his presence alone will make the sack rates drop. So could an efficient run game and lots of play-action opportunities.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||44.6%||93||Succ. Rt. +||94.2||80|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||29.9||70||Off. FP+||98.5||77|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.9||34||Redzone S&P+||106.9||37|
|Q1 Rk||41||1st Down Rk||65|
|Q2 Rk||74||2nd Down Rk||104|
|Q3 Rk||70||3rd Down Rk||35|
7. A little too much bending
Go back to the series of painful losses listed above. In multiple games, I used a phrase like "Despite allowing _ yards..." Perhaps the most frustrating part of the 2013 experience is that the defense performed well a majority of the time. Northwestern's No. 42 ranking in Def. F/+ was its best in the F/+ era (unit rankings go back to 2007), but both offense and special teams fell apart.
There's still room for improvement on the defensive side of the ball, however. While Northwestern ranked a strong 22nd in IsoPPP+ (big-play prevention), the efficiency numbers (80th in Success Rate+) were a little too far on the bend-don't-break side. The pass defense was mediocre, and if the pass rush didn't get to the quarterback on passing downs, opposing quarterbacks were able to make plays downfield.
The overall level of experience on this defense is pretty exciting and makes further improvement a possibility, but the cornerback position probably needs to make a few more plays on the ball.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Dean Lowry||DE||6'6, 265||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||11||27.5||3.8%||7.0||4.5||2||3||2||0|
|Chance Carter||DT||6'3, 295||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||12||26.0||3.6%||5.0||2.0||0||5||0||0|
|Deonte Gibson||DE||6'3, 260||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||12||16.5||2.3%||7.0||3.0||0||2||0||0|
|Ifeadi Odenigbo||DE||6'3, 235||So.||4 stars (5.9)||12||8.0||1.1%||6.5||5.5||0||1||0||0|
|Max Chapman||DE||6'3, 230||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||12||7.5||1.0%||1.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Greg Kuhar||DT||6'3, 300||So.||4 stars (5.8)||6||6.5||0.9%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Sean McEvilly||DT||6'5, 290||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||5||6.5||0.9%||2.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|C.J. Robbins||DT||6'5, 285||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||12||2.0||0.3%||0.5||0.5||0||1||0||0|
|Tyler Lancaster||DE||6'3, 250||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Ben Oxley||DL||6'6, 260||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
8. Stability in the middle?
The defensive end position was well-stocked in 2013, with Tyler Scott, Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson, and former star recruit Ifeadi Odenigbo combining for 30.5 tackles for loss and 19 sacks. This allowed Northwestern to forego an overt amount of blitzing but still get a decent rush on the quarterback, and with three of the four ends returning in 2014, there's no reason to think this won't be the case again. Odenigbo needs to figure out how to contribute more than just sacks -- he had 5.5 sacks and just 8.0 overall tackles -- but his potential is obvious.
Defensive tackle depth was an issue, however. Greg Kuhar, another former four-star recruit, didn't earn playing time until the second half of the season, and Sean McEvilly battled injuries all year. That left basically two guys -- Chance Carter and Will Hampton -- to take most of the snaps. It's not surprising, then, that the fourth quarter was Northwestern's worst defensive quarter.
Hampton's gone, but if Kuhar and McEvilly can stay both healthy and dialed in, the defensive line should improve on last year's numbers overall.
Despite the loss of leading tackler Damien Proby, the linebacking corps is stocked with experience and play-making potential; Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis combined for 11.5 tackles for loss, seven interceptions, and eight break-ups last year, and junior Drew Smith tossed in 4.5 TFLs in reserve duty. If the tackles can keep blockers off of them (and not wear down late in games), they'll make plays.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Chi Chi Ariguzo||WILL||6'3, 235||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||12||84.0||11.7%||6.0||2.0||4||2||1||1|
|Collin Ellis||MIKE||6'2, 230||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||12||58.0||8.1%||5.5||0.5||3||6||0||0|
|Jimmy Hall||SAM||6'2, 205||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||11||27.5||3.8%||0.0||0.0||1||2||0||0|
|Drew Smith||SAM||6'1, 215||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||12||24.5||3.4%||4.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Jaylen Prater||MIKE||6'0, 235||So.||2 stars (5.4)||3||3.5||0.5%||0.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Joseph Jones||WILL||6'1, 210||So.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Anthony Walker||LB||6'1, 200||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Traveon Henry||S||6'1, 200||Jr.||3 stars (5.7)||12||65.0||9.1%||4||0||1||1||0||0|
|Ibraheim Campbell||S||5'11, 205||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||12||57.5||8.0%||2.5||1||4||5||0||0|
|Nick VanHoose||CB||6'0, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||49.5||6.9%||5||0||0||8||1||0|
|Matthew Harris||CB||5'11, 180||So.||3 stars (5.6)||12||29.0||4.1%||0||0||0||5||0||0|
|Dwight White||CB||5'10, 185||So.||3 stars (5.5)||12||20.5||2.9%||1||0||1||1||0||0|
|Jarrell Williams||CB||5'11, 190||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||6||3.5||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Daniel Jones||CB||5'11, 175||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||1||2.5||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Terrance Brown||S||6'1, 200||So.||3 stars (5.6)||4||2.0||0.3%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Keith Watkins II||CB||5'11, 180||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Godwin Igwebuike||S||6'0, 190||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Kyle Queiro||S||6'3, 190||RSFr.||3 stars (5.7)|
|Marcus McShepard||CB||5'11, 185||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Parrker Westphal||CB||6'1, 185||Fr.||4 stars (5.8)|
9. Potential and competition
Northwestern basically played five defensive backs in 2013. A sixth, corner Daniel Jones, was lost for the season with a knee injury in Week 1. That left a sophomore (Nick VanHoose) and two freshmen (Matthew Harris, Dwight White) to man the islands on the outside, and the result was predictable. The defense as a whole was solid and prevented big plays pretty well, but if there was a breakdown, it came in pass defense.
With Jones back and theoretically healthy this fall, that gives Northwestern a solid two-deep of options. VanHoose is a pretty exciting player (five TFLs, eight break-ups), and Harris and White are certainly decent, but depth at corner improves.
What about safety? Traveon Henry was a nice weapon in run support, and Ibraheim Campbell is one of the best ball-hawks in the Big Ten (2012-13: six interceptions, 17 break-ups), but the third-leading safety made only 5.5 tackles last year. Depth is a must if Northwestern is going to avoid springing leaks in the fourth quaarter, and recent impressive recruiting could help here. Two high-three-star redshirt freshmen enter the mix, as do two high-three-star corners and a four-star freshman.
|Chris Gradone||6'2, 190||Jr.||11||37.8||1||3||5||72.7%|
|Matthew Harris||KR||5'11, 180||So.||21||23.0||0|
|Stephen Buckley||KR||6'0, 180||So.||6||18.5||0|
|Tony Jones||PR||6'0, 195||Sr.||9||7.1||0|
|Special Teams F/+||72|
|Field Goal Efficiency||19|
|Punt Return Efficiency||66|
|Kick Return Efficiency||74|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||71|
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|27-Sep||at Penn State||37|
|15-Nov||at Notre Dame||25|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||2.3% (52)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||59|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||3 / 5.5|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||18 (10, 8)|
10. The inevitable bounce back
It's almost too predictable to call Northwestern a favorite for a breakout in 2014, isn't it? And besides, wouldn't it be more of a breakback?
The Wildcats appear to be deeper on defense, which should guard against late-game issues, and they return virtually everybody from last year's offense, plus Venric Mark. If you think this makes them seven points per game better in 2014, then just look at what seven points could have done for last year's team. (Hint: it would have made them between about 7-5 and 9-3.)
Of course, seven points is a lot of improvement, and as with so many Big Ten teams, Northwestern's 2014 schedule features a glut of teams in the No. 25-50 range. They should start and finish well, winning the first three and last two games on the docket, but the middle seven games feature five teams projected between 25th and 40th, three on the road.
A return to a bowl game is quite likely, but to threaten 10 wins again, as they did in 2012 and were supposed to do in 2013, they'll need to get back that old close-game form (or luck). They'll need to prove that last year's breakdowns have forged better leadership and wisdom, and they'll need to prove that the union drama in recent months has done nothing to affect chemistry.
I like this team quite a bit, but it's hard to buy in entirely, isn't it?