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Northwestern football's breakthrough was years ago. When's the follow up?

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Was the Wildcats' surprise 2012 success just an outlier?

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1. Wildcard Wildcats?

Pat Fitzgerald has come full circle in record time. He has been everything a coach can be: overachiever and disappointment, candidate for bigger jobs and coach whose seat might be getting hotter, young coach with energy and stodgy coach with old values, close-game whiz and close-game loser.

When you've been at a job for nine years, your reputation will change, but Fitzgerald's changes have all occurred within the last three years.

In 2012, the future looked almost as bright as it ever had; the Wildcats won 10 games and finished 32nd in the F/+ rankings, one spot higher than they placed in the late Randy Walker's final season, 2005. Recruiting was picking up, and NU was combining sturdy play with spectacular special teams.

The next two seasons, Northwestern won 10 games combined. The offense disintegrated. Special teams was as bad in 2014 as it was good in 2012. The defense gave the Wildcats a shot at a bowl, but an end-of-season egg against an in-state rival prevented that.

The sudden shifts are making it difficult to figure out what might come next. In 2015, the offense must replace its quarterback, two leading receivers, and three two-year starters on the line. But these starters were part of a terribly disappointing unit. Most of the pieces of an exciting run defense return, and the secondary is loaded with experience.

At the same time, a bad offense that becomes less experienced doesn't leave you overflowing with optimism, and the defense must replace two stalwart linebackers from a unit that was well-organized.

You can spin these things however you choose, and it makes Northwestern an awfully big wildcard. Then again, NU has had almost the same F/+ rating for five of the last six years, so maybe the Wildcats aren't a wildcard at all:

2. The all-important class of 2014

According to the 247Sports Composite, Wildcats recruiting had improved incrementally for four consecutive years until sliding this past February.

At 47th, the 2014 class was the best of the bunch. And if depth chart projections are any indication, it may be the class with which the Fitzgerald era sinks or swims.

Quarterback Clayton Thorson might win the starting job this year. Justin Jackson rushed for 1,187 yards as a true freshman last fall. Solomon Vault was a special teams bright spot while pitching in 20 carries and 10 targets. Garrett Dickerson is the superback (a tight end/fullback hybrid unique to NU) of the future. Blake Hance and Tommy Doles could have a role to play on the offensive line. Defensive ends Xavier Washington and Ben Oxley could be major role players in either 2015 or 2016. Linebacker Nate Hall could be part of the 2015 rotation. Cornerback Parrker Westphal, the most highly touted defender, could start soon. Punter Hunter Niswander will have a major say in whether NU's special teams goes from liability to strength.

A single class is only going to have so much of an impact, but the yields of the 2014 crop are already starting to work their way into every unit. That isn't guaranteed to be a good thing, but it does hint at a major impact in 2016 or 2017. And if the Wildcats rebound in 2015, the class of 2014 might be why.

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 5-7 | Adj. Record: 4-8 | Final F/+ Rk: 71
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
30-Aug California 65 24-31 L 29% -13.1 19%
6-Sep Northern Illinois 69 15-23 L 46% -2.4 28%
20-Sep Western Illinois NR 24-7 W 59% 5.1 99%
27-Sep at Penn State 45 29-6 W 94% 36.0 100%
4-Oct Wisconsin 25 20-14 W 79% 18.7 72%
11-Oct at Minnesota 37 17-24 L 48% -0.9 35%
18-Oct Nebraska 30 17-38 L 15% -24.6 0%
1-Nov at Iowa 63 7-48 L 3% -43.1 0%
8-Nov Michigan 54 9-10 L 26% -14.8 11%
15-Nov at Notre Dame 34 43-40 W 41% -5.0 22%
22-Nov at Purdue 84 38-14 W 75% 15.4 97%
29-Nov Illinois 78 33-47 L 7% -33.7 1%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 21.1 111 25.0 45
Points Per Game 23.0 101 25.2 48

3. From decent to awful

The percentile chart above is a mountain range. Northwestern started slowly in tight losses to Cal and NIU but rebounded by looking fine against WIU, crushing Penn State, and upsetting Wisconsin. The offense wasn't doing serious damage (yards per play against WIU, PSU, and Wisconsin: 4.8), but the defense looked downright awesome (total points allowed in those three games: 27).

The defense would run out of steam as injuries and lack of offense took their toll. Only one of six regulars on the defensive line and two of six in the secondary played in all 12 games, starting middle linebacker Collin Ellis played only six, and key safety Ibraheim Campbell missed four games in the middle of the year.

The defense allowed at least 5.8 yards per play in five of its last eight games, and aside from an out-of-nowhere performance against Notre Dame, the offense never had much to offer.

  • Average Percentile Performance (first 6 games): 59% (record: 3-3)
  • Average Percentile Performance (last 6 games): 28% (record: 2-4)

Still, after bottoming out in an ugly loss at Iowa, it looked like the Wildcats were rallying. After fading for four consecutive games, they rallied for three straight, upsetting Notre Dame and whipping Purdue to get back to 5-6. But in a "winner goes bowling" home game against Illinois, with junior Zack Oliver starting in place of injured senior Trevor Siemian, everything fell apart.

NU's first eight possessions against the Illini: punt, three and out, three and out, interception, fumble, interception, fumble, three and out. The Wildcats trailed 26-7 at halftime (only a Solomon Vault kick return got them on the board), rallied to 33-25, then faded. The result: after five bowls in five years, they spent the holidays at home for the second straight postseason.

Northwestern played three games at a top-30 level and three like a bottom-20 team. That's ... quite a range. It's a sign of a young team, but aside from the running back position, the offense wasn't that young.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.68 128 IsoPPP+ 77.1 118
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 38.6% 100 Succ. Rt. + 94.2 91
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 32.3 112 Def. FP+ 99.0 77
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.9 96 Redzone S&P+ 97.2 72
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 23.7 ACTUAL 23 -0.7
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 107 108 94 118
RUSHING 103 91 102 89
PASSING 78 111 78 124
Standard Downs 114 103 119
Passing Downs 100 72 112
Q1 Rk 84 1st Down Rk 115
Q2 Rk 98 2nd Down Rk 119
Q3 Rk 114 3rd Down Rk 117
Q4 Rk 102

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Trevor Siemian
228 392 2214 7 11 58.2% 31 7.3% 4.6
Zack Oliver 6'4, 240 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8435 30 57 367 2 3 52.6% 2 3.4% 6.2
Matt Alviti 6'0, 200 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9114 2 4 0 0 0 50.0% 1 20.0% -1.4
Clayton Thorson 6'4, 210 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9218

4. A new start, for better or worse

Trevor Siemian was one of those "it feels like he's been here for 17 years" guys, even though he wasn't really a full-time starter until 2014. He split time with Kain Colter for three seasons, often playing in stat-unfriendly times; he was a more sure passer than the mobile Colter and was therefore asked to make plays on passing downs.

He hinted at a pretty high upside; in the 18 2012-13 games in which he threw at least 10 passes, he produced a passer rating of at least 135 six times, and in the 2013 season finale against Illinois, he went 31-for-44 for 414 yards and four scores (passer rating: 179.5).

Still, Siemian was never consistent. And with leading receiver Christian Jones missing 2014 with injury and a true freshman getting most of the carries, Siemian struggled. He only once topped a 124 passer rating and fell below 100 four times. And in a cruel twist, what was becoming his best performance of the year (7-for-12 for 93 yards against Purdue) ended when he tore his left ACL.

Siemian was around a while, and the Denver Broncos thought enough to draft him in the seventh round, but the bar he set was not to high that it cannot be cleared.

Last year's backup, Oliver, returns -- he got the ball downfield better, but he did throw three picks in the crippling loss to Illinois. By most accounts, redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson has given plenty of glimpses of his mid-four-star upside. Still, he's a redshirt freshman, and he didn't separate himself from Oliver or four-star sophomore Matt Alviti. All three seem to have a shot heading into fall camp, and while my guess is Thorson, Fitzgerald and longtime coordinator Mick McCall could still choose experience and go with Oliver.

Whoever wins will have a decent set of options. Justin Jackson held his own in 2014, carrying more than 20 times per game as a 185-pound true freshman, fumbling only once, and hinting at solid efficiency and potential explosiveness. In the last three games of 2014, he carried 70 times for 426 yards (6.1 per carry) and five touchdowns. If Auston Anderson, another 2014 signee, is able to live up to his own recruiting hype, Jackson and his supporting cast could provide sturdy options.

At receiver, last year's top two are gone, but Kyle Prater and Tony Jones combined to average only 6.1 yards per target in 2014. Christian Jones, who missed 2014 after playing well in 2013, could provide a more reliable No. 1 option, and two senior efficiency options, superback Dan Vitale and former four-star Rutgers signee Miles Shuler, should be able to provide help as No. 2 and No. 3.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Justin Jackson RB 5'11, 185 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9284 245 1187 10 4.8 4.5 35.9% 1 1
Treyvon Green RB
72 319 0 4.4 6.0 27.8% 0 0
Trevor Siemian QB
37 138 5 3.7 2.2 32.4% 4 1
Warren Long RB 6'0, 205 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8210 30 123 0 4.1 3.2 30.0% 0 0
Solomon Vault RB/WR 5'10, 190 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8394 20 81 2 4.1 2.4 40.0% 1 0
Zack Oliver QB 6'4, 240 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8435 12 31 1 2.6 1.7 33.3% 2 2
Matt Alviti QB 6'0, 200 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9114 8 8 1 1.0 N/A 0.0% 1 1
Miles Shuler WR 5'10, 180 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9258 6 24 1 4.0 5.4 33.3% 0 0
Mike Panico RB
4 4 0 1.0 0.0% 0 0
Stephen Buckley RB/WR 6'0, 190 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7910
Auston Anderson RB 5'9, 180 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8681
John Moten IV RB 6'0, 190 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8539







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Christian Jones
(2013)
WR-Y 6'3, 225 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) NR 77 54 668 70.1% 21.4% 58.3% 8.7 41 8.8 95.0
Kyle Prater WR-X
72 51 535 70.8% 16.6% 56.9% 7.4 -71 7.4 54.3
Tony Jones WR-Y
69 35 323 50.7% 15.9% 58.0% 4.7 -122 4.7 32.8
Dan Vitale SUPER 6'2, 235 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) NR 62 40 402 64.5% 14.3% 64.5% 6.5 -81 6.5 40.8
Cameron Dickerson WR-Z 6'3, 210 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8301 48 25 325 52.1% 11.1% 52.1% 6.8 9 6.8 33.0
Miles Shuler WR-X 5'10, 180 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9258 34 23 190 67.6% 7.8% 67.6% 5.6 -85 5.6 19.3
Justin Jackson RB 5'11, 185 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9284 28 22 201 78.6% 6.5% 42.9% 7.2 -56 7.2 20.4
Mike McHugh WR-Y 6'3, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8013 22 9 115 40.9% 5.1% 54.5% 5.2 -6 4.9 11.7
Austin Carr WR-Y 6'1, 195 Jr. NR NR 16 7 100 43.8% 3.7% 37.5% 6.3 8 4.4 10.1
Treyvon Green RB
16 11 78 68.8% 3.7% 62.5% 4.9 -53 4.6 7.9
Pierre Youngblood-Ary WR-Z 6'3, 185 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8131 15 7 105 46.7% 3.5% 46.7% 7.0 14 6.4 10.7
Jayme Taylor SUPER 6'4, 230 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8201 12 9 45 75.0% 2.8% 58.3% 3.8 -61 3.7 4.6
Solomon Vault WR-H 5'10, 190 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8394 10 6 31 60.0% 2.3% 50.0% 3.1 -43 2.8 3.1
Stephen Buckley WR-H 6'0, 190 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7910 8 2 23 25.0% 1.8% 87.5% 2.9 -8 1.9 2.3
Warren Long RB 6'0, 205 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8210 7 5 26 71.4% 1.6% 71.4% 3.7 -33 4.1 2.6
Garrett Dickerson SUPER 6'3, 250 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9122 6 4 44 66.7% 1.4% 66.7% 7.3 -4 6.8 4.5
Mark Szott SUPER 6'4, 260 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8364 3 2 29 66.7% 0.7% 100.0% 9.7 5 NR 2.9
Andrew Scanlan WR-X 6'2, 210 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8215

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 98.4 2.85 3.08 33.0% 65.5% 18.4% 85.8 7.2% 6.9%
Rank 83 81 87 117 81 51 89 108 55
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
Brandon Vitabile C 50
Jack Konopka RT
27
Paul Jorgensen LT
24
Geoff Mogus LT 6'5, 305 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8382 23
Matt Frazier RG 6'4, 295 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8313 16
Eric Olson RT 6'6, 285 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8488 10
Ian Park C 6'4, 290 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8479 8
Adam DePietro LG 6'5, 295 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8634 1
Hayden Baker C
0
Shane Mertz RG 6'8, 310 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8425 0
Connor Mahoney LG 6'4, 290 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8208 0
Sam Coverdale OL 6'6, 275 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8544 0
Brad North C 6'2, 280 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8510 0
Tommy Doles LT 6'6, 270 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8532
Blake Hance RT 6'5, 275 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8538
Jared Thomas OL 6'4, 260 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8615

5. Plenty of shuffling up front

If you're going to lose three multi-year starters (combined: 101 career starts), you might as well lose them from a disappointing line. The Northwestern line was decent in two important categories -- stuff rate (avoiding run stops behind the line) and passing downs protection -- but didn't get a push in short-yardage situations. And it created fewer open-field opportunities for its runners than almost any line in the country.

Of course, your runners have to take advantage, and until Justin Jackson stepped up late in the season, NU didn't have a back who seemed to do that.

If Jackson's emergence was replicable, that could give the line stats a boost. And it won't hurt the depth chart will likely include seven juniors and seniors who have combined for 58 career starts. There are no former blue-chippers, but there are enough mid-three-stars that you should expect better than rankings in the 80s (83rd in Adj. Line yards, 89th in Adj. Sack Rate).

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.84 58 IsoPPP+ 106.7 50
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 39.7% 47 Succ. Rt. + 106.0 42
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 31.5 31 Off. FP+ 103.0 30
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.7 14 Redzone S&P+ 112.0 26
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 23.2 ACTUAL 27.0 +3.8
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 54 48 48 50
RUSHING 72 47 57 40
PASSING 43 65 43 75
Standard Downs 41 49 34
Passing Downs 64 47 82
Q1 Rk 81 1st Down Rk 47
Q2 Rk 57 2nd Down Rk 41
Q3 Rk 12 3rd Down Rk 71
Q4 Rk 44

6. The run defense was more forgiving

Northwestern has only ranked in the Def. S&P+ top 50 three times in Fitzgerald's nine seasons, but after bottoming out from 2009-11 (they ranked 86th, 86th, and 95th, respectively), the Wildcats have rebounded. Despite an impressive load of injuries, the 2014 defense was the third-best of the Fitzgerald era, and a lot of the reasons return in 2015.

Ten of the 12 players with at least 2.5 tackles for loss return, as do four of the six with at least four passes defensed. Tackle Sean McEvilly was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing most of the last two seasons with injury.

The 2014 defense was good at two things: preventing big plays on the ground (40th in Rushing IsoPPP+) and preventing completions through the air (43rd in Passing Success Rate+, 32nd in completion rate allowed). Patient offenses were able to move on the ground, but Northwestern was able to make consistent stops in the red zone.

Basically, the defense was good enough to make NU disappointing in close games -- the Wildcats were 2-4 in one-possession games, but the defense was the reason those were close. Considering the shuffling and total lack of support given by the offense, this was an impressive performance by Mike Hankwitz's D. And good health could mean the best ratings yet in 2015.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 106 2.59 3.77 37.9% 75.0% 18.3% 71.5 2.7% 5.6%
Rank 39 23 109 52 104 79 108 110 97
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Dean Lowry DE 6'6, 280 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.7418 12 33.0 4.9% 8.0 4.0 0 8 1 0
Greg Kuhar DT 6'3, 310 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8590 10 21.5 3.2% 2.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Sean McEvilly (2012) DT 6'5, 300 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8250 13 16.0 2.2% 1.5 1.0 0 1 0 1
Deonte Gibson DE 6'3, 270 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8578 11 12.5 1.8% 3.0 1.0 0 0 1 0
Chance Carter DT
11 12.5 1.8% 1.0 1.0 0 1 0 0
Max Chapman DT 6'3, 265 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8243 11 12.0 1.8% 3.0 1.0 0 1 0 0
Xavier Washington DE 6'1, 235 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8015 11 11.0 1.6% 2.5 1.5 0 0 1 0
Ifeadi Odenigbo DE 6'3, 240 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9680 12 8.5 1.3% 3.0 3.0 0 0 3 0
C.J. Robbins DT 6'5, 295 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7600 11 8.5 1.3% 1.0 0.0 0 2 0 0
Connor Mahoney DT
12 7.0 1.0% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Tyler Lancaster DT 6'3, 295 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8748
Ben Oxley DE 6'6, 260 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8528
Fred Wyatt DL 6'4, 270 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8504
Jordan Thompson DE 6'3, 255 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8776
Joe Gaziano DE 6'3, 230 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8643
Trent Goens DE 6'3, 245 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8590








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Chi Chi Ariguzo WILL
12 84.5 12.4% 6.5 2.0 0 1 1 0
Jimmy Hall SAM
12 49.0 7.2% 5.5 0.0 2 2 1 0
Anthony Walker MIKE 6'1, 225 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8519 12 40.0 5.9% 9.0 1.5 2 3 1 0
Drew Smith SAM 6'1, 220 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8404 12 31.5 4.6% 4.5 1.0 0 1 0 0
Collin Ellis MLB
6 27.5 4.1% 1.0 1.0 1 2 0 0
Joseph Jones WILL 6'1, 225 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8270 6 4.5 0.7% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jaylen Prater SAM 6'0, 235 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8054 9 3.0 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Brett Walsh MIKE 6'1, 220 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8285 5 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Nate Hall WILL 6'2, 210 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8216
Cameron Queiro LB 6'1, 225 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8304
Nathan Fox LB 6'2, 235 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8585
Simba Short LB 6'2, 210 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8539
Tommy Vitale LB 6'2, 220 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8503








7. A better line protects worse linebackers?

The line returns almost everybody, and departed tackle Chance Carter is more or less replaced by Sean McEvilly. The secondary returns almost everybody and got a head start in replacing Ibraheim Campbell when he missed a third of his senior season.

But we shouldn't overlook linebacker. Stalwart Chi Chi Ariguzo is gone, as are Jimmy Hall and Collin Ellis. From a stat perspective, linebackers are the easiest players on the defense to replace, and the fact that Ellis got hurt midway through the year ended up being a bit of a blessing in disguise, as it gave Anthony Walker time to develop. He responded with an excellent stat line (nine tackles for loss, five passes defensed).

Still, stellar linebacking play likely made the line look better, and now three of last year's five LBs are gone. That might mean the line needs to improve just to offset regression. It probably will, but if we conclude the line is important for efficiency and the linebackers are important for preventing big plays, we could see more of an all-or-nothing defense.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Matthew Harris CB 5'11, 180 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8268 12 64.0 9.4% 3.5 0 2 7 2 0
Traveon Henry S 6'1, 220 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8428 10 55.5 8.2% 2.5 0 0 0 0 0
Nick VanHoose CB 6'0, 190 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8211 10 53.5 7.9% 3 0 2 10 0 0
Ibraheim Campbell S
8 46.5 6.8% 1 0 3 3 4 0
Godwin Igwebuike S 6'0, 200 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8788 11 42.5 6.3% 1 0 3 3 0 0
Kyle Queiro S 6'3, 200 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8503 12 9.5 1.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Keith Watkins II CB 5'11, 180 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8513 4 5.0 0.7% 0 0 0 0 1 0
Marcus McShepard CB 5'11, 195 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8282 7 5.0 0.7% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jarrell Williams CB
10 2.5 0.4% 1 0 0 0 0 0
Terrance Brown S 6'1, 210 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8256
Parrker Westphal CB 6'1, 190 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9379
Trae Williams DB 5'11, 195 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8345








8. Give the secondary just a little bit of a pass rush...

The front seven had its moments, but Northwestern wasn't good at pressuring the passer. Ends Dean Lowry and Ifeadi Odenigbo combined for seven sacks, and the rest combined for just 10. Yuck.

With that in mind, a No. 43 ranking in Passing Success Rate+ says great things about the NU secondary. Campbell's play was important, but corners Matt Harris and Nick VanHoose and safeties Traveon Henry and Godwin Igwebuike (combined: 10 tackles for loss, eight picks, 20 break-ups) are all back, and that says exciting things.

As younger players like Igwebuike, Parrker Westphal, Kyle Queiro, Keith Watkins, and Marcus McShepard find their sea legs, I would be surprised if the secondary's level of play dropped. And if Hankwitz can figure out how to dial up more pressure, especially from the linebackers, this could be a solid pass defense.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Chris Gradone 65 37.9 5 12 17 44.6%
Hunter Niswander 6'5, 230 So. 5 36.0 1 2 1 60.0%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Jack Mitchell 6'3, 210 Jr. 54 57.9 19 0 35.2%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Jack Mitchell 6'3, 210 Jr. 26-28 11-12 91.7% 3-6 50.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Treyvon Green KR 12 20.1 0
Solomon Vault KR 5'10, 190 So. 11 26.2 1
Tony Jones PR 3 20.7 1
Miles Shuler PR 5'10, 180 Sr. 3 14.0 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 110
Field Goal Efficiency 62
Punt Return Efficiency 32
Kick Return Efficiency 22
Punt Efficiency 124
Kickoff Efficiency 114
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 3

9. Special teams are so flaky

Special teams ratings are derived from small samples, college kickers, and the backups who make up coverage units. They are inherently flaky as hell, and Northwestern is living proof.

The Wildcats ranked fourth in special teams efficiency in 2012 and 110th in 2014, and I guess that can be spun as a positive -- it could turn back around in 2015.

Solomon Vault and Miles Shuler could make up a heck of a return duo, and Jack Mitchell appears to be a decent place-kicker. But if improvement happens, it will be because Northwestern fixed a pair of dreadful kicking/coverage units. NU ranked in the bottom 15 in both kickoff and punt efficiency. You think that might have made a bit of a difference in close games?

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk
5-Sep Stanford 11
12-Sep Eastern Illinois NR
19-Sep at Duke 54
26-Sep Ball State 100
3-Oct Minnesota 42
10-Oct at Michigan 35
17-Oct Iowa 57
24-Oct at Nebraska 30
7-Nov Penn State 37
14-Nov Purdue 74
21-Nov at Wisconsin 25
28-Nov vs. Illinois 63
Five-Year F/+ Rk 0.4% (56)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 40 / 44
2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 4 / -0.5
2014 TO Luck/Game +1.9
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (5, 8)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 4.8 (0.2)

10. Close games galore

SB Nation's Kevin Trahan, a manager for Inside NU, sees a potential rebuilding year, and if a new starting quarterback isn't able to play at a high level, that is a distinct possibility. Alternatively, with better special teams, a more stable running game, and a more athletic defense, Northwestern might be able to improve.

But Northwestern has ranked between 66th and 76th in the F/+ rankings in five of the last six seasons (perhaps the sojourn to 32nd in 2013 was the exception that proves the rule), so we have a good idea where the Wildcats are going to land.

Northwestern is one of the more consistent entities, but the close-game record has produced a large range of results. The Wildcats tend to play a lot of teams of similar talent levels (last year's schedule featured seven that ranked between 34th and 69th in F/+, and 2015 features eight projected between 35th and 74th). As I've written before, Northwestern was 20-8 in one-possession games from 2007-10; regression has been swift. The Wildcats are 8-12 in such games over the last four seasons.

Close-game fortune will likely decide NU's fate again, and that could create an interesting future. There is depth and athleticism, and NU could take a step forward in 2016 and beyond. But if they suffer another losing season, negativity and rumors could impact upside.

Fitzgerald has won enough to keep the pressure off this fall (though if NU goes 3-9 or something, that could change), but the honeymoon stemming from the awesome 2012 has ended. He seems to be building a deep squad, but he might want to get back to 6-6 to stay on-course.