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Northwestern is closer than you think to a Big Ten West title run

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With just a couple of answers, this can be Pat Fitzgerald’s best team yet.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Coaching college football is playing chess with pieces that don’t cooperate. You come up with your plan of attack, and sometimes the knight moves in the wrong direction. You could have the best plan in the world, but its execution still relies on 18- to 22-year-old males.

Building a program is the same thing, only at a macro level. You address one weakness, and two more form. Fix those, and another cracks open. Very few coaches get all the pieces pointed in the right direction at the same time, and when they do, it’s brief.

Pat Fitzgerald’s slow build at Northwestern has been impressive by any measure. The former Wildcat linebacker took over as head coach earlier than anybody intended; he was a 31-year-old linebackers coach when head man Randy Walker passed away of a heart attack. He was given patience (he was 10-14 in his first two seasons), and both he and the school have been rewarded.

Over the last nine seasons, Fitzgerald has taken the Wildcats to seven bowls. They had been to only six in their existence before he took over. They had won only one pre-Fitz; he’s won two. The win total peaked at 10 in 2012, and they reached 10 again in 2015.

Fitzgerald’s performance has been almost more impressive considering he really hasn’t had an “everything pointed in the right direction” season. The Wildcats came close in 2012 — the only time they’ve ranked in the top 50 in both Off. S&P+ and Def. S&P+ — but as one unit has gotten better or worse, another has fallen. 2015 featured Fitzgerald’s best defense (fourth in Def. S&P+) and worst offense (111th).

In 2016, the offense improved by nearly nine adjusted points per game and ranked 63rd; the defense fell by 9.4 adjusted points per game to 32nd; the Wildcats started 1-3 but won six of nine to finish up. They graded out almost equal to 2015.

And now they return nearly everybody.

I’m not going to say this is the “everything pointed in the right direction” year — we rarely realize it ahead of time. But it’s not hard to imagine it. Northwestern returns:

  • A two-year starting quarterback in Clayton Thorson, who threw for 3,182 yards last year and raised his passer rating from a dreadful 95.9 to a mediocre 125.9.
  • Jackson, who has three 1,000-yard seasons and rushed for 397 yards in his last two games. (Backup John Moten IV had two 100-yard rushing games in November.)
  • Three of last year’s top four receiving targets (including Jackson), plus Oregon graduate transfer and former blue-chipper Jalen Brown.
  • Five offensive linemen with five combined seasons of starting experience, plus Georgia Tech transfer Trey Klock, who has started games.
  • Six of last year’s top eight defensive linemen, including ends Xavier Washington and Joe Gaziano, who combined for 14 tackles for loss and nine sacks.
  • Run-stuffing junior linebacker Nate Hall, who was second on the team with six non-sack tackle for loss.
  • Each of last year’s top seven defensive backs — including safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro and corners Montre Hartage and Trae Williams (combined from the foursome: 10.5 tackles for loss, 10 interceptions, 29 breakups) — plus key 2015 cornerback Keith Watkins II, injured last season.

The front seven does have some to replace, special teams has been varying degrees of disastrous, and in raw talent, the Wildcats aren’t exactly tops in the Big Ten.

Still, this might be the best cocktail of experience and upside Fitzgerald has had. And while Northwestern has to travel to Wisconsin and Nebraska, the Wildcats get Minnesota and Iowa at home and miss Ohio State and Michigan in intra-division play. If ever there were a year to make a run, this might be it.

That’s really the only thing Fitzgerald has missed to date. He has brought a level of steady success that not even program savior Gary Barnett could boast. He’s gotten new athletic facilities built right on the side of Lake Michigan. He has solidified Northwestern’s gains and assured the program’s downside is far greater than it used to be.

But we don’t know about its upside yet. It’s possible 2017 is the year we find out.


2016 in review

2016 Northwestern statistical profile.

We know what to expect from year to year: The Wildcats are going to play sturdy defense, make stops in the red zone, keep tempo tamped down, and try to out-execute in close-game situations.

When they get a few bounces, this works great. But the formula requires you to get some good bounces, because you’re not blowing anybody out. Case in point: In 2015 and 2016, they went 5-2 in games decided by more than one possession. They had basically the same S&P+ ranking, too. But in 2015, they went 5-0 in one-possession games, and in 2016 they went 2-3.

That was virtually the entire difference in the season. Well, that, and the fact that they did not hit the ground running last fall.

  • First 4 games (1-3): Average percentile performance: 53% (40% offense, 62% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.5, NU 5.0 (minus-0.5) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-6.4 PPG
  • Last 9 games (6-3): Average percentile performance: 66% (60% offense, 55% defense) | Avg. yards per play: NU 5.4, Opp 5.3 (plus-0.1) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-8.8 PPG

The offense was never amazing, but the Wildcats were able to play ball control as the season wore on.

  • Snaps per game (first 4): Opp 78.5, NU 69.5 (minus-9.0)
  • Snaps per game (last 9): NU 78.4, Opp 73.3 (plus-5.1)

Northwestern was downright pacey at times, snapping 86 times against Michigan State, 88 times against Indiana, 83 times against Purdue, and 86 times against Pitt.

They won all four of those games, by the way. If they were able to play keepaway and keep the chains moving, the defense was good enough to take it from there. It was too late to salvage early losses to Western Michigan (22-21) and Illinois State (9-7), but Northwestern was legitimately dangerous for the home stretch (29-12 loss to Minnesota aside).


Offense

Northwestern offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

It was a chicken-and-egg situation — what came first, the run success or the pass success? Everything ascended in lockstep.

  • First four games: Jackson 4.1 yards per carry, Thorson 53 percent completion rate and 117.1 passer rating
  • Next five games: Jackson 4.8 yards per carry, Thorson 59 percent completion rate and 127.4 passer rating.
  • Last four games: Jackson 6.3 yards per carry, Thorson 64 percent completion rate and 132.6 passer rating.

Opponents stacked the box against Jackson, and once Thorson was able to take advantage of the numbers his receivers were (not) facing, the attack began to click.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Northwestern
Clayton Thorson
Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern finished as a pass-to-set-up-the-run team. The Wildcats ran just 51 percent of the time on standard downs, 110th in the country, and while this is a bit extreme, it worked.

Will it work without Austin Carr? Carr was one of the nation’s more underrated receivers, catching 90 balls and combining a possession receiver’s efficiency (60 percent success rate) with explosiveness (13.9 yards per catch).

Thorson basically threw to eight players last year, and while only two are gone (Carr and Andrew Scanlan), they were the only two with success rates over 50 percent. Checkdowns to Jackson didn’t go anywhere, and while No. 2 receiver Flynn Nagel had reasonable efficiency (49 percent success rate), he averaged just 11.2 yards per catch.

Can someone like senior Macan Wilson crack the top of the defense like Carr did? Even with last year’s 50-50 run-pass rates, opponents will know to gang up on Jackson and Moten until Thorson makes them pay.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh
Justin Jackson
William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

Jackson doesn’t need a ton of help. After all, Thorson’s passer rating only topped 150 twice all year (against Michigan State and Purdue). All he has to do is complete 60-something percent of his passes and make defenses pay for putting one too many guys in the box. Jackson will take it from there. The former four-star is only 256 rushing yards behind Damien Anderson for the NU career record, and there’s a chance he gets that by Week 2.

Moten could keep Jackson’s workload down, too. The sophomore from St. Louis carried only four times in the first four games, then 20 times in the next five. But he rushed 16 times for 119 yards against Purdue, then went 14 for 128 against Illinois. That was mostly in mop-up time, but his proficiency was impressive. He could provide an efficiency component that would complement Jackson’s all-or-nothing tendencies.

Defense

Northwestern defensive radar

I briefly spoke with Northwestern defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz for a piece on fade routes in this year’s national Athlon preview magazine. He gave me basically the quote I was hoping he would: “Field goals aren’t going to beat you very often. ... That’s a big-time win if you hold them to a field goal. Offenses are going to get down into the scoring area [in today’s college football], but we know we need to win the red zone.”

Northwestern lives that philosophy. The Wildcats ranked 52nd in success rate allowed last year and gave up 6.7 yards per play on first down, 105th. But they gave opponents just 3.6 points per scoring opportunity (first downs inside the 40), eighth in the country. The average FBS offense scored about 28 per game in 2016; it took seven or eight scoring chances to get to 28 against the Wildcats.

Red zone execution prevented opponents from taking too much advantage of Northwestern’s defensive regression.

  • Overall Def. S&P+: fifth in 2015, 32nd in 2016
  • Rushing S&P+: 22nd in 2015, 37th in 2016
  • Passing S&P+: ninth in 2015, 49th in 2016
  • Standard Downs S&P+: 21st in 2015, 70th in 2016
  • Passing Downs S&P+: 10th in 2015, 16th in 2016

Northwestern remained about the same against the run and continued to dominate on passing downs. But the Wildcats regressed a decent amount against the pass, and opponents figured that out, throwing 43 percent of the time on standard downs, more than the national average.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh
Xavier Washington (56) and Joe Gaziano (97)
William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

I’m curious what happens this time; the pass defense will almost definitely improve, but the front loses enough attacking pieces to make you wonder if the run defense falls out of the top 50.

Once in passing downs, Northwestern should be as dangerous as ever. Washington and Gaziano should attack the passer well, even without pass rush specialist Ifeadi Odenigbo (10 sacks in 2016). Plus, senior safeties Igwebuike and Queiro know what they’re doing, and the return of Watkins means Northwestern has three returning starters at cornerback. Hell, sophomore Alonzo Mayo can play starter minutes when healthy, too; throw in Marcus McShepard (one of the few DBs to see the field in all 13 games), and that might make six starter-caliber guys.

But standard downs were the issue last year, and can a shoring up of the secondary offset other losses? Odenigbo and C.J. Robbins are gone, but the biggest loss might be Anthony Walker Jr. In three seasons, Walker racked up 39.5 tackles for loss, and only 6.5 were sacks.

Walker was a dynamo in run defense, and he’s now an Indianapolis Colt. Plus, depth took a hit with the losses of Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones. Hall’s return (plus that of senior Brett Walsh) gives NU proven entities at linebacker, but a youngster like sophomore Nathan Fox or redshirt freshman Paddy Fisher is going to have to come through.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Northwestern
Montre Hartage
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Oy. Even with Solomon Vault scoring three return touchdowns, Northwestern’s special teams unit has been a net loss. The Wildcats ranked 127th in Special Teams S&P+ in 2015 and improved to 109th last fall; thanks to Vault, they ranked 29th in kick return success rate in 2016, but they were 80th or below in every other category. And now Vault’s lost for the season with a knee injury.

No pressure, Charlie Kuhbander. The freshman was one of the few three-star kickers in the country per the 247Sports Composite, and if he’s reliable, Northwestern might yet reach a double-digit ranking. That would still leave punt coverage (94th in punt success rate) and punt returns (105th in PR success rate) as issues, but it would check the biggest problem off.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Nevada 117 22.0 90%
9-Sep at Duke 65 1.7 54%
16-Sep Bowling Green 95 17.5 84%
30-Sep at Wisconsin 11 -14.5 20%
7-Oct Penn State 8 -12.3 24%
13-Oct at Maryland 72 5.5 63%
21-Oct Iowa 48 4.7 61%
27-Oct Michigan State 44 4.0 59%
4-Nov at Nebraska 42 -1.5 47%
11-Nov Purdue 87 15.7 82%
18-Nov Minnesota 47 4.7 61%
25-Nov at Illinois 85 10.0 72%
Projected S&P+ Rk 37
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 62 / 29
Projected wins 7.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 3.2 (52)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 48 / 48
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 9 / 2.1
2016 TO Luck/Game +2.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 72% (67%, 77%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 6.6 (0.4)

In Randy Walker’s final season, Northwestern ranked 31st in S&P+. Despite the steadiness, and despite the two 10-win seasons, the Wildcats actually have yet to crack the top 40 under Fitzgerald.

That should change this fall. The Wildcats are projected 37th in S&P+ thanks to returning production, and in my mind they are two pieces from a top-30 team: a No. 1 receiver and a middle linebacker. If NU finds replacements for Carr and Walker Jr., this will be Fitzgerald’s best team.

Now, that’s a mighty “if.” Carr was good, and Walker was great.

As it stands, No. 37 would give the Wildcats a role in the Big Ten West race. They are projected to play in six one-possession games, with four likely wins and two likely losses. Go 4-2 in those six, and you’ve had a lovely season. But if NU is more top-30 than top-40, a West title is within reach.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.