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How the hell did Northwestern just win the Big Ten West?

On paper, this is Pat Fitzgerald’s worst Northwestern team in seven years. It’s also his first division champion.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Some facts:

  • Northwestern went 0-3 in a non-conference schedule that featured home games against Duke and Akron.
  • The Wildcats are also one of only two Big Ten teams to allow Rutgers to stay within 14 points. In fact, they stayed within three. Northwestern almost lost to Rutgers.
  • They have been out-gained by nearly one yard per play and by more than 200 yards for the season.
  • They rank 104th in offensive success rate — the most predictive statistical building block for a season’s success — and 109th in overall Off. S&P+. Only one Fitzgerald offense has graded out worse. And a mostly solid defense still ranks a passive 105th in completion rate allowed and 123rd in sack rate.
  • They were projected 37th in S&P+ but rank a disappointing 77th. On paper, this is Pat Fitzgerald’s worst team since the 2011 team that went 6-7.

One more fact:

  • On Saturday night in Iowa City, the Wildcats clinched the Big Ten West title with two weeks to spare.

What the hell? How does this happen? How does one of Fitzgerald’s most surprisingly ineffective teams (again, on paper) win a division with room to spare and produce the above moment, maybe the most genuine and awesome of the season to date?

1. Lots and lots of help

We’ll get to the compliments, Northwestern fans, I swear. But let’s acknowledge the obvious right out of the gates: Northwestern got a lot of help here in terms of the injuries, bounces, and momentary incompetence suffered by its rivals.

  • Wisconsin couldn’t pass road tests. At 17th, the Badgers are still easily the highest-ranked team in the division per S&P+. But they drew Michigan and Penn State on the road in cross-division play, which we knew would tamp down their margin for error if a particular division rival got hot. The Badgers lost those games by a combined 60-23 and fell at Northwestern as well, thanks in part to a key injury.
  • Alex Hornibrook got hurt. To be sure, Hornibrook isn’t Tua Tagovailoa. But he was a key piece in the Badgers’ 13-1 run in 2017, and they are 6-2 with him in the lineup and 0-2 without him. Backup Jack Coan has averaged a horrifying 3.6 yards per pass attempt (including sacks) in two starts; the first of those two starts was a division-race-defining 31-17 loss at Northwestern.
  • Iowa couldn’t close close games. Three weeks ago, it looked like Iowa was in prime position to take advantage of Hornibrook’s injury and take the West. They were 6-1 and up to 21st in S&P+. And then they lost to Penn State by six, to Purdue by two, and, on Saturday, to Northwestern by four. Northwestern has won three conference games by four or fewer points; Iowa has three such games. To say the least, that can define a division race.
  • Purdue suffered the worst road hangovers you’ll ever see. After its own stretch of bad game-closing led to an 0-3 start (which included a loss to Northwestern), the Boilermakers got hot, winning four games in a row and crushing Ohio State to not only rise to 26th in S&P+ but also insert themselves in the division race. But they followed the Ohio State win with a 10-point loss at Michigan State. And after the win over Iowa kept them alive, they laid the biggest egg of the Big Ten season, not only losing at bipolar Minnesota, but losing by 31. If nothing else, Northwestern has proven the value of steadiness. While rivals careened from bumper to bumper, the Wildcats have moved forward slowly and steadily.
  • Nebraska thought the season started in mid-October. You could make the case that Scott Frost’s Cornhuskers are the best team in the West at this exact moment in time. Over their last five games, they have dominated Northwestern statistically (we’ll come back to this one), thumped Minnesota, Bethune-Cookman, and Illinois, and nearly won at Ohio State. Of course, they also began the season 0-6 and 0-4 in conference play. Funny how that will render you a bystander in the division race.
  • Minnesota has been maybe the most schizophrenic team in the country. The Gophers crushed Purdue this week and beat an excellent Fresno State early in the year. They also got destroyed at Maryland, Nebraska, and Illinois. S&P+ is designed to be as steady as possible in its evaluation of a given team, but the Gophers have moved either up or down by 10 spots in the S&P+ rankings seven times this season. That will likely render you a division bystander as well.

2. The most timely of offensive bursts

It would take quite a while to describe all the ways in which the Northwestern offense has stunk this year. Triple-digit rankings litter the Wildcats’ stat profile — 117th in marginal efficiency, 126th in marginal explosiveness, 105th in points per scoring opportunity, et cetera.

This is obviously an almost impossible recipe to duplicate, but Northwestern has basically saved every good offensive play it has been allotted for key moments in conference games.

  • Northwestern began the season with 64- and 65-yard touchdown drives against Purdue. The Wildcats drove 59 and 55 yards later in the half, too, before punting on five of six possessions and getting shut out in the second half. But thanks to solid defense and a key late Purdue penalty, the initial burst was enough for a four-point win.
  • They trailed Nebraska 28-14 at home early in the fourth quarter and still trailed by 10 with less than three minutes to go. But they kicked a field goal to cut the deficit to 31-24, then ripped off an infeasible 99-yard drive in under two minutes to score the game-tying touchdown with 12 seconds left. They won in OT.
  • They managed only a 37 percent success rate against Rutgers (horrible for a game against a defense ranked in the triple digits in Def. S&P+) and produced no big plays to speak of while punting seven times. They trailed midway through the fourth quarter against the worst power-conference team in the country. But again with the game on the line and facing an embarrassing upset, they drove 63 yards for the game-winning score.
  • Against Wisconsin, nearly half of NU’s yards came on two TD drives — one of 75 yards and one of 70 — which, along with Hornibrook’s absence, set the table for a key 31-17 win.
  • Saturday’s win over Iowa was the most Northwestern game yet. The Wildcats punted on every first-half possession, then turned the ball over twice in the first three drives of the second half. They had nothing whatsoever going for them offensively ... except for a perfect 80-yard drive in the third quarter, and a 46-yard, short-field scoring drive that was capped by Bennett Skowronek’s amazing, diving catch above.

Rutgers aside, this is the worst offense in the Big Ten. But in the exact moments it needed to be amazing, it was amazing. That’s hard to replicate from season to season, but it’s made 2018 feel even more miraculous.

3. Great run defense

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Rutgers
Joe Gaziano
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Now let’s issue some compliments! While Northwestern’s pass defense is indeed lacking (56th in Passing S&P+ and propped up only by big-play prevention), the run defense has been outstanding. The Wildcats are 20th in Rushing S&P+ and 14th in rushing marginal efficiency allowed, and let’s face it: if there’s one thing you might want to be good at in the Big Ten West, it’s defending the run.

  • Michigan State’s La’Darius Jefferson and Connor Heyward rushed 11 times for 27 yards in a 29-19 Wildcat win.
  • Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor rushed 11 times for 46 yards.
  • Iowa running backs combined to rush 16 times for 50 yards.

NU has been vulnerable to big plays here and there, but they stop you at or behind the line on 21 percent of your carries (35th in FBS in stuff rate) and allow four or more yards only 42 percent of the time (18th in opportunity rate). Eight different Wildcats have recorded at least 4.5 run stuffs, led by end Joe Gaziano’s 12.5, and sophomore linebackers Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher have been, well, Northwestern linebackers. The defense filters the ball to them, and they make the tackle.

Northwestern still has to face run-happy Illinois, and we’ll see how the defense handles that. But hey, doesn’t matter — the Wildcats have already clinched the division either way.

4. Great passing downs defense, too

Stop the run, leverage opponents into passing downs, then force a punt. There are worse defensive recipes than that. Northwestern hasn’t been great at defending the pass this year, but most of that’s on standard downs. Once opponents are behind schedule, the drive ends.

NU is 16th in Passing Downs S&P+. Despite a pass rush that is both lacking and singular (Gaziano has five sacks, and no one else has more than two), opposing quarterbacks are not finding open men on second- or third-and-long. It was key to beating Purdue (3.8 yards per passing downs pass attempt), Michigan State (4.7), Rutgers (2.8), and Wisconsin (3.9), and it’s where senior cornerback Montre Hartage (14 passes defensed) shines.

NCAA Football: Akron at Northwestern
Montre Hartage
Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re able to stay on schedule, you can score a good number of points on Northwestern. Nebraska did, after all, and so did Notre Dame and, damningly, Akron. But this defense reins you in most of the time, and if the Wildcats’ offense does anything, NU will be in position to win games in the fourth quarter.

There have been some shaky division champions through the years — Northwestern is the eighth to rank 40th or worse in S&P+. The previous ones are 1995 Arkansas (49th), 2004 Colorado (44th), 2006 Wake Forest (46th), 2011 Clemson (41st), 2011 UCLA (47th), 2013 Duke (48th), and 2015 Iowa (42nd), and two of them (‘06 Wake and ‘11 Clemson) won their title game.

None ranked worse than 50th, though, so barring a truly dominant finish against Minnesota and Illinois, the Wildcats will end up the worst P5 division champ to date.

But guess what: no one’s going to ask for the rings back. Northwestern won the damn division whether or not the stats like it and whether or not it’s a replicable formula. Plus, after enjoying at least a couple of truly unexpected victories this fall, they’re one stellar performance away from the Rose Bowl.

Commit those two moments above (plus others) to memory, Northwestern fans. They are truly wonderful. Maybe there are a few more moments in store. (But probably not.)