clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2011 Season Preview: Adversarial Statistics And The Northwestern Wildcats

Despite semi-weak statistics, Pat Fitzgerald keeps winning games at Northwestern. His Wildcats are smart and efficient, but without big plays or a pass rush, they also might be limited, even despite Dan Persa's return.

Getty Images

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern Wildcats have finished .500 or better in each of the past four seasons. They won 17 games in 2008-09, and despite losing their quarterback to injury, they made another bowl in 2010.  As Fran Fraschilla is known to say about basketball coaches, Fitzgerald rather clearly shapes up as a "beat you with his players, then switch teams and beat you with your players" coach.

So if we're counting down from worst to first in terms of recent history, how in the world are they getting profiled in the same week as Washington (who went 0-12 in 2008) and Minnesota?

Because the stats hate Northwestern.  It may be odd considering NU's solid statistics department, but it's true.  During this span of success, the Wildcats' best scoring margin was just +4.2 per game in 2008. They finished 6-6 despite getting outscored in 2007, they finished 7-6 despite being outscored in 2010, and they finished 17-9 in 2008-09 despite a scoring margin that would suggest something much closer to a .500 record.

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.

Year W-L Win% Close
% Of
2006 4-8 .333 1-1 .387
2007 6-6 .500 4-1 .455
2008 9-4 .692 5-2 .547
2009 8-5 .615 6-2 .515
2010 7-6 .538 5-3 .476
TOTAL 34-29 .540 21-9 .476

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...

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 2-11 | Final F/+ Rk**: 75
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep at Vanderbilt 23-21 W 27.5 - 37.9 L
11-Sep Illinois State
37-3 W 23.3 - 14.7 W
18-Sep at Rice 30-13 W 20.9 - 21.0 L
25-Sep Central Michigan 30-25 W 29.2 - 35.8 L
2-Oct at Minnesota 29-28 W 31.7 - 35.4 L
9-Oct Purdue 17-20 L 23.4 - 30.5 L
23-Oct Michigan State 27-35 L 28.3 - 32.2 L
30-Oct at Indiana 20-17 W 18.7 - 25.0 L
6-Nov at Penn State 21-35 L 29.5 - 36.9 L
13-Nov Iowa 21-17 W 36.7 - 19.9 W
20-Nov Illinois 27-48 L 27.5 - 35.7 L
27-Nov at Wisconsin 23-70 L 26.2 - 34.7 L
1-Jan vs Texas Tech 38-45 L 30.8 - 35.7 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 26.4 63 29.0 76
Adj. Points Per Game 27.2 64 30.4 83

In 2010, the typical team running the plays Northwestern ran, and playing the defense Northwestern played, would have gone about 2-11 against perfectly average opponents every single week.  Northwestern placed behind Arkansas State and just ahead of Minnesota in last year's F/+ rankings, but they won as many games as the two teams combined.  It's the Fitzgerald way, apparently.

Another interesting aspect of the Adj. Score concept is that we can account for opponent and more clearly judge the effect of injuries on a unit's performance.  Dan Persa was injured in the tenth game of the year -- a close win over Iowa, naturally -- and at first blush, it seems the offense didn't miss much of a beat.  With Persa in the lineup, putting together a killer stat line (2,581 yards, 74% completion, 8.5/pass, 15 TD, 4 INT; 519 rush. yds., +6.3 Adj. POE, 9 TD), Northwestern averaged 26.9 Adj. Points per game; with Persa out and Evan Watkins replacing him, the offense actually seemed to pick up its game slightly, to 28.2 Adj. Points per game. This despite Watkins stat line (378 yards, 51% completion, 5.4/pass, 2 TD, 5 INT) being quite unimpressive.

Of course, there is context here. Northwestern's defense lost its way at this time, and it's reasonable to think that early-game offensive struggles had something to do with that.  Watkins and the Wildcats' posted solid offensive numbers while constantly playing from behind, which is fine, but it would be more useful to do well enough early that you don't fall behind.  Northwestern lost all three games in Persa's absence, and while the defense wasn't too solid before he was hurt, they bottomed out afterward. It's all connected in one way or another, I'm sure.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 67 32 84
RUSHING 50 25 76 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 77 50 84 32
Standard Downs 76 31 96 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 75 75 70 118
Redzone 67 57 76
Q1 Rk 66 1st Down Rk 53
Q2 Rk 81 2nd Down Rk 96
Q3 Rk 57 3rd Down Rk 63
Q4 Rk 94

Imagine a semi-effective "smart kid" offense.  You would probably think of a high-efficiency, low-explosiveness unit, right?  Because the generic smart-kid offense can execute well, play smart, and use misdirection to its advantage at times, but it cannot outrun anybody.

That may be an unfair stereotype ... but that was pretty much the Northwestern O in 2010.  The Wildcats ranked 70th or worse in all major PPP+ subcategories, but they were damn efficient on standard downs and on the ground.  The "gameplan" downs were kind to NU, at least in terms of moving the chains and staying in 2nd- and 3rd-and-manageable situations.  At least they sometimes were (sometimes the gameplan just didn't seem to work).

The problem was just that they always had to drive the length of the field.  Running back Mike Trumpy broke off an 80-yard run against Illinois, and Persa completed a 50-yard pass to scrub receiver Rashad Lawrence, and that was about it for truly big plays.  Northwestern could dink-and-dunk with the best of them -- as Off Tackle Empire noted in the link above, they led the country in "methodical drives" before Persa's scary Achilles injury -- but consistently sustaining long drives is a lot to ask at the collegiate level, and even with Persa, a lot of drives that were intended to be methodical, ended rather quickly.  To consistently score big-time points, you need more big-time plays.

Not that much will change in this regard.  They are what they are.  Persa and his nearly 75% completion rate return, as does almost the entire cast of skill position characters -- Trumpy (530 yards, 4.6 per carry, -5.5 Adj. POE, 4 TD; 182 rec. yards), devastatingly efficient all-conference receiver Jeremy Ebert (953 yards, 15.4 per catch, 77% catch, 8 TD), possession receiver extraordinaire Drake Dunsmore (381 yards, 9.5 per catch, 77% catch, 5 TD), etc.  Throw in four returning linemen, and it's hard to imagine Northwestern's identity changing much.  They're going to move the chains, they're going to try to wear you out by keeping up a fast pace, they're going to run quite a bit, they're going to alter the gameplan quite a bit depending on situation and opponent, and they're going to hope you don't force them into passing downs.  When the gameplan works, they'll put up a ton of points; when it doesn't, they'll quite possibly get blown out.

Other tidbits:

  • The only departing skill position player was probably the least-efficient player on the offense -- receiver Sidney Stewart had only a 58% catch rate and averaged 11.4 yards per catch, which is amazingly less than Ebert averaged per target (11.8).  Dunsmore averaged fewer yards per catch, but his high catch rate more than made up for it.  Yards per target: Dunsmore 7.3, Stewart 6.6.
  • Note to the offensive line: you'll be more experienced in 2011, and your boy Persa will apparently be mostly healthy again.  You should really try to improve on that whole "third-worst Adj. Sack Rate in the country" thing.  I realize Persa may have held onto the ball a little too long sometimes, or maybe he scrambled into pressure, but ... third-worst! For an offense so dependent on staying in standard downs, this is devastating.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 92 105 77
RUSHING 111 113 101 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 66 73 66 82
Standard Downs 93 104 77 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 85 84 85 116
Redzone 105 100 108
Q1 Rk 84 1st Down Rk 94
Q2 Rk 77 2nd Down Rk 101
Q3 Rk 106 3rd Down Rk 54
Q4 Rk 84

As bereft as the Northwestern offense was when it came to creating big plays, the one minor saving grade the defense could muster was in the same category; they were reasonably decent at preventing big plays (at least against the pass).  But wow, were they inefficient.  On the ground, they would give you six yards anytime you asked for it.  There was evidently little degree of difficulty in this, however -- for one reason or another, teams decided to pass more frequently than average against the Wildcats.  Of course, this wasn't the worst option in the world either, considering NU managed to top just four teams in terms of Adj. Sack Rate.  Just like the offense couldn't keep Persa or Watkins off their backs (they gave up 40 sacks), the defense couldn't get any pressure whatsoever (17 sacks), and it made them rather inefficient against the pass, too, despite a potentially impressive secondary.

Strangely enough, the Wildcats actually had one strong defensive end. Vince Brown (48.0 tackles, 15.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF) earned second-team all-conference honors with seven sacks and solid all-around play.  But the next-highest sack total came from then-senior middle linebacker Nate Williams ... who had two.  You can gameplan against a single good end, and if Northwestern cannot generate more pressure with its defensive line, the defense simply isn't going to get much better than it was last year. The offense and its sustained drives can help, but only so much. A defense so vulnerable will eventually get exposed.

So is there hope in the pass rush department?  Maybe.  Everybody of consequence returns at end, including Brown, Kevin Watt (23.0 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks) and Quentin Williams (12.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT), but one has to figure the coaching staff is hoping for a breakthrough from a sophomore like Anthony Battle, Jake Gregus or Davon Custus, or maybe one of three incoming three-star freshmen. At tackle, Corbin Bryant (20.5 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks) is gone, which can't help, but Jack DiNardo (26.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks) is solid.

Other tidbits:

  • Though the pass rush probably won't magically improve, the defense's back seven certainly seems like it won't be too much of a liability.  Linebacker Bryce McNaul (47.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FF) was a decent overall weapon, and middle man David Nwabuisi (20.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF) could be capable of replacing the production of Nate Williams.  It is unclear who will be tasked with replacing the good-not-great Quentin Davie (52.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT), as the only depth chart Northwestern has released this offseason was pre-spring ... and alphabetical. Personally, I'm rooting for beautifully-named redshirt freshman Chi Chi Ariguzo, though I figure Roderick Goodlow is the leader in the clubhouse.
  • The relative strength of last year's defense -- the secondary -- returns almost intact.  Second-team all-conference safety Brian Peters (86.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 4 PBU) was a solid-playmaker and a tackling machine (for a defense that needed one), and cornerback Jordan Mabin (56.0 tackles, 1 INT, 14 PBU) had more tackles than you like to see from a corner, but he broke up enough passes to suggest he won quite a few battles. David Arnold, Hunter Bates and Jared Carpenter, who combined for over 100 tackles, three picks and 4.0 TFL/sacks, all return as well.

Northwestern's 2010 Season Set to Music

How about a little "Train Kept A-Rollin'"? Because however they go about winning games ... they keep winning games.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit


Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's
Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 68
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 63
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -1 / -1.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 16 (9, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +0.1

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 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's schedule is odd.  They will need all the benefits of experience, as they begin with six of nine games on the road.  While quite a few teams (like Kansas State) barely have to leave home over the first 4-6 weeks of the season, Northwestern will have played at Boston College, Army and Illinois by October 2. After a home game against Michigan, they face another three road trips in four weeks.  Yuck.  This team should be mature enough to handle this and still probably reach six wins (even our initial projections think so), but this certainly isn't the easiest slate in the world. Here's to hoping Persa is completely healthy, as despite its limitations, the Northwestern offense is unique and entertaining when it's clicking.




* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.