College Football

Northwestern is 3-0. How did they get there?

One of the surprising storylines of this young football season has been the undefeated start of the Big Ten’s Northwestern Wildcats. The Wildcats, coached by Pat Fitzgerald in his tenth season at the helm, are 3-0. And while many teams are sitting at 3-0 right now, Fitzgerald’s Cats have managed to do it with two wins as an underdog, first at home against a heavily favored Stanford team in Evanston and again as a 3.5-point dog at Duke.

Prognosticators (namely, myself) looked at the 2015 Northwestern team and saw two things. First: a dearth of talent on offense. Outside of running back Justin Johnson (himself just a sophomore), the Cats have a lot of new faces out there. Second: the 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes were pretty good. The easy conclusion was that Northwestern would be pretty good in 2016 and just hold on until then.

Northwestern had more urgent ideas. The Wildcats stymied the 21st-ranked Stanford Cardinal with rock-solid defense and made just enough plays on offense to win 16-6. Then, after beating a hapless Eastern Illinois team 41-0, the Cats went on the road and did it again, posting another near-perfect defensive performance in a 19-10 win over the Duke Blue Devils.

How are the Cats doing it?

1. LOCKDOWN DEFENSE

Through three games, the Wildcats have allowed just one touchdown, and it came off an interception which set up the Blue Devils up at the Northwestern 26. Besides that, opponents have managed field goals or zilch.

Teams just aren’t moving the ball. Northwestern held the Stanford Cardinal’s offense, normally a grinding efficiency machine, to just 3.87 yards per play. The Cardinal went on to accomplish 6.92 against UCF and 6.49 against USC. The Duke Blue Devils (5.70 against Tulane and 7.71 against NC Central) managed just 4.42. Football Outsiders, an opponent-adjusted ranking based on success rates (how often teams accomplish the necessary yardage to move the sticks in a given situation) and explosiveness (how far out teams score from), ranks the Northwestern defense seventh in the country. Typically defenses are good at one of those two things. Northwestern has been good at both.

They’re accomplishing it thanks to a defense that has all but choked out big plays. The longest play allowed by the Wildcats was a 32-yard completion from Thomas Sirk to Max McCaffrey . . . and three plays later the Cats took the ball back with a Dean Lowry interception. Teams are afraid to throw downfield for fear of the Wildcat secondary, instead hoping to nickel and dime their way with screens and swing passes, but the Cats are stuffing those, too, by recognizing plays, shedding blockers, and consistently making one-on-one tackles.

2. TAKING POINTS WHEREVER THEY COME

As great as the Wildcats’ defense has been, its offense hasn’t. That same Football Outsiders metric that ranks the Northwestern defense seventh also ranks the offense 119th. Quarterback Clayton Thorson is completing just 50.8% of his passes at 5.2 yards per try, for a score and two picks, and he lacks the athletic wide receivers a system like Northwestern’s needs in order to be consistent. Running back Justin Jackson is toting for just 3.91 per carry and his offensive line has been sketchy at best.

Fortunately, you only need to win by one. And while style points matter in college football, ultimately winning matters the most, and where efficiency has failed, Northwestern has been opportunistic with game-defining big plays (with some help from its special teams) to snag points at opportune moments:

  • Thorson scored the game’s only touchdown with a 42-yard quarterback draw against Stanford.
  • Solomon Vault returned the opening kickoff of the second half 98 yards to take the lead over Duke.
  • Running back Warren Long broke loose for a 55-yard score on one of his two touches. He’d later recover a game-icing fumbled punt.

With a defense playing as lights-out as Northwestern’s currently is (and help from special teams), an offense can get by being opportunistic rather than efficient. One hopes that as the season progresses, Northwestern can figure out someone to consistently move this offense down the field because eventually there will come a game when those couple of plays don’t break their way.

Looking ahead at the Cats’ schedule it’s easy to get optimistic. Northwestern won’t face a great offense the rest of the season (Nebraska’s, currently ranked 21st by Football Outsiders, would be the best by a considerable margin). If the Wildcats can keep uglying up games and figuring out ways to steal points at opportune moments, Northwestern is a prime candidate to compete for the Big Ten West division crown.

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