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The NUmbers Guy: Northwestern vs. Michigan State Analysis

WNUR Sports Director Jim Sannes (@JimSannes) explains why Northwestern’s win Saturday was their best game of the season by looking at the statistics behind the game.

Photo by Meghan White/The Daily Northwestern

This stupid No-Shave November thing is finally showing that it does have a positive side. During Northwestern’s 23-20 victory over Michigan State on Saturday, I nervously stroked the sparse peach fuzz on my upper lip, waiting for “the moment” where the Spartans would take the lead. I assumed I would end up shoveling ghost chilis down my throat to numb the pain. Instead, Northwestern executed when it counted. As a result, I was doing this (because I know my role is to provide links to stupid videos). This was Northwestern’s best game of the season. No, they did not play the best, and at times, they didn’t even play well. Let me explain why this is the most encouraging effort by the Wildcats this season.

71 minutes, 13 seconds: Kain Colter and Venric Mark missed a combined 71 minutes and 13 seconds of game action due to injuries.

While it was never announced that Colter suffered an injury, it was clear that the ankle injury he suffered last week was still hampering him as he limped around the field. Mark gave it a go, but left after possibly re-injuring his shoulder. When you can finish a game off without your two most dynamic offensive play-makers, that is a sign of a good football team.

The loss of Colter and Mark caused the ground game to falter (27 carries for 57 yards, a 2.1 yard per carry average – their previous low for rushing yards had been 112 versus Penn State). If somebody had listed these stats to me before the game, I would have forfeited all worldly possessions and become a monk to avoid the pain of sports. And I would look terrible with a friar haircut.

3 of 14: Northwestern’s offense converted on three of its 14 third-down attempts on Saturday.

Northwestern’s average third down was third and 6.64, which is not a situation in which you want to put your offense. When you are averaging third and long, the defensive line can sell out completely on the pass rush and not have to worry about stopping the run, putting a load of pressure on the quarterback. As a result, Brandon Williams had almost as many yards in punts (300) as Northwestern had in total offense (303). Can you say recipe for success? Again, this is not indicative of a Wildcat win.

1: Northwestern scored only one touchdown in three red zone trips (not counting the final drive of the game where Northwestern took a knee).

Both of Northwestern’s field goals in the red zone came after they were able to get the ball inside the ten yard-line. This was a big problem at the beginning of the year that Northwestern had appeared to have cured as of late. Once Mark and Colter are healthy again, this issue should resolve itself. However, if the duo can’t go against Illinois on Saturday, a failure to convert inside the 20 leaves a team vulnerable to being upset by an inferior opponent like the Illini.

All of these things seem to indicate the ‘Cats had no chance to win. Yet, they did. How? Well, as Coach Fitz says, “Stats are for losers.” I die a little inside every time he says that. These are the stats that catapulted Northwestern to their eighth win of the season.

4: Northwestern’s defense created four turnovers on Saturday.

While the ‘Cats were the beneficiaries of a gift when Andrew Maxwell fumbled at the goal line for one of the turnovers, the other three were all because of big-time players making big-time plays. No player, in my opinion, was bigger than Ibraheim Campbell.

Campbell’s stat line for the game was good. He recorded 11 tackles (0.5 TFL), had a forced fumble, and two passes defensed. It’s what the stats don’t tell you, however, that made Campbell the best player on the field Saturday.

In the first quarter, Campbell jumped in front of and broke up a pass from Maxwell intended for Bennie Fowler that would have put the Spartans inside the Northwestern 15-yardline. They were forced to settle for a field goal.

In the second quarter, the ‘Cats trailed 5-3, and Michigan State was threatening to extend that. It was 4th and 1 from the goal line. Campbell came around the outside on a blitz and brought Le’Veon Bell down (with the assistance of Drew Smith) for a three-yard loss, turning the Spartans over on downs.

Campbell came through again in the third, this time leading directly to points for Northwestern. Once again, Campbell came around the outside on a blitz as Maxwell dropped back to pass. Campbell walloped Maxwell, forcing a lame-duck pass that was easily intercepted by David Nwabuisi. Nwabuisi took the interception back for a touchdown, giving the ‘Cats a 13-5 lead and momentum at the beginning of the second half.

Just in case that doesn’t have you convinced, Campbell came through again later in the third. With the ‘Cats leading 20-13, Maxwell completed a deep pass to Aaron Burbridge to put the Spartans in Northwestern territory. Campbell caught Burbridge from behind and stripped the receiver, forcing his second fumble of the season and halting yet another Michigan State drive.

Before you start thinking that I’ve been slurping too much Ibraheim juice (Why is that not a real thing yet? Get on it, America), his safety sidekick of savoriness Jared Carpenter was an animal, too. Carpenter had nine tackles, two pass break-ups and an interception. Carpenter’s interception came two possessions after Campbell’s forced fumble. Northwestern’s offense was on the struggle bus, having just gone three-and-out for the third consecutive series. The Spartans were moving the ball well before Carpenter’s pick, where he made a great break on a Maxwell pass that, if completed, would have had the Spartans in the red zone.

Northwestern won this game with their defense. However, there was one offensive player that stood out on Saturday.

110: True freshman Dan Vitale had a career high nine receptions for 110 yards.

In Vitale’s first 10 games, he had a total of 12 receptions for 96 yards, so not even Nate Silver saw this coming. His previous career high for receptions was three against Minnesota; his high in yards was 30 last week against Michigan. Vitale picked up six of Northwestern’s 17 first downs and half of their first downs through the air.

WNUR staffer Christian Flores (a former Northwestern superback) called it in the spring that Vitale would start as a true freshman. Christian now says he thinks Vitale has the potential to be even better than Drake Dunsmore. That’s high praise, but Vitale showed Saturday that these expectations are legitimate.

Did Northwestern play their best game on Saturday? Child, please! However, they found a way to win without their top two playmakers by making big plays at opportune times on defense and utilizing a true freshman superback. Good teams win when they should. Great teams win when they shouldn’t. Northwestern has had its times this year where they have lost games they should not have. I think that this Michigan State game could be a turning point for their fourth quarter woes. No, the Wildcats are not a great team yet. However, Saturday they took a step toward being great by overcoming the obstacles placed before them, including their fourth quarter demons, and showing the world that Northwestern Wildcat football isn’t going away any time soon.

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