The NUmbers Guy: Northwestern’s Third Down Offense

Former WNUR Sports Director Jim Sannes (@JimSannes) looks at Northwestern’s third down production from 2012 to see what that says about the upcoming season.

Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

I admit that a majority of this post is just me looking for an excuse to write about football. That’s exactly what summer is, right? People don’t actually give two donkey sneezes how much of an alcoholic Johnny Manziel is. It’s football-related content, so peeps lend an indulgent ear. Once media days for the respective conferences roll around, we just want to talk about football, no matter what the subject. I am as big of a victim of this as anyone.

So, as I sat in some rando hotel room in Canada, my mind naturally drifted to Northwestern’s third down offense. This led to a spreadsheet with the returning players’ stats on third down from the 2012 season broken down by yardage. You can view this spreadsheet by clicking here (it’s a Google doc, and I swear the link won’t open a wormhole or bring up a picture of Gary Busey on your computer or anything). It’ll open up in another tab, and I recommend opening it or else the rest of the gobbledygook beneath won’t make as much sense.

When I looked at the numbers there were a few things that stood out. Here’s my takeaway from the 2012 stats, and what they mean (or don’t mean) for the upcoming campaign.

1. Kain Colter is a freak of nature.

Not in the, “Whoa, dog, you should keep that locked up,” sense, but in the sense that this man can seriously play some football. In Colter’s 50 third down rushes last year, he averaged 5.34 yards per carry and found paydirt six times.

On third and short, if Colter was in the game, the ‘Cats were running. And they didn’t care if you knew. Colter carried the ball 17 times on third and short, more than Venric Mark (11) and Mike Trumpy (5) combined. Colter averaged 3.88 yards per carry in that situation. In my best Human Centipede doctor voice, “FEEEEED HIM!!!”

Colter was able to get the job done through the air, as well. He completed 60 percent of his passes, averaging 5.31 yards per attempt, which was generally enough for the situations he was put in. In 3rd down and 3-7 yards, Colter was 11-15 with 6.67 yards per attempt. This is the definition of a dual-threat quarterback, and Colter is one of the elite weapons in the conference.

2. Don’t read too much into Siemian’s numbers.

Are Trevor Siemian’s numbers on third down as good as Colter’s? Uh, no. Were the situations the two were in even remotely the same? Uh, heck naw. It’s like comparing a majestic, galloping pony with a majestic, galloping pony that just landed via parachute in a mine field where the mines move and try to sack the pony.

I will concede that Colter’s numbers in third-and-medium situations are superior to Siemian’s. That said, third and three is a whole heck of a lot different than third and seven, and Siemian was more often in the latter situation than the former. Siemian’s arm made the biggest difference on third and long, where his yards-per-attempt (5.68) was 32.1 percent higher than Colter’s (4.3). Outside of that, you can’t take much from Siemian’s third down stats because he was generally put in unwinnable situations.

3. It’s tough to keep up with the Jones’s.

Christian and Tony Jones led the receiving corps in third down production last year, and it wasn’t even close. The two combined for 18 catches for 235 yards (13.06 yards per reception) and a touchdown. Third on the team was the since-graduated Demetrius Fields at five receptions for 46 yards. With Christian entering his true junior season and Tony entering his second season after a serious injury, expect these two to resume their posts at the top of Colter and Siemian’s third down progression.

4. There can only be ONE breakout target.

Between Dan Vitale, Kyle Prater and Cam Dickeron (combined five catches for 26 yards last year), somebody will break out this year through third down production. Vitale follows in the footsteps of Drake Dunsmore, who had 12 receptions for 165 yards and a touchdown his senior year. Prater is being too quickly discounted after what was essentially his first full season of college football. Let the dude have some time first! His 6’5” frame would make him a luscious option in a pinch. Dickerson at 6’3”, 200 pounds has the size, as well. One of these three is going to be Colter and Siemian’s best friend this year. The only question is which one.

Third down efficiency is one of the few categories where the ‘Cats offense actually sagged last year. The team finished 29th in the nation, converting 45.92 percent of their third down attempts. That’s still not bad, but the team never finished lower than 19th from 2007-2011. Look for the ‘Cats to use their offensive firepower to regain that prowess in 2013.


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