The NUmbers Guy: Non-Conference Grades for Northwestern Football

WNUR’s Jim Sannes (@JimSannes) takes a look back on Northwestern football’s non-conference slate of games and grades the team in four separate categories.

AP Photo/Ben Margot

AP Photo/Ben Margot

What was the worst case scenario prior to the 2013 Northwestern football season? An injury in the already thin secondary? Kain Colter or Venric Mark going down? Trevor Siemian cutting his ridiculous head lettuce? Well, all of the above happened at one point or another. Some were more upsetting than others (why tha flow gotta go, doe?), but the ‘Cats still came out of non-conference play 4-0. Let’s dole out some grades for the non-con play.

Passing Offense: B

This was by far the hardest category to grade. Against Cal and Syracuse, Siemian made it rain on ‘dem bros to the tune of 11.15 yards per attempt. Tony Jones was coming off of what was far and away the best performance of his existence (nine catches, 185 yards against ‘Cuse). Colter had a total of three incompletions on 19 attempts. Things were going great. Then… Western Michigan and Maine happened.

These two games are incredibly difficult to judge because it’s entirely possible Mick McCall dumped a trillion kilos of vanilla into the play-calling so as to not tip the offense’s hand to Ohio State. That considered, even when the team did try to pass, the quarterbacks did not look as crisp as they did in the first two games. That’s not what brought this grade down, though. That would be the turnovers.

Now, on its face, four interceptions in four games may not seem that bad. With the way Northwestern has shifted to a vertical passing attack this year, it should be expected, even. But, when you look back to last year, Northwestern quarterbacks did not throw their first interception until the fifth game of the season, and they did not throw their fourth until the final game of the regular season. Against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan, that’s not going to work. If they can clean up the picks, this aerial attack has the potential to open up the field a scary amount for a scary little runner who is looking to make his return against the Buckeyes.

Rushing Offense: A

It’s hard to complain about a group that is averaging 249.5 yards per game on 5.3 yards per carry without one of the most dynamic players in the nation. Treyvon Green has already eclipsed his freshman season rushing yards total (up to 404 yards from 362) on 39 less carries (58 this year compared to 97 in 2011). The best part about Green is that he is coming through when the ‘Cats need the ground game most. More than 37 percent of his rushing yards (151) have come in the fourth quarter, as have three of his five rushing touchdowns. This has helped Northwestern outscore opponents 52-34 in the final 15 minutes in 2013 as opposed to being outscored 94-67 last year.

Remember that young man named Theodis? Yeah, he’s okay. After missing most of the Cal game with a concussion, Colter has gone back to his ign’ant ways of being stupid good on third down. On the season, Colter has carried the ball eight times on third down. He has picked up 100 yards on those carries (12.5 yards per carry). Colter’s three rushing touchdowns this year give him 26 on his career, tied with Noah Herrin for fifth most in Northwestern history. As the lyrical magician 2 Chainz would say, “He loves bad defense; that’s his runnin’ problem. Yeah, he likes to run; he’s got a runnin’ problem.” Once Mark returns, it’s going to be a delight to watch 2 Kainz work some magic of his own.

Passing Defense: B+

The raw numbers are not good. They are not pretty. They may make you weez or cringe a little bit. But, in reality, the Northwestern pass defense isn’t doing as poorly as it may seem. Sure, allowing an average of 308.8 yards per game is a bit disturbing. But, that’s an average of 6.2 yards per attempt. Alabama, for instance, is allowing 7.3 yards per attempt this year. This grade is heavily curved to account for the Daniel Jones injury, so take it with a grain of salt. One thing that needs no curve is the picks on picks on picks this D is racking up.

Ten interceptions is a lot. In fact, it is the most in the nation. Last year, the ‘Cats recorded 13 interceptions the entire year and didn’t get their tenth until the Gator Bowl. Ibraheim Campbell had a streak of five consecutive games with an interception that was broken up when he was held without one in the Maine game. Collin Ellis made me shout phrases I didn’t know existed during the Cal game. And Dean Lowry (!!!!!) is tied for sixth in the Big Ten in interceptions (2) and tenth in passes deflected (5). The defensive line has combined for 12 deflections, just two short of last year’s season total. Lowry and Tyler Scott have also combined for five sacks, but no other defensive lineman has one since the Cal game. Overall, a B grade seems fair here.

Rushing Defense: B

No, I do not think that Northwestern’s pass defense is better than its rush defense. This is just a unit that needs some dramatic improvement before it can receive a grade better than a B. Sure, they have allowed just 3.7 yards per carry, which is not too bad. However, last year the ‘Cats allowed only 72.75 yards per game in non-conference play on 2.72 yards per carry against far superior competition.

The biggest problem here has been the penetration up front. Having Sean McEvilly on the sidelines in a walking boot on Saturday didn’t help matters. Overall, the defensive tackles have combined for just 2.5 tackles for loss (1.5 for McEvilly, 1.0 for Chance Carter). Brian Arnfelt had 6.0 last year, including three sacks. They will need to find a way to replace his production to try to take pressure off of the defensive ends. Until then, I’m sticking with this B grade.

Overall, like I said earlier, it’s hard to grade this team’s non-conference play because you don’t know how much they were saving gameplan-wise for Ohio State. As Coach Fitz says, they have to go 1-0 each week, and they have done that each Saturday thus far. In order to do the same against the Buckeyes, they will need perfect execution in each of the four above categories coupled with maybe just a bit of luck. Then, and only then, it could be time to lake the posts one more time.

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