Reason for Northwestern’s Fourth Quarter Struggles

WNUR’s Michael Stern (@michaeljstern23) investigates the reasons behind Northwestern’s fourth quarter struggles in the Pat Fitzgerald era.

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

Here’s a scary stat. In the Pat Fitzgerald era, the Wildcats have been outscored 682-573 in the fourth quarter. That’s a difference of 109 points. Explaining this number might help explain why Northwestern seems to lose so many close games. So why is Northwestern usually outplayed in the fourth quarter? Here are a few Northwestern weaknesses that surface most egregiously in the fourth quarters of close games.

Red Zone Offense:  Sure, Northwestern scores nearly every time that they get in the red zone, but as Jim Sannes pointed out earlier this week, many of these scores are field goals. Northwestern has scored a touchdown 56% of the time it has entered the red zone this season, while opponents have scored touchdowns on 58% of their red zone trips. Two percent might not sound like a big difference, but most Northwestern games are too close for comfort and every percentage point helps.

Close loss where this was an issue: Nebraska. If the ‘Cats could have found the end zone after Tyler Scott’s interception, Nebraska’s Hail Mary would have merely forced overtime. As the Ravens showed against the Bengals a couple Sundays ago, allowing a tying Hail Mary does not necessarily mean a loss.

Rushing Defense: The ‘Cats allow an average of 197 rushing yards per loss. This is especially detrimental in the fourth quarter when rushing yards also mean running the clock. Failure to stop the run might also have something to do with Northwestern’s lack of defensive line depth, as the few healthy Wildcat linemen are usually tired (or at least more tired than the opposing offensive linemen) by the fourth quarter.

Close loss where this was an issue: Minnesota. The Gophers entered the fourth quarter with a seven-point lead, and after Northwestern punted on their first possession of the half, the game was practically over. Minnesota embarked on an 11-play, 54-yard drive that chewed nearly six minutes off the clock and featured eight running plays. When the drive was over, Northwestern was left with 5:24 to score 10 points. The next time Minnesota got the ball, it was more of the same. The Gophers ran out the final 2:07 with six runs (two of them kneel-downs).

Punting: While it seems simple, punting is one of the critical parts of a successful football team. Northwestern has one of the best kickers in the country, but its punting and punt protection have come up short in close games. Punter Brandon Williams ranks last in the Big Ten with an average of 36.4 yards per punt, and he has the second-most punts in the conference. Punt protection has also been an issue in key moments.

Close losses where this was an issue: Ohio State and Michigan. It wasn’t the fourth quarter, but Ohio State blocked a punt in the end zone in the first half. This gave the Buckeyes a free seven points and turned the tide of the game. An eight-yard punt in the fourth quarter against Michigan gave the Wolverines the ball at Northwestern’s 11-yard-line and led to a free three points.

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