The NUmbers Guy: Penn State Analysis and a Look Ahead to Wisconsin

WNUR’s Ari Ross (@aross50) takes over as our NUmbers writer, looking back at last weekend’s Penn State game. Ari crunches the numbers to find out what the ‘Cats must improve on this weekend against Wisconsin.

It’s been four days, but boy, was that win over Penn State awesome or what? Like much of the rest of the WNUR staff, I predicted the Wildcats to get beaten up in Happy Valley, but instead, the ‘Cats were the ones giving the beating. Northwestern took it to the Nittany Lions and came home from Beaver Stadium with a huge and possibly season-altering win. This week the Wildcats return to the friendly confines of Ryan Field to take on the Wisconsin Badgers in their Big Ten home opener. Let’s look at the numbers that defined the ‘Cats’ victory over Penn State in Happy Valley and how they’ll help or hurt Northwestern going forward against the Badgers.


Northwestern’s defense, in a performance for the ages, limited the Nittany Lions to just 50 yards on 25 carries – an absolutely pitiful average of 2.0 yards per carry. Not a single Penn State running back rushed for more than a net 25 yards, while only two rushes went for more than ten yards. For the season, Northwestern is allowing just 117.2 rushing yards per game, seventh best in the Big Ten. But Wisconsin comes into Evanston averaging 343.2 yards per game including 14 touchdowns.

Last year, in a game most ‘Cats fans would like to forget, the Badgers rushed for 286 yards and two touchdowns in a blowout victory at Camp Randall. And while James White graduated, Melvin Gordon still leads the Badger rushing attack, averaging 7.8 yards per carry this year. Northwestern’s run defense will have to step up again if they hope to slow down Wisconsin’s two headed rushing behemoth.

4 of 6

Northwestern converted just four of six opportunities in the red zone against Penn State. The ‘Cats missed a field goal and were unable to convert a fake field goal. While it didn’t end up mattering against the Nittany Lions, against Wisconsin, Northwestern will need to convert all the red zone opportunities it can. Wisconsin’s defense is the best in the Big Ten, allowing just 14.5 points per game. For Northwestern to beat the Badgers, they’re going to have come out of the red zone with points every time, whether it’s a field goal or a touchdown, as points will be at a premium for the ‘Cats against a good, but inexperienced defense (the Badgers return only four starters from last season).


 Against Penn State, Northwestern had four sacks for a total loss of 20 yards. Throughout the game, the ‘Cats defensive line kept Christian Hackenberg contained and pressured him into some quick and errant throws. In addition, Hackenberg, not the most mobile of quarterbacks, rushed for a net of five yards, with a long of nine yards.

But against Wisconsin, Northwestern will be facing Tanner McEvoy, a much more mobile quarterback than Hackenberg. McEvoy, along with passing for 605 yards this season, has rushed 32 times for 276 yards, an 8.6-yard average per rush. Versus Bowling Green, McEvoy rushed for 158 yards and a touchdown. And Northwestern has had trouble with mobile quarterbacks before, Cal’s Luke Rubenzer rushed 11 times for 48 yards, a 4.4-yard average. Northwestern’s defense must keep the mobile McEvoy contained on Saturday. Wisconsin’s offensive line is the best in the Big Ten, having allowed the fewest sacks, so the Northwestern defensive line will have their hands full.

Anthony Walker gave the Wildcats points off a turnover Saturday with a pick-six against Penn State, and Ari Ross says the 'Cats need to get turnovers (and points off them) Saturday against Wisconsin. Photo Credit: Lake the Posts.

Anthony Walker gave the Wildcats points off a turnover Saturday with a pick-six against Penn State, and Ari Ross says the ‘Cats need to get turnovers (and points off them) Saturday against Wisconsin. Photo Credit: Lake the Posts.


 Northwestern forced two turnovers against Penn State, winning the turnover battle 2-1. Xavier Washington forced a fumble with a huge hit, and Anthony Walker, filling in for the injured Collin Ellis, had a huge pick six. Northwestern scored nine points off these turnovers.

Wisconsin has turned the ball over seven times this year, including four interceptions, so the ‘Cats will have their chances to force turnovers. Not only does Northwestern need to win the turnover battle to help their chances in this game, capitalizing off the turnovers is a must. The ‘Cats will have to make the most of their opportunities especially when given the ball off turnovers.

3 of 17

 Northwestern’s defense limited Penn State to 3 of 17 on third down conversions. The ‘Cats defense forced the Nittany Lions into five three and outs and limited Penn State to less than six plays on 11 of their 15 drives. To say the Northwestern defense dominated Penn State might be an understatement.

And Wisconsin, coming into Ryan Field, is among the worst in the Big Ten on third down. The Badgers have a 39.1 percent conversion rate on third down – having converted just 18 of 46 third downs, good for 12th in the Big Ten. If Northwestern can force the Badgers into third down situations, then the ‘Cats will have a fighting chance to force a punt.

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