By John Beers
This Northwestern team is a statistical anomaly. Or at the very least, it could be. All Northwestern fans have come to accept the unavoidable truth that while this may be the best defense of the Pat Fitzgerald era, the offense is on the opposite end of the spectrum.
While boiling down each side of the ball to a single statistic isn’t an exact science, ESPN’s team efficiency metrics give a simple 0-100 scale that the least statistically-inclined fan can get behind: bigger numbers are good and smaller numbers are bad.
Northwestern’s defensive efficiency rating of 84.2 makes this Wildcats’ defense the fifth most efficient in the country. It’s comparable to perennial defensive powerhouses like Ohio State and Florida and sits just below consistently elite defenses teams like Alabama and Clemson.
Offensively, the Cats come in at a measly 33.4. That’s equivalent to 99th in the FBS, resting below such teams as 3-5 Idaho and 2-6 Army. Since ESPN started tracking offensive and defensive efficiency in 2005, there have been 20 teams that ranked among the top 15 defenses while posting an offensive efficiency number below 40.
Over the last 10 years, those teams compiled an overall record of 138-115, with an average team coming in at 7-6. Perhaps even more telling of the struggle that plagues such teams is the fact that only 40 percent of those teams managed to make and win a bowl game.
The efficiency metrics play a big role in the ESPN Football Power Index system; a model that is used to predict a team’s likelihood of winning versus a particular team. Based on FPI, Northwestern is projected to finish their regular season 9-3, winning remaining games against Penn State, Purdue and Illinois and falling to the Badgers in Camp Randall.
Nine wins from such an imbalanced team has only happened twice in the last 10 years. In 2009, Iowa posted the only double-digit win season of any of the teams on this list, going 11-2 while posting a 39.1 offensive efficiency and a defensive efficiency rating of 79.9. That Iowa team beat a #5 Penn State squad in Happy Valley as well as a #9 Georgia Tech team in the Orange Bowl on the way to finishing as the #7 team in the country.
The other nine-win team from those 20 was the 2012 Rutgers Scarlet Knights, who went 9-4, albeit against much weaker competition than what the Hawkeyes went through. The Scarlet Knights’ biggest win came in a 10-3 victory over a Cincinnati team that finished second in the Big East. Of their other eight wins, only three came against teams that would finish with a winning record (if you include FCS opponent Howard’s 7-4 season).
What makes Northwestern anomalous amongst all these teams is the level of talent this team possesses on the defensive side of the ball compared to all the others. While the offenses bogged most of these teams down into the realm of mediocrity, the majority of them still had elite, NFL level talent on the defensive side of the ball. That Iowa team as well as the 2009 North Carolina Tar Heels boasted seven players each that would be drafted in the next two NFL Drafts. On average, each team featured more than three players that would play on Sunday and at least one first round draft pick.
Players that have lead these units include household names such as Eric Berry, Luke Kuechly, and Robert Quinn. The 2005 and 2008 Tennessee Volunteers boasted five first-rounders between them and the 2013 Florida Gators featured two first round picks in Dominique Easley and Dante Fowler Jr., as well as likely 2016 first round pick in corner Vernon Hargreaves.
While players like Dean Lowry and Nick VanHoose have shown flashes of play that should earn them draft considerations—as they both showed against Nebraska last Saturday—most pundits do not project either to be selected in the upcoming draft. Other players like Anthony Walker, Matthew Harris and Godwin Igwebuike should have a chance in the upcoming seasons to prove that they are worthy of being drafted, but right now they are all far from sure bets on being selected in 2017 or 2018.
This speaks to the job that the coaching staff has done with this defense and should serve as a reminder to most fans just how good of a coach Pat Fitzgerald can be. So as this Wildcat team finishes the last third of it’s season, appreciate just how special this team could be.