The NUmbers Guy breaks down six NUmbers that will help to define the Northwestern Wildcats’ 2016 season, and might determine whether they can make a bowl game for the second straight year.
The Wildcats averaged 4.47 yards per play last season, No. 122 in the FBS. Only six teams were worse offensively, on a yards per play basis, than the Wildcats, and none of them made a bowl game. With the ‘Cats defense bound to take a step back or two, Northwestern is going to have to improve offensively if it wants to compete in the Big Ten and reach its second straight bowl game.
Clayton Thorson is going to have to be more efficient on offense and the ‘Cats are going to have to find more big plays. Last season, Northwestern had just 71 passing plays go for more than 10 yards, which ranked No. 117 in the FBS. Dinking and dunking will only get the ‘Cats so far this fall, and Thorson and co. will need to find ways to sling it downfield.
And with the Wildcats returning just 38.2 percent of their production at the wide receiver production, 18.7 percent of which is Austin Carr’s 302 yards, the ‘Cats are going to need to find Thorson some weapons. Someone is going to have to step up and help replace the production lost with Dan Vitale and Christian Jones’ graduation. There’s no standout receiver on the roster so it’ll most likely be some combination of Garrett Dickerson, Marcus McShepard, Solomon Vault and Flynn Nagel, among others, giving Thorson options to work with across the field.
While the ‘Cats did convert on 82.5 percent of their red zone opportunities last season, on just 40 percent of them did they score touchdowns. It’s essential to put points on the board in the red zone, but with tougher schedule this season facing the likes of Michigan State and Ohio State, it’ll be even more important for the Wildcats to put the ball in the end zone, rather than just through the uprights.
Against teams like the Buckeyes and Spartans, Northwestern cannot afford to leave points on the board, as it could come back to bite them in a hurry. Thorson and co. ranked No. 126 in the FBS in touchdown percentage last season, and they’ll have to do better this upcoming season if they want to have another bowl game or even the Big Ten Championship game in their sights.
Keith Watkins II, who’s jersey is No. 3, was slated to start at corner opposite Matthew Harris and with him, the Wildcats’ secondary wasn’t expected to miss a beat after last year’s terrific performance, allowing just 193 passing yards per game. However, with Watkins II now out for the season due to a knee-injury, some question marks arise concerning the Sky Team. Montre Hartage is the projected replacement for Watkins II, but Hartage hasn’t started a game for the Wildcats. Opponents will no doubt try to key in on any weakness in the ‘Cats secondary and the play of Hartage and his backups – Trae Williams and Alonzo Mayo – will go a long way in determining whether the Sky Team can replicate its 2015 performance.
Last season, the ‘Cats defensive line was among the best in NCAA Football, with an Adjusted Line Yards of 111.6, an opponent-adjusted measure of a defensive line where 100.0 is average, ranking No. 26 in the FBS. The ‘Cats adjusted sack rate was also among the top 50 in college football. However, with a number of departures along the defensive line including Dean Lowry, the Wildcats will have a tall task replicating last year’s performance with two new starters along the defensive line. If the defensive line cannot get a similar push up front as last year, the ‘Cats defense may have trouble.
For the third straight year, Northwestern’s punting unit ranked among the bottom of the FBS with Hunter Niswander averaging 38.0 yards per punt, No. 123 in the FBS. And for a team that tries to use its special teams to flip the script on the opponent, rarely did Niswander pin them deep, with just under 25 percent of his punts landing inside the 20. The ‘Cats have to continue to improve as a unit on special teams, especially in the punting game, and cannot continue to give their opponents decent field position, putting their defense in a tough position.