After a bye week this past week, Northwestern heads to East Lansing on Saturday to take on the Michigan State Spartans (2-3, 0-2 B1G), looking to get back to .500 on the season. But prior to the ‘Cats clash against Michigan State, its time to take a look at Northwestern at the bye – three up and three down – three NUmbers Northwestern has been excelling in, and three it needs to look to improve.
Austin Carr has been an absolute monster this season for the ‘Cats, well on his way to potentially an 1000-yard season and potentially the best season by a Wildcat receiver since Jeremy Ebert in 2011. Carr, who’s been targeted on an absurd 30.1% of passing attempts, is averaging 14.5 yards per catch as he’s caught 32 of his 50 targets for 465 yards and 6 touchdowns. Time and time again when Clayton Thorson needs to move the chains Carr is there to make the big play, a connection the ‘Cats hope can continue in the second half of the season.
If Austin Carr has been Northwestern best offensive player, Justin Jackson is 1A, averaging 4.7 yards per carry on 109 rushing attempts. Further, Jackson has managed 510 rushing yards and four touchdowns all with suspect offensive line play, as he’s averaging 5.8 highlight yards per opportunity, a measure of the portion of a given run that is credit only to the running back and not the offensive line. Even with suspect line play in front of him, and with a larger workload with Warren Long sidelined, Jackson has still managed to be his usual self, churning his way toward another 1000-yard season.
While Northwestern’s defense has surrendered its fair share of yards, the ‘Cats have adopted a “bend but don’t beak” strategy on defense this season, with opponents converting on just above 75.0% of their red zone attempts. Northwestern is only allowing 19.8 points per game, and 17 total scores as they’ve kept their offensive in all five of their games. There’s certainly room for improvement going forward, defensively, but the ‘Cats defense hasn’t been that bad, in fact they rank No. 29 in Defensive S&P+.
While Northwestern’s offense has improved, one area where they’ve struggled in the past and continue to struggle this season is coming up with the big play. Northwestern has just 61 plays of 10 or more yards, which ranks No. 122 in the NCAA, just two spots ahead of Rutgers. Further, Northwestern is averaging just 5.01 yards per play, good for No. 112 in the NCAA. Coming off a bye, the ‘Cats must improve offensively, gaining yards in larger chunks, or they’ll risk missing a bowl game for the third time in four years.
One of the reasons the ‘Cats offense has struggled, poor offensive line play. Northwestern offensive line has a 20.7 percent stuff rate, the percentage of runs where the runner is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage, ranking 95th in the NCAA. That means that Justin Jackson and co. have been tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage on 1 out of every 5 runs. It’s a testament to how good Jackson is that the ‘Cats rushing attack isn’t non-existent, when he’s being stuffed so often. As Northwestern moves further into Big Ten play, facing bigger, faster and stronger defensive lines, the Wildcats are going to have to get improved play along the offensive line, or risk becoming one-dimensional.
The ‘Cats kicking game has been a mess this season, and that may be putting it lightly. Jack Mitchell is 13 of 14 on extra point attempts and just 2 of 5 on field goal attempts, with misses from 33, 34 and 27 yards. Mitchell’s kicking percentage ranks No. 125 in the NCAA, third worst, only ahead of Marshall and Washington State, and in terms of value, Mitchell has actually cost the ‘Cats 1.09 points per kick, with a -1.09 FG value, the expected value of a field goal. And with Northwestern potentially playing in many close games the rest of this season, Mitchell will need to find his accuracy once again because one missed kick could be the difference between the ‘Cats going bowling and staying home in December.