After loss to Michigan State, Northwestern needs improvement in the run game

By John Volk

By most accounts, No. 8 Northwestern’s 29-20 loss to Michigan State Saturday was uncharacteristic.

Graduate transfer Peyton Ramsey, Indiana’s all-time most accurate quarterback, threw two interceptions and nearly had two other passes picked off. The nation’s fourth-best scoring defense and 15th-best total defense gave up 23 points (the final score was a defensive TD) and 12 chunk plays. And a team that prides itself on taking care of the ball lost the turnover battle four to one.

It’s tempting to overreact, but the evidence still shows a nationally great defense and a quarterback that can lead a serviceable passing attack, even with a concerning interception count. The main cause for alarm should come from Northwestern’s ground game, which again struggled to gain any traction, putting up just 63 yards on 37 carries. Game script didn’t do Northwestern runners any favors as the Wildcats quickly found themselves in a 10-point hole, but the 1.7 average yards per rush and the long run of eight yards illustrate an all-around bad night on the ground.

Struggles on the ground are nothing new for the Wildcats. When game script sided with the Northwestern running game last week against Wisconsin, the team put up its worst rushing numbers of the year with 24 yards on 23 carries. Against Purdue the week before, the Wildcats ran the ball 40 times and got only got 80 yards out of it.

This trajectory doesn’t situate Northwestern well among winning teams in the modern Big Ten West. Between 2014 and 2019, a Big Ten team playing within the conference on average rushed for 215 yards in a win. That average goes up to 227 winning rush yards for games within the West division. The Wildcats have only rushed for more than 150 yards once this season, in the opener against Maryland, well off pace of what it usually takes to win in the Big Ten.

When Northwestern brought in Offensive Coordinator Mike Bajakian last December, the expectation was for a run-heavy scheme the likes of which saw AJ Dillon rush for 1,685 yards in his senior season at Boston College. While Northwestern’s 55.7% share of run plays is down substantially from the 67.5% share at BC under Bajakian last year, Northwestern is still a run-first team.

This is a strategy that should work especially well in the Big Ten. Between 2014 and 2019 winning sides in in-conference games out-rushed their opponents in 78.1% of games compared to out-passing their opponents in just 56.2% of games. Additionally, points for the winning team in Big Ten play are more strongly correlated to its rushing yards (0.49) than they are to its passing yards (0.34), suggesting a strong rushing attack can more reliably predict the points a winning team will score than a strong passing attack.

However, despite Northwestern’s willingness to run the ball significantly more often than passing the ball, the passing attack has out-gained the ground game 1184 yards to 783 yards so far this season.

It’s worth pointing out that sacks count against rush yards in college football. That said, Northwestern’s offensive line has been good in pass protection, giving up just nine sacks for 64 yards in six games — the Michigan State game accounts for a large chunk of that with four sacks for 25 yards. Even if those 64 yards were added to Northwestern’s rushing yardage, the Wildcats still would have passed for 337 more yards than they rushed.

So where does the blame fall?

Lead running back Isaiah Bowser has struggled after coming back from injury in 2019. Performances of 70 and 85 rushing yards with a rushing and receiving touchdown in Northwestern’s first two games teased a return to the potential he flashed during his rookie season where he posted 866 yards and six touchdowns. But after another injury kept him out of the Nebraska game, Bowser has rushed for 57 yards and no touchdowns in the last three games.

Similarly, change of pace back Drake Anderson started well with 193 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the first three games, but cooled off with 59 yards and no touchdowns in the last three games.

More advanced statistics like yards before contact and yards after contact are not readily available in college football, so it’s hard to break down how much of the blame lies on the backs and how much lies on the line, but when a team hasn’t broken a run longer than 12 yards in three weeks, no one escapes cleanly.

Ultimately, Northwestern is still well positioned for a historic season. The ‘Cats are 5-1 in conference play for the first time since 1996, and with a cancellation of next week’s game with Minnesota likely, they should be on their way to their second Big Ten West Title in three years. While chances of a CFP berth may be out the window, a New Year’s Six Bowl remains within the realm of possibility.

In the meantime, if Northwestern wants to make noise down the road, the run game needs to step up.