Understanding Northwestern

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Understanding Northwestern

I had a feeling that Northwestern’s 2013 season, which looked quite promising on paper, might be derailed by playing the toughest schedule of the Legends Division contenders. I was wrong. Northwestern’s season has been derailed by injuries and, when you have the toughest schedule of the Legends Division contenders, it’s not that hard to end up 4-4 after staring the season 4-0 with some relatively decent wins.

That’s the Wildcats right now — fighting to salvage something — and that’s frequently a tough opponent to face.

TRAJECTORY

There’s a reason everyone was playing with the idea of Pat Fitzgerald as the next coach at Texas. It was back when the Wildcats were good and the Longhorns weren’t. It was about four weeks ago, believe it or not.

That talk has evaporated, but the sentiment still holds. If Fitzgerald can win with the limitations inherent to Evanston, what could do with the deepest pockets in college football and the recruit-rich environs of Texas?

Who knows? What we do know is that Fitzgerald has routinely wrung the most out of what he’s got.

 

Wildcats 5-year Trajectory

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Over the past five seasons, Fitzgerald is nearly four wins ahead of his expected win total. That’s not a huge difference, but it does reveal some consistency. Minus the six-win season in 2011, Fitzgerald’s been “in the black” in each of the past five seasons.

This year, through a series of injuries, Northwestern is nearly a half-win off the pace. What’s that mean? It means that, based on the points scored and allowed, this team is probably slightly better than their record indicates.

THE MATCH-UP

“We suck right now,” Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter said of his offense following last week’s loss to Iowa. That’s an interesting point of view because the Wildcats offense is almost exactly as efficient (5.74 yards per game) as the Huskers’ is (5.79). The Northwestern defense is slightly better.

Statistically speaking, this match-up is about as tight as I expect the game to be on Saturday.

 

Huskers v. Wildcats

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Nebraska’s biggest advantage remain in the run game, but this week, unlike some others, it’s on both sides of the ball. Thanks mostly to Ameer Abdullah, the Huskers were able to average better than six yards per carry last week, boosting their national average again. Minnesota’s stacked box wasn’t all that effective at actually stopping the run, but it worked remarkably well in this regard — it lured Nebraska away from the run game quite frequently. The Huskers’ had just 26 carries last week when you remove sacks from the equation. That was the fewest rushing attempts for Nebraska since it managed only 28 against Arkansas State in 2009.

Without Venric Mark in the lineup, I’m not sure how successful Northwestern would be trying to employ a similar ball-hogging strategy on offense. It’s simply not the Wildcats’ strength right now. But I have no idea why they wouldn’t employ a similar defensive strategy of loading up against the run and daring the Huskers to resist the temptation of one-on-one match ups at wide receiver. The best way to stop Nebraska’s powerful run game at this point seems to be simply asking them to throw the ball.

Speaking of which, the Huskers passing offense is starting to become something of a problem. Nebraska is averaging just 6.4 yards per pass this season against FBS teams. That’s 86th nationally — tied with Navy — and 11.48 percent off the national average. The Huskers’ wide receivers, even if it’s only Kenny Bell and Quincy Enunwa at this point, are too good for that. Theoretically, a strong ground game should only open up the passing game for big gains off play action. That hasn’t been the case for Nebraska this season where, too frequently, short passes just seem like less successful running plays.

Perhaps that will change with the Tommy Armstrong/Ron Kellogg III combo taking snaps. In the three games those guys played, Nebraska averaged 8.83 yards per attempt. That’s 22.13 percent above the current national average. It’s a significant difference.

HOW YOU’LL KNOW NEBRASKA’S IN GOOD SHAPE

A lot of the Huskers’ success or failure in this game might come down to Ameer Abdullah. If the junior running back looks fully healthy, nobody has really been able to slow him down this season. Northwestern has a pretty good run defense but both Ohio State and Wisconsin, two comparable teams to Nebraska in terms of rushing efficiency, averaged better than five yards per carry in their wins over the Wildcats. I’m not sure Nebraska can manage a number like that without Abdullah carrying most of the load, particularly with Armstrong/Kellogg taking the snaps. Neither of those two has been a huge factor in the run game, so it falls to Abdullah. If he shows no signs of being slowed by the ankle injury he sustained last week and Nebraska is able (and willing) to ride him tomorrow, Husker fans should feel OK. He’s the best weapon Nebraska has at this point.

WHEN TO WORRY

Kain Colter appears to finally be healthy. He took all of the snaps against Iowa last week and Husker fans don’t need to be reminded of his ability. Colter rushed for two touchdowns in the upset of Nebraska in Memorial Stadium in 2011. With Mark out for this game, the Wildcats’ rushing game needs help. Running back Treyvon Green looked like a more than capable backup early this season. Green averaged more than 6.8 yards per carry in non-conference play, but in his three games since has managed just 3.47 and didn’t play at all against Iowa last week. Green returned to practice this week, but his status for this game isn’t totally clear meaning that Northwestern will be quite happy if Colter is able to offer some relief in the run game. With the Huskers making some changes at linebacker, keeping Colter contained will be a major factor in this game. If Nebraska can’t, watch out.

RANDOM STAT

Northwestern hasn’t lost five straight Big Ten games since 2006.

UNIFORM ANALYSIS

It’s not easy being purple, but points to Northwestern for taking its most notable addition to the uni-sphere — the Northwestern stripe — and putting it literally front and center. When the Wildcats got an UnderArmour upgrade last year, the designers there took the school’s famous stripe — thin-thick-thin — and put it right on the chest. It was a bold move but when you don’t have a ton of football tradition to draw on, beyond the stripe of course, being bold works a little better. Last year the Wildcats debuted a pretty cool black helmet against the Huskers and added a white one to the mix this year for the season opener against Cal, but purple remains the bread and butter and, given that this is a mid-season Big Ten game, you can probably expect to see the standard on Saturday. Northwestern has both white and black pants to choose from on the road and, given that the Wildcats wore all-white last week against Iowa, I’d expect to see the black pants in Memorial Stadium tomorrow. That’s good. The purple-white-black is a good look.

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