Hot Reads: Northwestern's Defense Is a Long
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: Northwestern’s Defense Is a Long, Difficult Novel

October 02, 2019

Two weeks ago, Wisconsin shredded Michigan's defense. This is a defense that in the four previous seasons under coordinator Don Brown had been one of the most consistent in the country, ranking in the top eight nationally in yards per play each year. But the Badgers made it look easy. They posted a success rate of 49.3% in the 35-14 win. That's business as usual for Wisconsin early this year. It's season-long average is a strong 48.2%.

But the Badgers were plenty explosive, too. Wisconsin hit for an explosive play on 17.8% of its plays against Michigan–better than fairly average 15.8% over the season as a whole––and averaged 6.7 yards per play.

One week later, Northwestern, a 23-point underdog, held the Badgers to 4.1 yards per play, a 32.7% success rate and a 10% explosive-play percentage. It only allowed one offensive touchdown to Wisconsin. The Wildcats at 1-3 are still very Northwestern on offense and defense.

Here are the efficiency and explosiveness numbers for Nebraska and Northwestern ahead of Saturday's game:


Success Rate 44.9% 43.0% 36.9%
>Std. Down SR 51.0% 49.1% 44.6%
>Pass Down SR 31.5% 31.5% 24.3%
Explosive Plays Pct. 17.5% 15.2% 12.9%
>Exp. Run Pct. 16.6% 14.7% 14.3%
>Exp. Pass Pct. 19.9% 16.1% 9.4%



Success Rate 40.0% 43.0% 40.8%
>Std. Down SR 45.3% 49.1% 49.1%
>Pass Down SR 30.9% 31.5% 25.5%
Explosive Plays Pct. 15.4% 15.2% 11.3%
>Exp. Run Pct. 16.5% 14.7% 10.9%
>Exp. Pass Pct. 14.5% 16.1% 12.4%

Based on those numbers, this sets up as a pretty classic Nebraska-Northwestern game. The Huskers have the offense capable of putting up points, the Wildcats the defense that typically makes that very hard. Flip it around and Nebraska's numbers on defense are creeping up since the start or Big Ten play, but Northwestern's offense is struggling in just about every area at the moment.

Same as it ever was. At least since 2011. The Huskers have won four of those games, the Wildcats have won four.

The comparisons above show a pretty clear key to success for the Huskers, a 7.5-point favorite as of Wednesday morning. I think it comes down to the offense being willing to do all of the drudgery a Northwestern defense usually requires an offense to do. The Wildcats' defense is better than average in five of the six categories above. It's exactly average in standard downs success rate. Those are downs when an offense is "on schedule." They are not advantageous situations for a defense, but it's part of the structure for Northwestern.

"Most offenses are not patient enough to go the length of the field but they are one. A lot of times the most disciplined team out there will be the most successful one," inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said on Tuesday.

He was talking about Northwestern's offense of course, but the Wildcats' defense poses that exact challenge to opposing offense. Most offenses are not patient enough. That's important. It's why big plays are so damaging for a defense. If an offense can lop off two series of downs from a drive with one 30-yard gain, its chances of derailing that drive with an ill-timed penalty or turnover decrease.

Northwestern doesn't let teams do that. The Wildcats are a long, difficult novel. If an offense is going to get to the end, it will have to earn it. So far this season, Northwestern's opponents have had to run 8.4 plays per drive to get a scoring opportunity (field goal attempt or touchdown). Putting the ball in the end zone has required 8.9 plays on average.

Nebraska's offensive drives with a scoring opportunity have required 6.9 plays on average. Same for touchdown drives. The difference there between how quickly Nebraska's offense scores touchdowns (6.9 plays per drive) and Northwestern's defense allows one (8.9) adds up over the course of a game. 

The Huskers' explosiveness isn't a sustainability concern in my mind, but Northwestern is a defense that really forces the point. Nebraska's success rate is strong enough that it should be able to sustain drives, but this is also an offense with the second-most turnovers (14) in the country.

That's where those extra eight to 10 plays, the Fitzgerald Tax, come into play. It's basic defensive football––be in the right place, don't give up big plays, let the offense make a mistake before you do––but it's hard to execute.

Except at Northwestern. Pat Fitzgerald has crafted an identity out of that.

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