Do We Underrate Pat Fitzgerald as an in-game coach?

Monster, monster, monster stats post from Bill Connelly of Football Study Hall over at the .com discussing what we can learn from Adversarial Statistics about Northwestern. Say what you will or whatever about the role of advanced statistics in college football, but this is fantastic, and it really helps you grip the nature of NU as a team: in a few quick numbers, we see that NU based its offense around long, methodical drives (not that we didn't know that) and obviously when Dan Persa, who was unreal at quick, short options and picking up yardage on the ground, went out, we lost the ability to do that and everything went caput. (And we can't tackle.) Like, I literally can't stress you enough how good of a piece this is to read if you're interested in NU sports right now, and he's doing it for everybody in the country.

Jump it to talk about what all this means, though?

What struck me is the same thing that struck Bill: Northwestern is consistently getting outscored over the course of a season, but they've been over .500 every year since I got to school. Somehow, the Cats manage to stay bowl eligible despite playing every game close, winning seemingly way more than they should. And the question, as arises all the time, is, uh, why? We all know this, but take a look at the stats he gives you: we're near WASHINGTON AND MINNESOTA? And we win? Yikes.

We call ourselves the Cardiac Cats. (And then we get mad when things somehow turn out the wrong way in bowl games after an entire season of them coming out right.) Some people call us lucky. Last year, I wrote a post about how some people called NU's intense ability to recover fumbles in close victories in 2008 and 2009 luck, while I thought it was based on a defense-wide insistence on stripping the ball (perhaps to compensate for how bad we are at tackling, perhaps a mitigating factor in that problem.) This year, the fumbles - what some critics said was fluky - disappeared, as NU's fumble stats were nearly halved, from 26 forced and 13 recovered to 14 forced and seven recovered. But the "luck" factor was still there: NU won five games by less than five points, and only lost one such game.

Connelly's suggestion is that it can't just be luck. There has to be some factor there - and he thinks it's coach Fitz.

...as a pure game coach, there might not be a better one in the country.  It takes both recruiting success and coaching acumen to win big

Connelly is certainly right in that after a certain point, it's likely that years and years of close, fluky victories - whether they be via absurd amounts of fumbles or simply just being close games - has to have some reasoning behind it. But his selection of Fitzgerald came off as strange. When Fitz received a ten-year extension last week, we as a community praised him. But we didn't praise his in-game coaching skill. We praised his dedication to the school, his energy, his role as the face of NU football and the recruiting success that could come along with it. We didn't talk about his clutch late-game decisions or his smart gameplanning. In fact, we almost viewed those as mitigating factors: in fact, this site is not unfamiliar with criticism of Fitz's conservative playcalling in many late-game scenarios, with the only standout being the praised "Heater" call at the end of the Outback Bowl. In short, while we're seemingly discontented with all the non-game aspects of Fitz, NU keeps inexplicably cutting it super close on the field. Perhaps year after year we just keep on bringing in players who are naturally predisposed to close game situations, but that's not even a sentence that makes sense.

So, what do you think? Do we give Fitz the praise he deserves as an in-game coach? Are we just lucky? And if not, what else could it be? ANSWER ME DAMMIT.

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