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Bye Week Thoughts: Northwestern Idle As Crucial Test At Michigan Looms

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

The timing of a bye-week is often just as important as the rest and recovery it provides. A game-less Saturday can cure a losing lull, ignite a hopeless team, cool a hot-streak, along with a handful of other possibilities. Northwestern is in no dire need of an off-week. In fact, it can be argued the Wildcats are better off taking the field this weekend, so as to carry the momentum from last week’s convincing win over Iowa into a crucial division test at Michigan. Not playing a game this weekend, and thereby missing out on the usual preparation and intense focus required in the leadup to gameday, could disrupt NU’s momentum.

The competing school of thought says the Wildcats, like all football teams, are better off resting and collecting themselves, that a two-week preparation period will serve them well against a formidable team like Michigan, that a week of physical and mental relaxation is an outwardly positive luxury to enjoy this late in the season. Wherever you fall on the matter, consider this: Northwestern, under Pat Fitzgerald, is 0-3 coming off bye-weeks and 0-10 when allotted more than a seven days of preparation. That streak of futility may or may not continue next weekend, and we’ll have plenty of preview coverage next week to get you prepared. In the meantime, here are three bye-week thoughts as NU rests up for the trip to Ann Arbor next week.

Revisionist History: What if Northwestern Held on Against Nebraska…..? 

It never seems fair to go back in time and make bold proclamations based on one close result or missed opportunities, because with so many different variables and contingencies involved, any number of outcomes are on the table. But I have to admit, looking at the way the Legends landscape has shaped up over the past two weeks, there’s a decent chance NU, provided they held on against Nebraska at home two weeks ago, would be in the drivers seat in the Legends division, controlling their own destiny and holding the inside track on a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship. Assuming all other results played held to form – NU beat Iowa, Nebraska beat Michigan – the Wildcats would claim a one-game lead in the Division, and (thanks to the head-to-head tie-breaker) a virtual two-game advantage over the Huskers. A win at Michigan next week, bringing NU to a 5-1 conference record, likely would have sealed their ticket to the championship game.

That’s a harsh reality for Wildcats fans, especially because NU by all accounts should have beaten Nebraska given the 12-point lead it held with less than nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Alas, football is a game of inches, and no one learned that lesson in more devastating fashion than Jeff Budzien, whose 53-yd field goal late in the fourth quarter sailed inches wide of the right goal post and closed the door on NU’s comeback attempt. I point out the field goal not to pin the loss on Budzien, but to paint a broader picture for the way single plays, errors, and mishaps – the stuff that can be broken down into seconds and minute distances – can transform games and seasons. We cannot change that history. All NU can do now is trudge forward, beat Michigan next week, hope Nebraska stumbles down the stretch, and hope its Division hopes are revived.

A Run-First Offense

There’s no point in debating the point any longer. It’s best to embrace it and enjoy the ride. Northwestern, after leading the Big Ten in passing offense at 254.2 yards per game last season, is definitively, unquestionably, most definitely (insert affirmative modifier here) a run-first offense. The Wildcats rank third among league opponents in that department (236.44 yards per game), having attempted 403 running plays over nine games, netting 24 touchdowns at a 5.3 yards per carry clip. Contrast that with the passing game, which ranks last among Big Ten foes at 162.3 yards per game, and has produced just 253 attempts and seven touchdowns.

Arguably the strongest position group heading into this season, at least on paper, was the wide receivers. Nine weeks into the season, that hasn’t changed. Rather, NU has adapted to its strength, a schematic shift that’s conspired to marginalize the receiver’s role in this offense. The Wildcats are a more dynamic offense with Kain Colter and Venric Mark running an option-based attack than they are with Trevor Siemian leading a more conventional, pass-heavy scheme. The results bear it out. Just because NU boasts arguably the Big Ten’s deepest and most talented set of wideouts doesn’t mean it needs to be a pass-first offense. The way Venric Mark has elevated this team, the way he and Colter have refined their split decision-making synchronicity to the point where defenders are regularly left clueless when trying to discern who has the ball at any given moment, proceeding forward with a new offensive focus is counterproductive. The run game is working to great effect. Last week’s game against Iowa was confirmation enough of the fact. For the first time all season, after weeks of confusing quarterback switches and offensive confusion, NU has an identity. It’s not quite the variety we expected back in August, but it’s hard to argue the results.

7-2: a soft schedule? Or does NU deserve more praise?

I’ve struggled with this question for the better part of this season. There’s no question the Big Ten is down this season. The league’s (postseason eligible) preseason frontrunners – Michigan State, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin – have all disappointed. Others expected to compete for division titles have failed to meet expectations – Purdue and Iowa come to mind. And it’s hard to dismiss the notion that NU’s schedule has softened its road to a 7-2 start. NU’s best wins to date include home victories over Vanderbilt (4-2, 2-3 SEC) and Iowa (4-4, 2-2 Big Ten). Maybe the Minnesota win amounts to something more by season’s end. Or maybe Boston College and Syracuse are better than their records indicate. In any case, it’s obvious this schedule is not an incredibly difficult one, and NU’s record has benefited as a result.

Schedule strength is an important part of any team’s win-loss mark, so it’s natural for skeptics to question a team’s ledger when the level of competition is, on the whole, weak. That argument applies to NU, but it ignores the Wildcats’ efforts against its two toughest opponents – Penn State and Nebraska. In both games, the Wildcats held commanding fourth-quarter leads. If not for a series of costly errors, NU would likely be undefeated heading into the bye-week. A 9-0 record, no matter the level of competition, is something that cannot be ignored. The Wildcats, whether fluky or not, would be a factor in the national championship picture. Two blown leads canceled that scenario, and NU’s 7-2 start is downplayed as a function of soft schedule strength. Fair or not, one of the Big Ten’s better storylines is not receiving nearly the amount of national attention it deserves. We will likely get a better sense of NU’s true strength over the next two weeks, with tough road contests at Michigan and Michigan State. Reserving judgment until then is probably the best course of action.

Win-loss records are the most loaded statistic in sports – they mean so much, yet reflect so little. There are so many variables involved that it’s hard to make credible evaluations on any team based solely on that number. It’s a crude measure of a team’s value, and it’s largely uninformative. I’m not sure where to gauge NU’s 7-2 start in the grander competitive structure of college football. Schedule strength helps or hurts any team’s season, and NU is no different. The soft schedule has boosted NU’s win-loss total, but it does not define it. The Wildcats’ performance on the field cannot be neglected just because its opponents haven’t lived up to expectations. NU beat seven of the nine teams on its schedule, and came exceedingly close in the two games it didn’t. That’s a distinguished feat any way you slice it.