by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn).
A cursory glance at the box score from Northwestern’s 22-13 victory over Boston College Saturday reveals a domineering performance. The Wildcats held an advantage in most every meaningful statistical category, including first downs (34-22), rushing yards (293-25), total offense (560-316), third-down conversions (12-of-19, 2-of-11), time of possession (35:56-24:04) and first downs (34-22). Though the Eagles outgained NU through the air (291-267), the Wildcats were more efficient with their passing attack, completing 30 of 40 attempts to BC’s 24-44 mark. Indeed, for those who weren’t able to actually watch, NU’s statistical dominance may have given the impression it won this game comfortably, that the Eagles were decidedly outperformed in every phase of the game.
But a host of penalties and toe-stubs in the red zone prevented NU from crossing the endzone until the final two minutes, when tailback Mike Trumpy capped an imposing 16-carry, 106-yd performance with a 27-yd touchdown run to put the Wildcats up 22-13 and the game out of reach. That up-the-middle plunge quelled any doubts NU would preserve its unbeaten record this season, but for much of the afternoon, BC was able to hang around thanks to NU’s inability to finish drives. On paper, the Wildcats had their way with Frank Spaziani’s squad. The scoreboard said otherwise.
“This is why I always tell you guys that stats are for losers,” said Pat Fitzgerald of his team’s offensive miscues. “It was as unbelievable of a ball movement, keeping possession, putting together great drives, picking up third downs. I can keep going on. But at the end of the day, we have to turn those three into seven.”
The offensive inefficiency – sustaining drives deep into opposing territory, but not completing them with touchdowns – vaulted junior field goal kicker Jeff Budzien onto center stage. Budzien, who last year made just six field goals and only one from beyond 43 yards, nearly eclipsed that total Saturday by converting on five-of-five attempts. His sterling 16-point effort tied the school record for field goals set by Joel Howells in Sept. 2005 against Penn State. With Saturday’s outing, Budzien moves to 8-for-8 on the year, not to mention a perfect 9-for-9 on extra point attempts.
Last season, Budzien never gained complete trust of his head coach on kicks longer than 40 yards. Fitzgerald’s skepticism made absolute sense: Budzien made but one field goal of challenging distance. His apparent range limitations prompted NU to attempt 28 fourth down conversions, which ranked first among Big Ten teams. The Wildcats got burned on one of their fourth-down risks Saturday, when Trevor Siemian fumbled a snap at the BC five-yard line while attempting a QB keeper.
The cost-benefit analysis of fourth-down conversions is forever tempting, particularly when you dominate the game as thoroughly and convincingly as NU did to that point yet come away with no touchdowns. Budzien’s success should inspire confidence in Fitzgerald to take the safe route and secure three points, rather than attempt risky fourth down conversions. If he continues this run of perfection, hitting kicks from both short and longer distances, the costs – depending on the situation, distance, flow of play and so on – outweigh the benefit of three easy points. After that second-quarter blunder, Fitzgerald called Budzien’s name three times, and each time, he rose to the occasion.
“I don’t think there’s anything different with Jeff,” Fitzgerald said about Budzien’s kicking prowess this season. “He’s been very, very consistent with his physical and mental approach towards treating every (practice) kick like it’s a game kick.”
Loath as Fitzgerald is to admit it, there is a marked change in the way Budzien approaches the various-distanced challenges that confront him. Ball placement has remained largely the same; step counting, timing, technique – none of it seems all that much different. It’s the total package that’s improved, the 11-man effort of snapping, protecting and kicking a field goal. Budzien knows the lions share of credit goes to himself, but he’s quick to mention his special teams brethren as equally important parts of the equation.
“What I’m most fortunate for is that we have a snapper Pat Hickey, Holder Brandon Williams and eight guys blocking up front that do a great job and take pride in what they’re doing,” concluded Budzien as he reflected on his breakout performance. “It’s an 11-man operation and I’m just one of the eleven. They deserve more credit than me because they put pride in their roles. They might not be the glory roles, but they’re doing a great job.”
The silver lining in Budzien’s banner performance: his success was as much a function of the offense’s struggles as it was his own kicking exploits. A kicker needs plenty of attempts to make five field goals, and those attempts normally come at the chagrin of offensive playcallers, who’d rather see their unit continue driving forward in the pursuit of seven – and not three – points. Let me be clear: this is not an indictment on Budzien's performance, nor am I demeaning his efforts in any way; making five field goals is a notable feat. It’s just not the most favorable offensive outcome. People want to see their teams score touchdowns, not settle for field goals. It’s an agonizing sentiment felt by all purple-clad onlookers throughout much of Saturday’s win. Budzien understands as much, which allowed him to provide some perspective on his outing.
“It was great to get field goal reps, I work quite a bit on that in practice, so it’s nice to put that into a game aspect and help the team out like that,” Budzien said. “But at a time when we need touchdowns, it’s great to see the team put seven point up.”
Even when the spotlight beckons, Budzien, cognizant of the prevailing dichotomy attached to field goal frequency (successful or not), demurs. Three points is a nice consolation prize, but Budzien wants seven – just like everybody else.