Our analysis of Northwestern's 27-19, 3OT loss to Michigan.
Not controlling the controllable
Northwestern has been extremely unlucky this year. There's no doubting that. From injuries to the Hail Mary against Nebraska to the last second field goal against Michigan, it's been a rough year, and one in which the Wildcats likely won't go bowling.
The typical response to this game was something to the tune of "that's so Northwestern," like some force of nature has it out for NU. Obviously, those comments are made tongue-in-cheek, but the idea that NU's losses are due to unavoidable bad luck isn't true.
You create your own luck to some extent, and the Wildcats have done a terrible job of doing that. The injuries are unavoidable (NU was actually extremely lucky, injury-wise, in 2012) but other things aren't. Let's start with this game: had NU not let Devin Gardner break two tackles on fourth-and-six, the Wolverines wouldn't have been able to attempt a field goal. Had the Wildcats turned field goals into touchdowns, the field goal wouldn't have mattered.
The same goes for the Nebraska and Iowa games. The Huskers wouldn't have been able to attempt the Hail Mary if a receiver hadn't broken tackles to convert a fourth-and-15. NU likely would have beaten Iowa if it hadn't fumbled twice in Hawkeye territory (just once probably would have been fine).
This is at least a 7-3 caliber team, even including the injuries, that will likely miss a bowl game, and the advanced stats support that:
Unlucky? Sure. But Pat Fitzgerald always talks about his team controlling things they can control. That is where they've failed this season.
- Trevor Siemian has gotten a lot of flack this season, and rightfully so. His drop in production during conference season was pretty remarkable. However, he had a solid outing against the Wolverines, completing 19-of-28 passes for 153 yards, including a number of drops that weren't his fault.
He's been better, sure, but today was a step in the right direction. A lot of people are assuming next year will be the Matt Alviti show, but Siemian will have every opportunity to win that job.
- You can't say enough about how much the NU defense has improved this year. The defensive ends have been outstanding, and in this game, the linebackers and cornerbacks did a great job of sealing off the edge. This group has playmakers, and it's only going to get better next season.
- That said, the one knock on the defense after Saturday's game is how many interceptions it dropped. That falls into the "creating your own luck" department.
- NU is known for being innovative in its play-calling, but the Wildcats have been extremely conservative this year. NU punted a lot near midfield, and while I disagreed with most of those calls — at 0-5 in the Big Ten, what is there to lose? — at least Fitzgerald had a decent explanation: the defense was playing well. However, the play-calling in the red zone was very questionable. It simply has to be better than inside zone, inside zone, option/pass, field goal. That's part of why the offense has been so putrid in the red zone this year, and it was an issue again Saturday night.