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Northwestern by the numbers: Special teams

“Northwestern by the Numbers” is our humble attempt to break down some of the Wildcats’ more notable statistics (team or player-related) from last season, and try to predict if and/or how they will change this upcoming season. The second part of our analysis won’t include as many statistics, simply because projecting improved or depressed performance is less scientific, and involves more observation and guess work, than reviewing old data. (A note: we will be using advanced stats from FootballOutsiders in our explanations. If you’re unfamiliar with any of these numbers, check out the FO stats info page for explanations of the various measures they use to quantify performance.) 

Our hope is to offer a unique numerical perspective to the team you watch and read about every week. And hey, next time you’re locked in a Wildcats-involved team or player debate with a friend, or are particularly keen on impressing your boss at the office holiday party with some wonky football insight, or simply strive to sound smarter when discussing NU football, it never hurts to have some statistical ammo at the ready. 

Stat: Northwestern was good on special teams 2012.

Why it happened

Maybe it's not a statistic in any strict definition of the concept, but the above phrase encompasses a cluster of interesting data points, and it's definitely worth digging into. The easy explanation for why Northwestern was good at special teams last season involves two players: Venric Mark and Jeff Budzien. Mark was one of the best punt returners in the country. Budzien was deadly accurate from anywhere inside 50 yards. It’s not difficult to put these two facts together and come to the grand conclusion that, yes, Northwestern was more than well-off in the oft-forgotten third phase of the game in 2012. But the focus of these “Northwestern by the numbers” pieces is to burrow beneath the obvious and uncover something you couldn’t already glean from basic observation and counting statistics.

Anyone can look at Mark’s punt return touchdowns and Budzien’s near-perfect season and merely assume Northwestern fielded one of the better special teams units in the country last season; and you wouldn’t be wrong for making that assumption. But to gain a deeper understanding of the entire special teams operation – not just Mark and Budzien, but punting, coverage units, you name it – you need advanced statistics to quantify what field goal make rates and punt return averages (and not even scrupulous film study) cannot. In that spirit, let’s try and pin down exactly why Northwestern was so successful on special teams last season.

Field goals

The only field goal Budzien missed last season was from 53 yards. He finished the season 19-for-20, setting a school record for single-season FG percentage (0.95), made all 50 of his PAT attempts, and became the first NU kicker to be named an All-Big Ten performer by the coaches since Brian Gowins in 1997. He also has a clever social media campaign touting his statistical bona fides, and a mind-numbingly cool trick shot video to boot. Budzien’s good. Predictably, the Wildcats ranked fourth in the country in field goal efficiency, which measures “the scoring value per field goal attempt earned by the field goal unit as measured against national success rates,” according to FootballOutsiders. That ranking is not surprising; like I mentioned above: everybody (except the Groza Award committee, apparently) already knew Budzien was one of the best kickers in the country.

Blocking field goals

One of the reasons football lags behind baseball, basketball and even Hockey in its use of advanced statistics is fundamentally simple: the game is, by nature, awash with uncontrollable randomness. The ball is oval-shaped, prone to bouncing unpredictably; weather forces stylistic adjustments on offense and defense. Those are just two examples, but the basic message is clear. It is more difficult to explain statistically why things happen in football than it is in most other sports.

One example? Opponent field goal percentage. Some teams are better at blocking field goals than others – Virginia tech is known for it’s “Beamer ball” – but for the most part, the elements underpinning opponent field goal success lend more to sheer randomness (wind, rain, a botched hold, etc.), coupled with the accuracy of a kicker on that particular day, than a unit’s FG-blocking prowess. That’s why I’m hesitant to glean too much insight from Northwestern’s 86.7 opponent field goal rate, the second highest (worst) mark in the Big Ten.

That’s not a great number, and neither is the Wildcats’ 0.151 opponent field goal efficiency mark, which falls 88th among FBS teams, but compared to the other aspects of special teams performance, opponent field goal success feels trivial by comparison. (Football Outsiders excludes OFGE from its composite “Special Teams Efficiency” measure). What if, for example, kickers just happened to have more favorable weather conditions in games against Northwestern? Or ran into a higher percentage, on average, of short-range attempts? Northwestern ranked 6th in the statistic last season, and could well finish near the middle of the pack (or higher) this year. Make of it what you will, I suppose.

Kickoffs and kick coverage

This is one of Northwestern’s biggest special teams weaknesses – that was my impression, at least. Steve Flaherty, who graduated this offseason, handled the Wildcats’ kickoff duties for the second straight year in 2012. Unlike punting, the barometer for kickoff quality is fairly straightforward: distance and touchbacks are the two fundamental objectives. Flaherty largely struggled to accomplish either: his 59.56 kickoff average ranked 11th in the Big Ten and 97th nationally; the 16 touchbacks he generated out of 83 total attempts (which, percentage-wise, comes out to 19.05) also finished 11th in the Big Ten. Nationally, his touchbacks percentage crossed the ignominious triple-digits threshold, coming in at 106th.

None of those numbers look good, and there was plenty of grumbling last season about Flaherty giving opponents too generous a starting point on runbacks. It didn’t appear to matter all that much to the kickoff coverage unit, which limited opponents to an average of 19.71 yards on run backs, the 3rd best mark in the Big Ten and 32nd best in the nation. Efficiency numbers corroborate NU’s swarming kickoff coverage: Northwestern ranked 22nd in the country in kickoff efficiency, which seeks to quantify the effectiveness of a kick coverage units.

This is arguably the most interesting component of Northwestern’s special teams, because despite Flaherty’s ostensible shortcomings on kickoffs, both basic and advanced statistics strongly recommend the performance of NU’s coverage units. His struggles speak volumes about NU’s ability to wrap up ballcarriers on returns; the Wildcats’ coverage team was forced to overcome some of the worst kickoff distance and touchback percentage numbers in the conference and still performed at a top-25 level.

Punting and punt coverage

Punting value is difficult to gauge. There are a host of different factors to consider: is distance more important than location? Are deep kicks allowing runbacks better than short ones that don’t? Do different strategies exist for different opposing return men? Does field position change one’s approach to each punt? None of these questions can be answered with one simple statistic, but we have a few numbers to gauge how NU’s punter in 2012, Brandon Williams, performed in a season many (and rightfully so) billed his best as a Wildcat to date. His average distance of 39.91 yards wasn’t all that impressive. It ranked seventh the Big Ten and 85th in the FBS.

Average distance isn’t anything close to a perfect substitute for punting quality, so let’s throw out a few more numbers. Budzien’s average net yards per punt (37.6), which subtracts any return yardage or touchbacks from total distance, ranked third in the Big Ten. That sounds a little better. Even more promising? The Wildcats’ punt coverage units – a fuzzy mixture of Williams’ punt placement and NU’s coverage teams – allowed an average of just 4.86 yards per return, good for 19th in the country and third in the Big Ten. Efficiency stats paint a more flattering picture: the Wildcats, according to FO, were one of the 10 stingiest punt coverage units in the country – eighth, to be exact.

Much like Budzien’s perception-confirming statistical analysis, these numbers essentially validate the storyline propping up Budzien’s punting 2012 efforts as the best of his career to date, and some of the best within his own league. Throwing Northwestern’s punt coverage units into the picture gives Williams’ punts – their placement, their hang time, their distance – a more instructive contextual framework. Not only was Williams a good punter on his own merits, his ability to put Northwestern’s punt coverage personnel in position to make plays and limit big returns was arguably just as valuable.

Punt returns

You know what to expect in this section. Northwestern, thanks to the dazzling return exploits of one Venric Mark, ranked favorably in any and all punt return metrics in 2012. Let’s start with Mark’s average return yardage, 18.7, which would have made him the top mark in the nation had he met the 1.2-punts-per-game qualification baseline. He ran back two punts for touchdowns, left defenders flailing hopelessly on countless others and was named an All-American by FWAA. (His contributions as a running back are nearly as impressive, but we won’t address them here, even though Mark does deserve some recognition for balancing special teams and offensive duties as effectively as he did. A lot of successful punt returners are specialists, confined to one basic responsibility. Mark was anything but).

He created plenty of big plays that didn’t result in touchdowns but otherwise put Northwestern in tremendous drive-starting field position. To wit: Northwestern ranked behind only Nebraska in the Big Ten with four punt returns of more than 20+ yards, and first in every subsequent category measuring returns of 30+ yards, 40+, 50+ and on down the line. Thanks to Mark’s tremendous punt return production, the Wildcats also ranked eighth in the country in punt return efficiency – and given the highlight reels and basic statistics that already proved Mark was a great return man, this number is, like Budzien’s FG efficiency, one of the least surprising stats we’ve looked at so far.

Kick returns

The ever-present home-run potential of Northwestern’s punt returns does not extend to kick returns. Indeed, the Wildcats advanced 20.87 yards on average, 7th in the Big Ten and 75th in the country. Expectedly, the Wildcats finished 80th in FO’s kick return efficiency.

Last season, Mark and receiver Tony Jones split the kick-returning load. Both players are explosive, possess tremendous straightline speed and are capable of generating big plays whenever they touch the ball. Their relative struggles in the kick return game is sort of perplexing, but again, like most of the other measurable sectors of NU’s special teams, the statistical evidence does not belie the game film. Northwestern was not very effective at running back kicks last season.

The bottom line 

Putting aside kickoffs and kick returns, Northwestern boasted one of the best special teams units in the country last season. This basic truth is not difficult to process; watching pretty much any of the Wildcats’ game last season would have left you with the same impression. We’ve broken down all the various components underpinning overall special teams quality, and the picture – despite the noted kickoff and kick return deficiencies – is promising.

So, without further ado, Northwestern’s special teams efficiency, a catch-all for total special teams performance, for 2012: 2.895, the fourth-best mark in the country. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. You saw how effective Northwestern’s special teams were last season, how crucial they were to the team’s 10-win season. Advanced statistics don’t dispute that premise; they downright endorse it.

(This doesn’t apply exclusively to special teams, but it should be noted Northwestern finished 18th in the country in Field Position Advantage, the metric FO uses to gauge how the starting point of a team’s drives ranked against its opponents’. There are a number of angles with which to dissect this number, but punting and kick coverage, two areas Northwestern excelled in as measured by FO’s efficiency ranks, seem like the best places to start. Punt and kick returns are likewise relevant in any exhaustive field position analysis. It’s hard to extract too much insight from this number – a team’s ability to consistently gain better field position than its opponents is, like many aspects of football, tough to parse out into discrete statistical parts. What we do know: Winning the field position battle is hugely important, and the Wildcats clearly excelled in this regard). 

Why it could change

Almost all of Northwestern’s major special teams contributors return in 2013, save Steve Flaherty, whose kickoff duties could go to either Budzien or true freshman Hunter Niswander. Mark will continue to handle punt returns on a full-time basis, Budzien will retain his field goal responsibilities (with no shortage of informative Twitter-proffered #Budzienfacts every step of the way) and Brandon Williams is entrenched as the starting punter. The kick return situation remains an open question; Mark and Jones could split the job, I suppose. Inserting Jones in that role, and allowing Mark to focus on punt returns and running back, seems like a more favorable division of labor.

Mark was banged up at various points last season and is clearly more effective on punt returns than he is on kick returns. And however much he might argue this point, Mark needs to conserve the number of hits he subjects himself to over the course of the season. Not only is he Northwestern’s most explosive offensive weapons, he’s one of its most valuable players, full stop. Plus, Jones has the speed and explosiveness to take the KR job and hit the ground running, with little worry for drop-off from last season’s lowly combined efforts. Raising the bar from last season (details above) with Jones running back all kicks is a reasonable expectation.

This is another good special teams group. Trying to match last season’s 4th place finish could be a stretch – the painful realities of statistical regression should naturally bump Mark and Budzien’s performance down a notch or two – but the Wildcats should again trot out one of the best special teams units in the country. It was one of the undertold storylines of last season’s momentous 10-win breakthrough. This season, special teams play will again bear great influence on Northwestern’s win-loss record.

*For more on NU’s special teams, I strongly recommend Sippin' on Purple editor Rodger Sherman’s player-focused breakdown. Great analysis.