Stats are for losers, just ask Pat Fitzgerald.
That's the Northwestern coach's favorite saying, and in a way, he's right. The only "stat" that matters at the end of the game is the scoreboard. So in that stat, NU came out on top today, taking down Maine 35-21. However, in other stats — total yards and time of possession — the Black Bears had the edge. Every game is different, and if the NU team that demolished Syracuse was on the field today, the margin of victory would have been much, much greater.
When you look at a stat sheet, it's all about finding trends, and it's easy to dismiss some of the stats in this game as anomalies. For instance, the offense had a rough day, but that's not all that concerning. The NU offense had a bad day today, but it has a long track record of being spectacular, especially when needed. The games against Cal and Syracuse? It's much less likely those games were flukes than this one.
However, some of the issues in this game validated trends that have been set over the course of four games. And while those things can be corrected over the course of the season, they're issues that have to be addressed. And while Fitzgerald was (understandably) uninterested in addressing them after the game, he'll certainly address them in practice over the next two weeks as the Ohio State game looms.
While the NU defense has proven to be opportunistic this season, and while the pass rush has been great — the defensive ends, specifically, have been phenomenal — the defensive tackles and the cornerbacks still have some major question marks.
"For the most part, I think we’ve controlled the line of scrimmage in all four weeks," Fitzgerald said.
The defensive ends have had their way with opposing offensive lines. But the defensive tackles? That's a different story. You have to take this result with a little bit of a grain of salt because Sean McEvilly was out with a lower-body injury. However, the defensive tackles have struggled to create a push in the run and pass games throughout the entire season. Today, with Chance Carter and Will Hampton in the starting lineup, the struggle continued.
Teams have had little success running laterally on NU, but they've done a surprisingly good job running the ball up the middle. Last year, NU's defensive tackles — led by Brian Arnfelt — were rock solid against inside runs, but this year, they haven't held up nearly as well. The need for more run support has caused the linebackers to crash toward the line on play action, and today, it gave Maine a lot of room to throw over the middle. If Maine can do that, what can Ohio State do? That's a fair question, and it's a correction the Wildcats have to focus on in the 13 days leading up to the showdown with Ohio State.
Then there's the pass defense.
The ends have done a solid job of creating pressure, even when the defensive tackles haven't pushed the pocket. However, the secondary's woes continued today, as Maine quarterback Marcus Wasilewski threw for 237 yards, including a 59-yard bomb in which redshirt freshman Dwight White got burnt.
Twitter started calling for White's benching, but to Fitzgerald had a pretty good answer to those criticisms.
"You take away that explosion pass part and it’s not a bad day from a defensive output," he said.
That's not entirely true — it still wasn't a great day from the defense — but aside from that one play, White seemed to have a solid outing. Moreover, replacing White with true freshman Matt Harris isn't necessarily the key to solve all of the secondary's problems, though Harris certainly could end up with that job at some point. Overall, the secondary has been better this season, but those "explosion" plays have been an issue for NU this season, just like last year. And regardless of who starts at cornerback, that's something that needs to be addressed, because Ohio State does explosion plays about as well as anyone in the country — or at least, better than Maine.
So yes, a win is a win is a win. NU is 4-0 right now, and in the long run, that's all that matters.
But no matter how you slice it, this wasn't a banner day for NU — there were issues abound. Some of those issues — like the offensive struggles — seem like anomalies, and those probably aren't worth fretting over. But the trends? If NU wants to beat Ohio State, or even be a top Big Ten team, those can't be the norm anymore.