Yes, I’m aware that Melvin Gordon rushed for a career-high 259 yards against Northwestern last weekend. Yes, I’m aware that he ran off multiple runs of 40+ yards and at times made the Northwestern defense look high-school level. But I’m here to tell you that Northwestern’s interior run defense actually played well last Saturday, and they’ll need to put forth a similar performance tomorrow against Minnesota if they want to build on the momentum they’ve built the past two games.
While the 259 figure is gaudy to say the least, Gordon’s median run average was strikingly similar to Justin Jackson’s. Let’s take a trip back to Algebra 1: if you cross out the shortest run, then the longest run, then the second shortest and second longest and so on, the number that’s in the middle is the median. In football terms, that means that if you remove Gordon’s huge runs (which he has a penchant for- through five games, he’s averaging an unfathomable 42.8 (!!!) yards in his first carry of the second half), he and Jackson were similarly affective. In fact, they had the same median yards per carry.
Of course, that's not how football works when evaluating an overall performance, but it can help you be predictive of future performances. And given that none of the big runs were on the middle of the front seven — the part we particularly consider "run defense" — and given that Northwestern rarely gives up big plays, it's fair to think that Gordon's big runs were outliers, and that on the play-by-play grind, the core of NU's run defense did a very good job containing a potential Heisman candidate.
A look at the film shows that the big runs were on the back seven — most notably the safeties and corners — and not on the defensive line. None of the explosive runs came from Gordon hitting holes that are large enough to drive a truck through, as was the case in the 2013 shellacking the Badgers handed Northwestern.
Northwestern’s defensive tackles are, and have historically been, undersized by Big Ten standards. But size is only a piece of the puzzle when it comes to running the football; the best NFL and even college offensive lines often aren’t the biggest ones. Just because you’re huge doesn’t mean you can move, and mobility is absolutely crucial when it comes to offensive line.
Take this stat: Wisconsin has only one offensive lineman that’s listed below 300 pounds, but he’s a 274 redshirt freshman that is described as "having a lot of room to fill out." They breed big boys in Wisconsin, and the Badgers currently have sixteen offensive linemen listed at or above 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds. Northwestern, for comparison, has three players listed above 300 pounds on the entire roster. But NU was able to compete for, and sometimes even win, the battle at the line of scrimmage. In fact, NU finished with five tackles for loss.
The defense has played inspired football the last two weeks. To force the number of turnovers they have and hold two good football teams to 20 points combined in conference games is something they should be proud of. But the entire unit, and particularly the interior linemen, need to put forth a similar effort on Saturday, because Minnesota likes to run up the middle. I mean, Minnesota looooves to run up the middle. They’re going to do so early and often on Saturday, and it will be gigantic for the ‘Cats if they can stuff (Minnesota’s running back) a few times in the first quarter to send the message to Minnesota that they will not be able to run up the gut against this version of the Northwestern Wildcats.
If NU can limit Minnesota’s interior run game, and the experienced linebacking core plays as well as they have all season, NU can make the Gophers one-dimensional, giving the secondary the opportunity to force the turnovers that they’ve shown they’re able to. If that happens, Northwestern will win the football game.