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Northwestern's run defense is why stats are for losers

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Melvin Gordon had a career day and the Wildcats still have a good run defense.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

As he does most game, Pat Fitzgerald was quick to let us know that stats are for losers. Generally, he is wrong, as our site motto (and probably serious Fitz) would tell you. But this time he was talking about Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon piling up a career high 259 yards, and he was absolutely right.

Gordon's career high got a lot of the same reactions from Northwestern fans and opposing fans, alike. They were:

  1. How do you get 259 yards from Melvin Gordon and not win?
  2. Northwestern's run defense must not be very good.

Neither of these points is very legitimate, unless you look solely at the stats. And in order to understand both of these points, you have to look at the circumstances surrounding them. Or in other words, why stats are for losers. Here's a look at why both of them are misleading.

How do you get 259 yards from Melvin Gordon and not win?

This question is faulty because it assumes that Northwestern did not deserve to win the game. However, one player getting 259 yards does not mean that team deserves to win. Aside from Gordon, who is inarguably one of the three best running backs in the country, Wisconsin was abysmal. The Badgers ended with 422 yards of offense, and while they did out-gain NU (422-385) they didn't do it by much.

In the other areas of the five factors, such as turnover ratio (0-4) and finishing drives in the redzone (2-5), Wisconsin was absolutely terrible. Moreover, aside from Gordon's runs, the Badgers weren't efficient or explosive. Their longest non-Gordon play netted 24 yards and they finished with just 19 first down – only six of which came on passes.

In other words, Gordon was really, really good and his teammates were really bad. If his teammates were better and the Badgers still didn't win, then you can suggest that he gave the game away. But a lot of yards from one player doesn't mean that team should have one. Outside of Gordon, Wisconsin just isn't that good.

Northwestern's run defense must not be very good.

There were three plays that NU's run defense was particularly bad on, when Gordon ripped off runs of 58, 61 and 31. Those three runs accounted for 58 percent of Gordon's runs. While they were major mistakes and shouldn't minimize Gordon's performance, they don't necessarily point out a flaw in NU's run defense, for two reasons:

  1. There's reason to believe this was an aberration.
  2. The defensive tackles were phenomenal.

Wisconsin (and Minnesota) fans visiting this site will think that calling those plays an aberration is an excuse, but statistically, Northwestern has been very good at defending against big plays. The Wildcats ran 23rd nationally in that category, according to Football Outsiders, and they've consistently done a good job defending big plays for the better part of a year-and-a-half. One of the best running backs in the country getting to the edge on a few plays does not suggest that there is something to be worried about.

In fact, over the course of the game, Northwestern's run defense did a solid job with Gordon. As a commenter pointed out, he actually actually matched NU running back Justin Jackson with a median of 4.0 yards per carry.

The traditional "run defense" that we all were worried about at the beginning of the season — the defensive line, and the tackles, in particular — look very good, just as it has all season. Against a stout offensive line, the Wildcats netted an impressive five tackles for loss, and they didn't let the Badgers just line up and move the chains five yards every time they ran it up the middle. These long runs were on the secondary (and possibly the linebackers) taking some bad angles, but again, that's correctable, and the defensive line's performance certainly doesn't suggest that NU will be worn down by any rushing attack it will face the rest of the season.

Melvin Gordon is a great running back. Northwestern has a good run defense and deserved to beat Wisconsin. These things can all be true, even on a career day for the former.