Despite Melvin Gordon's big day, the Wildcats pulled out a victory against Wisconsin Saturday. The Wildcat defense stood strong again while the offense mustered just enough points to top the Badgers. The little things may have swung this game in Northwestern's favor though. Here's a look at the key stats from NU's upset:
Northwestern played a very clean game Saturday. They had just four penalties totaling 20 yards. The team executed well and limited mistakes, something they've struggled with so far this season. NU had 9 penalties, including four personal fouls, for 93 yards against Northern Illinois, and C.J. Robbins was ejected. The sloppiness was simply not characteristic of Northwestern football. Even last week at Penn State, NU had 75 yards in penalties. However, they avoided the flags this week as Wisconsin shot themselves in the foot with a couple of holding calls, an illegal block and a facemask penalty. The Wildcats need to maintain the clean play if they want to win in conference play.
This stat really tells the story of the game. Wisconsin's average starting field position was just inside their own 22 yard line. And if you toss out Wisconsin's two drives in the 4th quarter that started beyond the 50, their average start falls to their own 15. Between Chris Gradone's punting skills and the Wildcats' absence of turnovers, NU found ways to pin the Badgers deep. It almost always took a big Melvin Gordon run to get Wisconsin into scoring position. Gradone's first four punts left the Badgers at their own 6, 4, 9, and 6, and Gradone's final boot just rolled over the goal line for a touchback. He's not a powerful punter, but Gradone certainly knows how to stop it inside the 20.
It had to be in here eventually, right? Melvin Gordon rushed for a career-high 259 yards on 27 carries. It was a huge game for one of the nation's best running backs against one of the best defenses in the Big Ten. Yet, I didn't find his performance as impressive as the stats suggest. Gordon had two long runs, which were 58 and 61 yards respectively, which bumped his yards per carry to 9.6 for the game. On both of those runs, a Northwestern defensive back had a fairly easy opportunity to take Gordon down, but they took horrible angles to the ball and he absolutely blew by them as only Melvin Gordon can do. Yes, Gordon is an amazing back with a incredible mix of power and speed, who is capable of busting long runs, but his big stats should not have blown up the way they did.
Godwin Igwebuike took the turnover battle into his own hands this week. The redshirt freshman snagged three interceptions, and Jimmy Hall also picked a pass off, leading NU to a 4-0 victory in the turnover battle. Igwebuike's first and second interceptions both halted Wisconsin drives in the red zone. His third pick iced the game for Northwestern and sealed a 2-0 start to the conference season. The turnovers NU created were huge, but perhaps just as important was the offense's ball security. Siemian made good decisions with the football, and the ballcarriers refused to fumble on a wet, cold day. Both sides of the ball deserve credit for Northwestern's big turnover margin.
It's very clear who Northwestern's number one back is now. Justin Jackson had 33 carries Saturday, while Treyvon Green and Warren Long got only three rushes each. Jackson's workload has gradually increased. His game-by-game carries totals are 8, 12, 21, 15 and 33. The 33 rushes he had this week were the most by a Northwestern player since Tyrell Sutton had the same amount in 2007. Jackson made good use of the ball too, averaging 4.9 yards per carry for a total of 162 yards on the ground. Finally, Northwestern proved they can win games running the football, and they were led by a true freshman.