"It's not how you start that's important, it's how you finish." In sports, that saying rings true. Just look at Florida State, a team that has played as if they were half-asleep in some first halves only to come back and win over and over (sorry, Louisville, the latest victim). In sports, a win is a win. It doesn't matter how you get there.
For Northwestern, however, the way they start is the way they finish. When the Wildcats get off to bad starts, they almost always lose. When they get off to good starts, they usually win.
All three of Northwestern's wins have come when they are leading at halftime (up 14-7 on Western Illinois, 14-3 on Penn State, and 10-0 on Wisconsin). On the other hand, the Cats are 0-3 when behind at halftime (down 24-7 to Cal, 14-10 to Minnesota, and 38-7 to Iowa last week). Of the other two losses, one came when tied 0-0 to Northern Illinois at halftime and the other was to Nebraska, when the Cats actually led 17-14 at the half.
It's simple: the Cats are 3-1 when leading at halftime, but 0-4 when either tied or behind.
When Northwestern leads at halftime, they can lean on their strong running game, led by Justin Jackson, which sets up high-percentage play action passes for Trevor Siemian. All year, Siemian has been much better on play action than he has been in the pocket. During the three-game winning streak, Siemian's quarterback rating was over 108. On the current three-game slide, it's down to about 93.
During Northwestern's three-game winning streak, when the team was playing its best football all season by far, Siemian only attempted 30.33 passes per game and the Wildcats ran the ball nearly 40 times a game. In all three of those games, Northwestern led at halftime, allowing them to drain the clock by giving the ball to Jackson, Treyvon Green, Warren Long, and Solomon Vault.
But during its recent three-game losing streak, when Northwestern only led once at half, Siemian's attempts per game have jumped to about 36-- and that even includes the measly 18 he threw at Iowa when he was pulled early. The rushing attempts fell by over two during the losing streak as well. There's a clear correlation: take the pressure of having to win the game off of Siemian's shoulder, and let his running backs grind out the victory.
This Northwestern Wildcat team simply is not built to come from behind, mainly because their big plays only occur every once in a blue moon. Here are some not-so-fun stats about Northwestern's offense, with national rankings (out of 128 Division 1 teams):
4.39 yards per play (123th)
21 plays of 20+ yards (126th)
3 plays of 30+ yards (128th aka DEAD LAST)
To say Northwestern doesn't have many big plays would be the understatement of a lifetime. Big plays are usually what get teams back in ballgames when they've started poorly. Unfortunately for Northwestern, "big play" hasn't been part of their offensive vocabulary this year.
If Northwestern is to win any of its remaining games this year, it will either have to start off well or somehow produce big plays. And there is absolutely no reason to expect the latter. If Northwestern can start games better than it has recently, it could finish strong. If not, it will be another tough end of the year for the Wildcat faithful, and another year without a bowl game.