There are several reasons that Northwestern has struggled in the two seasons since its magical Gator Bowl win in 2012. There has been inconsistent quarterback play, injuries, and a more reasonable level of luck than was present early in the Pat Fitzgerald era. But one key statistic that flies under the radar is starting field position. And for the past two years, it has been something working against Northwestern.
Starting field position is a combination of several facets of the game. The offense must sustain drives to flip field position. The defense should give up relatively few yards and force quick series. Turnovers are key too and often can flip the field. Special teams proficiency has a lot to do with it as well; pinning teams deep in their own half can be hugely helpful, especially when the offense struggles — just look at the four punts Northwestern downed inside the 10-yard line against Wisconsin in the Wildcats' upset win.
All these factors contribute to the idea of Field Position Advantage:
Field Position Advantage
The problem for Northwestern is that the Wildcats have struggled in all of those aspects since that 10-win season two years ago. Football Outsiders uses the Fremau Efficiency Index to generate a "Field Position Advantage" (FPA) statistic for every team every year, defined as "the share of the value of total starting field position earned by each team against its opponents." The tool uses every possession from the season, excluding kneel downs and "garbage time" drives, to determine how well the team controls the field possession battle in every given game.
The 2012 Wildcats ranked 18th in the nation in FPA. Every team above NU that year had a winning record. In 2013, when Northwestern's record regressed to 5-7, the team ranked ranked 80th in FPA. More importantly, you can see how the teams around Northwestern faired. Of teams ranked 76th-90th in 2013-2014 FPA, just six (Colorado St., Mississippi, Fresno St., Nebraska, Notre Dame, Texas Tech) finished with winning records. Then, last year, Northwestern's FPA fell to 101st in the FBS. Of the teams ranked 91st-105th in FPA last season, only four (Cincinnati, Penn St., Florida St., Rutgers) had winning records, and two of those teams were led by quarterbacks who might go back-to-back as number one overall picks in consecutive years (Jameis Winston and Christian Hackenburg). Northwestern doesn't have that luxury. Overall, the relationship between FPA and overall record is reasonably strong. Win the battle for field position all year long, and you have a much better chance to, well, win games all year long.
So let's examine three major aspects of field position: offensive efficiency, turnovers and special teams performance.
Northwestern really struggled to move the ball this past year. Like, really struggled. According to cfbstats.com, after averaging 394.6 yards per game in 2012, and 399.6 last year, that number fell to 353.1 in the 2014 season, nearly 50 fewer yards per game. That's an astounding drop-off for any team, especially for one with a returning starting quarterback. That number put Northwestern's offense in bad company — UTEP and Louisiana-Monroe were the first two teams teams directly below Northwestern — and the Wildcats were 10 yards worse than both Troy and Florida Atlantic, hardly football powerhouses. Additionally, Northwestern's 34 sacks allowed were tied for 101st-worst in the nation. Sacks kill drives, and they killed way too many of Northwestern's last year.
Advanced stats tell a similar story. Northwestern's offense, frankly, was awful. It came in at 121st in the FBS in yards per play at 4.4. Only two Power Five conference teams — Kansas and Wake Forest — were worse. Northwestern's offense also ranked 103rd in Football Outsiders' S&P+ Ratings, an index that takes into account an offense's play success rate, explosiveness and drive efficiency, and adjusts for strength of opponent.
The one major deficiency for NU was big plays. The Wildcat offense recorded just 34 plays for over 20 yards this whole year. That's less than three per game, 125th in the FBS, and the worst in the Big Ten. Melvin Gordon had 37 plays for 20-plus yards by himself. Some of that's by design — Northwestern throws a lot of quick hitters and rarely takes shots down the field — but still, there's absolutely no excuse for being that poor at generating field position-altering plays.
But more on NU's inability to break explosion plays later in the summer.
This is Northwestern's best statistical area, but they were still only just above average nationally. The Wildcats were plus-4 in turnover margin, good for 41st in the nation. These plays set the Northwestern offense up for success. Both of Northwestern's touchdowns in the aforementioned Wisconsin win came off turnovers. Turnovers not only swing momentum, but they often swing field position.
In order to be successful this year, Northwestern will again need to force turnovers; in the 2012 season, the Wildcats were 11th in turnover margin. Part of that may have been the ball bouncing the Wildcats' way. The 2012 team recovered over 68 percent of available takeaway fumbles — 20th in the nation — then regressed all the way to 121st in 2013 (30 percent) before bouncing up to a more reasonable, realistic 51st (56.25 percent) last year. Returning to the 2012 numbers, which would take some luck, would certainly help field position. The bigger takeaway though might be that regression to the mean from that fluky 2012 turnover margin has played a part in NU's FPA decline.
Thanks to Football Outsiders, we can measure overall special teams efficiency using the FEI. Special Team Efficiency (STE), according to the site, is: "the composite efficiency of the given team's Field Goal Efficiency (FGE), Punt Return Efficiency (PRE), Kickoff Return Efficiency (KRE), Punt Efficiency (PE), and Kickoff Efficiency (KE), measured in terms of points per game." Basically, it's how many points your special teams' overall play earns you compared to how many points other teams earn from their overall special teams play. Duke was No. 1 at 3.534 points per game in 2014. Northwestern was way down at 110th, at -1.467 points per game.
It's important to look at some of the individual statistics that make up STE though to tell the whole story. And the problem is easily diagnosable: punts and kickoffs (but not necessarily the coverage units).
The Wildcats finished 124th in punt efficiency, ahead of only four FBS teams — San Jose St., Washington St., New Mexico St. and Appalachian St — that combined to finish 15-33. Northwestern also finished 114th in kickoff efficiency. That's not good.
Both punting and kickoff efficiency are combinations of well-kicked footballs and good coverage units. For Northwestern though, the problem was often the former. The average Northwestern punt had a net yardage of just 32.7 yards, 121st in the nation. The punt coverage team was actually very solid — 4.86 yards per return was 19th in the nation. But the incredibly short punts make that statistic deceiving. Chris Gradone, Northwestern's primary punter last year, was 112th in the nation in gross punt average. Hunter Niswander will take over for Gradone, and he'll need to improve upon that number.
On kickoffs, the problem was similar. Northwestern's coverage unit finished 33rd nationally with an opponent kick return average of 19.49 yards per return. But Jack Mitchell's kickoffs often landed well short of the endzone. That was not only the biggest contributing factor in the opponent return yardage, it also largely explained that 114th kickoff efficiency ranking.
It's apparent that if Northwestern wants to return to a 2012 level of success, winning the field position battle has to be one of the points of improvement. All three aspects discussed will be important. There's plenty of proof that teams that have good field position offensively and force bad field position upon opponents are more successful. It proved true in 2012 for Northwestern, and it has proven true since. The Wildcats must improve in this oft-overlooked part of the game.