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Northwestern's field position woes continued in 2015

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The Wildcats haven't done particularly well in the department since 2012

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a dominant defense, a record-breaking kick returner and a solid running game, Northwestern finished 80th in the nation in Football Outsiders' field position Fremau Efficiency Index (FEI) ratings for field position, 18 spots higher than the 98th-ranked team of 2014.

Several facets of the game go into determining field position. Special teams, obviously, are important, and Northwestern has one of the best returners in the game in Solomon Vault. Punt returning, too, plays a role, though and the Wildcats have struggled in that area ever since Venric Mark left. Similarly, kicking off and punting, as well as coverage units for those actions, are an important factor.

Of course offensive and defensive production is important to the idea of the field position battle, and if you followed Northwestern at all in 2015, you know that the former struggled mightily while the latter was one of the best in school history and in the nation as a whole. If you can combine all three facets well — long, sustained drives that don't force you to punt deep in your own territory, defenses that limit yards and force opponents to do just that, and special teams units that can consistently help flip the field when the defense or offense struggles — you're in for success. As we'll see, for yet another year, the Wildcats struggled when it came to special teams, and Pat Fitzgerald's squad hasn't ranked in the top half of the nation in advanced field position stats since 2012.

To measure field position in terms further than "where you start on average and where your opponent starts on average," Football Outsiders developed Field Value Efficiency:

Field Value Efficiency (FVE) is the scoring value generated by a team's starting field position and non-offensive turnovers and scores per possession.

It is made up of the following components

  • SFP: Starting Field Position, average distance in yards from end zone on offensive non-garbage possessions.
  • Opp SFP: Opponent Starting Field Position, average distance in yards from end zone on opponent offensive non-garbage possessions.
  • Net SFP: Net Starting Field Position, the difference between offensive starting field position and opponent offensive starting field position.
  • SFD: Short Field Drives, the percentage of offensive possessions started at midfield or on the opponent's side of the field.
  • Opp SFD: Opponent Short Field Drives, the percentage of opponent offensive possessions started at midfield or on the team's side of the field.
  • LFD: Long Field Drives, the percentage of offensive possessions started inside the team's own 20-yard line.
  • Opp LFD: Opponent Long Field Drives, the percentage of opponent offensive possessions started inside the opponent's own 20-yard line.

Here's how Northwestern performed in the three most simple categories, as well as the team's national rankings for those categories:

SFP: 79.2 (98th)

Opp SFP: 69.8 (77th)

Net SFP: -2.1 (92nd)

(NOTE: Football Outsiders only measured regular season FBS games, so both the Eastern Illinois and Tennessee games were omitted in these stats.)

Long story short, Northwestern's opponents started closer to the endzone than Northwestern did, on average. But that doesn't fully explain the field position battle. For example, if Team A drives to midfield and then punts to Team B's 15 yard line, and then Team B drives all the way down the field and scores and then kicks for a touchback, Team A would technically win the Net SFP at 5.0. But it would be erroneous to say Team A is truly winning the field position battle. That's where FVE comes in, because it takes into account scores per possession and other factors.

So why was Northwestern so bad at the field position battle for the second year in a row? Let's break it down to offense, defense and special teams.

Offense

Just like its field position statistics, Northwestern has seen its offensive numbers decline steeply since 2012. After averaging nearly 400 yards per game in both 2012 and 2013, the Wildcats averaged 353.1 yards per game in 2014 and just 327.1 yards per game in 2015, per cfbstats. Out of 128 Division I teams, Northwestern was 116th in yards per game and last in the Big Ten.

The Wildcats had the 120th-worst passing attack in the nation, yardage-wise. What's worse, of the eight teams below them, six ran some sort of option offense. One of the two non-option teams was Boston College, which went winless in the ACC while averaging less than 10 points per game in conference. Yes, Northwestern's passing offense was a major issue, but you already knew that.

Northwestern finished 108th in the nation in first downs per game, despite a defense that allowed the 23rd-fewest first downs per game. Essentially, even though Northwestern was given the ball plenty of times, the team was often unable to do much with it.

The offense specifically hurt Northwestern in terms of FVE in the expected points category because, well, the team often didn't cash in no matter where the defense or special teams gave the unit the ball. The best example of this was at Wisconsin, when the offense got five drives that started on the Wisconsin side of the field and scored just 10 total points on those drives:

Drive start: WIS 46 Drive result: Punt

Drive start: WIS 19; Drive result: TD

Drive start: WIS 30; Drive result: Missed FG

Drive start: WIS 37; Drive result: Punt

Drive start: WIS 20; Drive Result: FG

That's where FVE is different than simple field position. What you do with the field position matters, and Northwestern consistently did very little. The team's "score per possession" stat was exceedingly poor.

But enough with the offense...

Defense

The defense might be the only reason the Wildcats weren't in the triple-digit rankings when it comes to FVE. As shown above, the Wildcat defense was constantly giving Northwestern opportunities for points with short fields. The Wildcats forced 21 turnovers, tied for 59th in the nation, and were 13th in total defense, an even more impressive stat when you consider how much the unit was on the field.

It helped greatly that Northwestern's defense allowed just 4.5 yards per play, eighth-best in the nation. The Wildcats rarely gave up big plays. Really, it's not too complicated when it comes to the defense and FVE. It constantly did all it could to give Northwestern's offense good field position. But it was let down, somewhat, by the final aspect of the game...

Special Teams

Northwestern's special teams were really good at some things and really, really bad at others. There wasn't a lot of in-between. Kick and punt returns and punting are the special teams units that matter most in FVE, though as shown earlier, missing field goals hurts expected points, and Jack Mitchell certainly was no sure thing from anywhere on the field. Still, when you think of field position, returns and punting come to mind. So let's explore those three facets.

Kick returning

Unless something goes very, very wrong in the next two seasons, Solomon Vault will leave Northwestern as the school's best kick returner ever. This season, he took back kicks for touchdowns against Duke and Penn State. Both were crucial scores in close games in which the offense struggled. Vault has been fantastic in his two years returning kicks, and in no way can he truly be at fault for any of NU's field position struggles.

That's one of the faults of the stat, however. Because the offense never takes the field when Vault takes a kick all the way back, such returns do not count in the field position battle. Essentially, it would be best, FVE-wise, if Vault took every kick back to the opponent's one yard line and then the offense cashed in for touchdowns from there. Practically, of course, that wouldn't make any sense, though.

For Vault, returning kicks was somewhat feast or famine — take away the two touchdowns and Vault averaged just a hair over 20 yards per return. Still Northwestern finished 16th in the nation, averaging 25.06 yards per kick return. This wasn't the problem, but it also doesn't give Northwestern as big of an advantage strictly field-position wise as it does in real life. So take this particular component of FVE with a grain of salt.

Punt returning

Northwestern finished squarely in the middle — 64th out of 128 teams — when it came to average punt return. That's ok until you realize Northwestern returned 13 punts (just one per game). Only 23 teams had fewer returns. And it's not as if the Wildcats had difficulties forcing other teams to punt. Although it's not an official statistic, Northwestern must have had one of the lowest punt return rates in the nation.

That's bad for several reasons. Punt returns, even if they are for only a few yards, make a big difference in the field position, because its impact is twofold. A punt returned five yards instead of fair caught means that even if the drive stalls, the team punts from a position five yards farther down the field than it would have if the punt had been fair caught.

Northwestern not returning punts is nothing new — too often over the past few seasons, Wildcat returners have let the ball roll, not even fair-catching the ball. Returning one punt per game is borderline ridiculous. It's a combination of blockers not doing their job, returners not doing their job (even if that is to just make a fair catch) and perhaps even returners being slightly too cautious when deciding whether to fair catch or not. It has seemed that Northwestern's returners have been very conservative when it comes to choosing what punts to return, and although a fumble from a big hit is much, much more damaging than a five-yard return is helpful, Northwestern has to find a way to return more punts.

Punting

Hunter Niswander has been bad. Like, 105th out of 107 qualifying punters bad in terms of average gross punt length.

His coverage has saved him. Northwestern averaged an astounding 1.94 yards per return allowed, third-best in the nation. As a result, Northwestern was just below average — 69th in the nation — in net punting.

Now whether it is by design for Niswander to punt that short to allow his coverage team to limit return yards and not outkick his coverage or it's simply that Niswander is that bad (which obviously plays to the advantage of the coverage guys, who don't have to run as far on short punts) is undecided. Does he go for more hangtime to let his guys get down the field? But having watched a full season of punting, I would argue Niswander's leg is not great. I can't recall Niswander outkicking his coverage, and that's why his team's coverage units have such good statistics.

But if it's true that Niswander somehow limits his distance to limit opposing punt returners, it's time for him to take that limitation off. Keith Watkins and Warren Long, the team's primary "gunners," have shown to be exceptional at their craft. If Niswander can punt the ball five yards further and, as a result, Northwestern allows an extra yard or two of return yardage, that's clearly a tradeoff the team should accept. Unfortunately, it seems to be that Niswander doesn't have the leg to allow Northwestern to do that.

Conclusions

Northwestern hasn't been exceptional at field positioning for the past few seasons, and although it didn't hurt the team's record, it's certainly something that can help the Wildcats in the future. Statistics have proven as such. From SB Nation stat genius Bill Connelly's book Study Hall:

A team's average starting field position was worse than 24.0 (i.e. the team's 24-yard line) in just 14.1 percent of the 2012 FBS vs. FBS games. It was better than 36.0 just 15.7 percent of the time. In most games, teams were trying to average in the 32-36 range (win percentage in this range: 66 percent) instead of the 24-28 range (win percentage: 32 percent).

These aren't huge numbers. On average, a team got 13 possessions in a given game; the total difference between an average start of 26.0 and an average start of 34.0 is just 104 yards (13 possessions times 8.0 yards). One turnover could mean a difference of about 40 yards. One field-flipping punt that bounces past the punt returner and rolls a while could mean 25 yards. One huge stop on a kick return could mean 15 yards. A sack on third-and-long, instead of a short completion, could mean 15 yards. A third-down conversion that simply extends a drive from three-and-out to six-and-out could mean 10 yards. And just like that, you're at 105 yards, and you've gone from likely loss to likely win.

That is a bit of an extreme example with a significant special teams impact, but one can see how smaller plays, particularly third downs, can add up quickly. And almost nothing is more devastating to your field position cause than a three-and-out, especially if a drive involves a sack or negative play on third down. Never mind the impact such a series might have on momentum; that's significant enough. It can have an even larger impact in the field position battle.

Furthermore:

FP Margin Range % of 2013 games Win% Avg. scoring margin
20+ yards 4.0% 96.9% +32.4
15-20 yards 8.6% 92.8% +28.6
10-15 yards 17.8% 86.7% +19.9
6-10 yards 23.5% 78.3% +15.7
3-6 yards 23.5% 59.8% +6.3
0-3 yards 22.7% 54.1% +2.6

Often during games, TV announcers will mention who's winning the field position battle, usually simply to make note of it and no more. But it matters. More importantly, it matters what you do with it.

For Northwestern, this crucial yet oft-overlooked area of the game was a struggle in 2015. With new blood at punt returner, a hopefully-improved passing attack and similarly hopefully-improved punting, the Wildcats certainly have a chance improve on this in 2016.