Feels like we’ve been here before, huh?
That familiar stench of a rotten September is here for the third year since the 2014 season (and the fourth year if you count 2017’s 2-2 start). Northwestern lost to Akron again.
The optimism of 8-4 has given way to the grumbling of 4-8. “the best home schedule on the country” doesn’t have the same pizzazz when everyone expects NU’s marquee opponents to politely take their shoes off before stomping the Wildcats at Ryan Field.
If you’re punting on the season, I don’t blame you. Fitz may say stats are for losers, but the metrics don’t like this 1-2 NU squad, either. The Wildcats have tumbled 29 places in the S&P+ rankings since the preseason (from 37th to 66th), the largest drop in the Big Ten.
And given the statistical improvements of Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska (?) since the preseason, NU’s win probabilities are shrinking as well.
If you add in the one-win Fitz boost, that’s 5.3 wins. Notice that NU has projected win probabilities of 25 percent and 34 percent at Iowa and Minnesota — those percentages were 35.5 and 62.2, respectively, before the season kicked off.
The loss to Akron will be a stain on this 2018 season — in the post-Walter Athletics Center era, it is an unacceptable defeat. What might be more frustrating is that Northwestern continues to run into the same structural problems it has had for years: a lack of explosiveness, shoddy line play, and sloppy secondary work.
NU sits at 111th in the country in IsoPPP and 117th in big play rate. The Wildcats lack a downfield threat at receiver, and poor line play against Duke and Akron has undermined Jeremy Larkin’s talents.
The secondary has been torched by big plays. Akron managed six explosive plays (run plays for ten or more yards or passing plays of 15 or more yards) in the third quarter on Saturday — NU had eight for the whole game. It seems like every pass defended by Greg Newsome or Montre Hartage comes with a blown coverage or a missed tackle on another play.
All of these factors raised major questions about regression for NU in 2018, but when you add in poor turnover luck, spotty linebacker play, and an inability to finish drives, it’s easier to see why NU has plummeted in the S&P+ ratings.
NU football regression
|Turnover margin (rank)||7 (26)||-1 (81)|
|Finishing drives inside opp's 40 (rank)||4.49 (65)||3.48 (115)|
|LB havoc rate (rank)||5.7 (28)||2.8 (108)|
These deficits reared their ugly heads against Akron — NU surrendered 21 points off three turnovers and came up empty on five of ten scoring opportunities inside Akron’s 40. Turnovers are one thing, but execution is another, and Fitz and the NU coaching staff have some serious work to do.
“Northwestern’s 2016 season is headed into dangerous waters,” wrote Will Ragatz in late September 2016. “If Pat Fitzgerald can right the ship and at least salvage something respectable out of the next two months, it will be a major testament to his coaching savvy. Remember, he coached the team that beat both Wisconsin and Notre Dame in 2014 after an inauspicious start.”
Everything in that paragraph holds true, especially the last sentence.
There are still nine games to play, and several opportunities for NU to make some noise.
In 2014, it was a win over the then No. 17 Badgers at Ryan Field, followed by one of the most famous NU wins of the millenia, a come-from-behind victory over the Fighting Irish in South Bend. An early season loss to Northern Illinois stings less than a win over a ranked Notre Dame uplifts.
I’d venture fans would say the same thing when comparing the loss to Akron to say, a win over this year’s Michigan or Notre Dame.
The Wildcats have a lot of work to do. A lot. They have a chance at four teams, perhaps five, that will be ranked, and the win probabilities pit this iteration of the Wildcats as heavy underdogs. Stats are for losers though, right?
Another disappointing September aside, that means NU still has something to play for.