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The turnover scapegoat: Northwestern’s lack of internal offensive scrutiny

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After another embarrassing offensive performance in a blowout loss, NU’s postgame emphasis isn’t in the right place.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Northwestern Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON — No Northwestern fan needs me to run down the stats again, but I will anyways.

After being blanked by Iowa on Saturday, Northwestern’s offense remains, by many measures, the worst among the Power Five conferences. The Wildcats still have by far the fewest yards per passing attempt in the nation, sitting at 4.1. They are dead last in points per play, checking in at a ghastly 0.143.

As of now, they are even narrowly edging out Akron as the worst scoring offense in the land, 130th out of 130, at 10.7 points per game. That number goes down to 7.0 when you limit the scope to Power Five opponents. Only Old Dominion’s atrocious run game saves Mick McCall’s group from a clean sweep across the bottom of the offensive rate stats, leaving them at 129th out of 130 in yards per play overall (the Wildcats average 3.6).

“We gotta play cleaner, gotta take care of the ball, and gotta score points,” said Pat Fitzgerald in the postgame press conference.

While that judgment of the offense seems relatively straightforward and accurate, one thing that the Northwestern head coach has continually referenced in tandem with the offensive struggles during the rest of the pressers has been the play of the defense. Specifically, Fitz has harped on the inability of Mike Hankwitz’ unit to force turnovers.

Asked a question about how this weekend’s loss compared to the one against Ohio State, Fitzgerald referred to the team’s inability to “score points and get takeaways” as the common thread.

“We coach it every day, getting takeaways,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s something that we talk about every day, T and T, tackles and takeaways. Right now, the turnover aspect isn’t happening.”

NCAA Football: Iowa at Northwestern Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, Fitzgerald also referenced the offensive woes plenty, alluding to the need to reevaluate all of their personnel on that side of the ball for the second consecutive week. He even said he’d be willing to take a long, hard look at his coaching staff, though not until the end of the season.

But for the third week in a row, after commenting extensively on the lack of takeaways in the team’s losses to Ohio State and Nebraska, Northwestern’s coach came close to drawing a false equivalency between the Wildcats’ complete offensive ineptitude and the defense’s inability to generate turnovers.

Although turnovers certainly could help NU become more competitive in these games, the statistics show that forcing turnovers is mostly a game of chance. Once you put yourself in position to do so (by garnering passes defensed and forcing fumbles), you either get the bounces or you don’t.

As college football stats guru Bill Connelly has explained at length in defining his turnover luck statistic, all teams will, on average, gain roughly 50 percent of the fumbles that happen on either side of the ball (the defense in any given scenario is closer to 49, mainly because of the prevalence of easily scoopable dropped snaps as a type of fumble). At the same time, Connelly has formulated those same teams earn interceptions on roughly 22 percent of their passes defensed.

Both of those numbers, of course, fluctuate between teams year in and year out. But as Connelly puts it, “sometimes you catch the ball, and sometimes you don’t.” His research shows that there is no correlation across a span of multiple seasons when it comes to single teams consistently beating these odds.

Unsurprisingly, Northwestern is on the wrong side of the numbers so far in 2019.

Using Connelly’s estimate that each turnover is worth approximately five points, due to the field position benefit they create on average, the Wildcats had a modest bonus of 16.5 points of turnover luck across 2018. This year, however, Northwestern is already at -23.5 in turnover luck.

By those metrics, and according to my own calculations, NU’s offense has been expected to create roughly 14.75 turnovers in the first seven games of the year. They have been remarkably consistent to Connelly’s formulas, committing 15 on the year.

On the other hand, the Wildcat defense has been projected to create 12.04 combined interceptions and fumbles on the season. After a three game dry streak, they have forced just eight.

The main point here though is that these numbers point to this being an outlier. They are most attributable to chance, rather than to some systematic flaw in the defense that has limited its ability to force takeaways.

The Wildcat defense is forcing nearly two fumbles per game at this point, and has defensed an average of exactly four passes per outing. Those numbers should be creating approximately a pick and a fumble per contest. Instead, thanks to what by all accounts and relevant analyses is luck, they have created about half of that.

But even if Northwestern could turn things around in the turnover battle, would it even matter? The four contests in which the Wildcats have had negative TO luck, all costing them a touchdown or more in equivalent points, were a two possession loss to Stanford and blowouts by Michigan State, Ohio State, and most recently Iowa.

With an adjusted turnover margin that was neutral in any of those matchups, nothing would have changed. That’s because Northwestern’s offense, thanks to all of those numbers listed at the beginning of this piece, is putting the defense in too big of a hole to climb out of.

“We gotta play better. We have one pick on the season in the DB room so we just need to play better,” standout cornerback Greg Newsome II said after Saturday’s 20-0 defeat.

Of course, as a coach or a player, you never want to completely harp on one side of the ball after tough losses. But in allowing both himself and his players to consistently place significant and unwarranted blame on the defense after losses that clearly stem from an inability to move the ball and score points, Pat Fitzgerald is starting to demonstrate what seems from the outside like a lack of interior accountability.

The Wildcats are 1-6, and it’s tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Placing the blame where it is due might at least get things started on the right road out of this mess.