This season was bound to happen. Plain and simple, it was coming.
After one of the program’s most historic seasons in over 20 years, it might seem fair to expect a difficult follow up act, especially against a front-loaded schedule for a program that has made a recent habit of starting slow. What’s interesting, though, is how this team isn’t that different from last year’s group.
NU has won 16 of 20 one-possession games over the past four years, attributable in part to timely plays and some luck. The margin of error was — and still is, as evidenced by this season — thin, and the ball consistently bouncing Northwestern’s way is not a sustainable way of winning.
What’s also an unsustainable way of winning is trotting out an offense that has averaged 88th in S&P+ and 90th in scoring in the past four years and has only once ranked in the top half of the country by those metrics.
Let’s revisit the Big Ten West champion Wildcats, who sound light years better than the 2019 iteration. Despite boasting a defense ranked 30th in S&P, the offense ranked just 101st in the nation in yards, which was tenth-worst among all Power Five programs. The overall team itself ranked 68th in S&P+ at the end of the season, quite close to where NU is currently ranked: 70.
Sure, Pat Fitzgerald has famously, consistently said “Stats are for losers,” and his teams have consistently outperformed projections — specifically from Bill Connelly’s S&P+ measurement — in the win-loss column over the last few years. Last year, the team finished ranked no. 17 in the country despite its less appealing statistical measurement.
Its path to bucking the stats and finishing 5-1 in one-score games lay in timely drives, forcing timely turnovers and not committing penalties. Those are fine lines to toe, and this year’s offense’s ineptitude proved to be simply too great to overcome.
Connelly attributed Northwestern’s stats-defying run of success to the offense’s boom-or-bust nature. The unit so often struggled to sustain drives, and there were many three-and-outs. However, the 2018 ‘Cats managed to put together just enough scoring drives when they needed them most. Rarely were there intermediate drives — the offense was almost always either going absolutely nowhere or scoring.
Remember Homecoming against Nebraska? The ‘Cats had put together a lackluster effort and were a few minutes from being 2-4 before putting together back-to-back game-saving efforts, including a 99-yard trek to end regulation.
How about at Iowa, when the offense wasn’t going anywhere until a Chad Hanaoka third-and-long conversion on a draw play set up the go-ahead touchdown catch by Bennett Skowronek in the fourth quarter? The defense then finished its stellar day by forcing two straight fumbles to win it.
This year isn’t dissimilar, except that when Northwestern needs a scoring drive it really isn’t getting it. The defense hasn’t forced as many turnovers, and the offense simply cannot move the ball — especially through the air — to take advantage of defensive success. Moreover, the ‘Cats haven’t played like the least-penalized team in the country of a year ago, currently giving up 48.6 penalty yards per game and ranking seventh in the B1G alone. Even if they did, though, it might not be enough to change game outcomes.
The Wildcats put up 24.4 points per game and 354.4 yards per game in 2018. Both are middle-of-the-conference marks at best, though they look like evidence of juggernaut status compared to this year’s 14.4 points and 293 yards per contest (which are inflated, even, considering NU has typically put together a scoring drive or two in garbage time).
Hindsight, of course, is 20/20, but with the same offensive coordinator still running the show, it was always tough to think this team would push for near double-digit wins again, especially with a ton of talent turnover at key positions. The 8-4 regular season last year easily could have been 4-8 if they didn’t pull out close ones versus Purdue, Nebraska, Rutgers and Iowa by a combined 14 points.
The preseason offensive question marks have materialized into problems. A line full of new faces and inexperience along with a new coach and a new quarterback who had to adjust to a seemingly complex offensive system (that has still proved relatively easy for defenses to master) headlined the concerns that also included the loss of two big-time pass catchers (Flynn Nagel and Cameron Green).
Inserting Hunter Johnson into this mediocre-at-best offense seemed like putting a Ferrari engine into a Toyota Camry. Sure enough, it still runs like the latter. In fact, with Mick McCall’s unit ranking 125th of out 130 FBS teams in S&P+, 127th in yards per game and 129th in scoring (just 0.2 points ahead of Rutger!!), it runs more like a horse-drawn carriage.
2018 yielded December trips to Indianapolis and San Diego, and while 2019 could end up as a bowl-less year for Northwestern, you can look at things one of two ways: this offense is a couple of drives per game from replicating last year’s success, or that last year was really that close to being like this year.
Of course, the unprecedented success the Wildcats had in the 2018 season can’t be taken away. Regardless of how many games hung on a knife’s edge, Pat Fitzgerald and his team beat the odds and achieved their goals, and that Big Ten West title will be on their records forever.
But even the most optimistic fans knew in the back of their minds that one of these years, Northwestern wasn’t going to be able to beat the numbers.