As you may have learned from reading his works on this site this past year, Daniel Olinger is a game film nerd who loves nothing more than breaking down what he sees on the field and/or court. To put this habit to good use, he’ll be writing a weekly column, “Things I’ve Noticed,” in which he breaks down things he’s noticed for one of the three flagship teams we cover here at Inside NU — men’s basketball, women’s basketball or football. This week, he’s helping you jog your memory of what the ‘Cats were like on the gridiron.
1. Peyton Ramsey — lover of floating passes
The average record prediction in our staff-wide roundtable was 4.76 wins and 3.24 losses. Chances are, had Peyton Ramsey not made the choice to transfer to Northwestern this past spring, you could bump that average win prediction down by at least one and quite possibly more. That’s how much the presence of Ramsey means to this team.
I broke down his game in full back in May, and one of the things I wanted to mention again was the type of ball he throws.
He doesn’t exactly throw a heater. Rather, he prefers to throw high-arcing, lob passes that get significant hang time and (hopefully) land softly in a receiver’s mitts.
One positive of this tendency is that he gives his receivers a chance on almost every ball, as the floater gives his receivers time to locate and high-point the ball.
On top of that, the prototypical Ramsey is exactly what you want on vertical deep shots to the end zone, leading the pass catcher to the open space where a scoring opportunity has presented itself.
Considering a large portion of NU’s offense last year consisted of quarterbacks sending bullets into the ground, this all seems pretty good.
The downfall of this passing style comes when Ramsey tries to throw horizontally across the field.
He gets bailed out here on an awesome catch by his receiver, but look at how short he leaves this deep curl route, forcing his teammate to sprint five yards backward while the ball was in air.
The lack of air speed creates a scenario in which the receiver has to make an exponential effort coming back to the ball in order to have any chance. Just watch how pitifully short this Ramsey pass falls on his last play ever as a Hoosier.
If anything, the most likely catch there is not for the offense but the defense. If the corner makes a downhill sprint toward the ball in its path, he not only intercepts it but is guaranteed six points.
Fortunately for all NU fans, if I — an idiot with a laptop and a BTN+ off-campus VPN — noticed this as a potential concern, I’m sure Mike Bajakian and Pat Fitzgerald have to.
Expect the ‘Cats to come out with a passing scheme that accentuates Ramsey’s strengths.
2. Cam Ruiz doing cool things
Greg Newsome is the best corner on this team. That’s not up for dispute.
However, that does mean the rest of this pass defense is chopped liver (though they’re a step closer with the opt-out of Travis Whillock). In particular, on a day in which Purdue freshman David Bell obliterated the Northwestern secondary for 14 receptions and 115 yards, Cameron Ruiz produced two of the only successful stops for the defense on the day whilst matched up against Bell.
The first was his interception when he under cut Aidan O’Connell’s toss to Bell on the crossing route.
Given that was a very Trubisky-esque decision from O’Connell, Ruiz still made an incredible effort. Bell was a four-star prospect coming out of high school according to 247 Sports, and while he’s not a burner in the elk of teammate Rondale Moore, he’s a plus-athlete who gets a step on Ruiz after breaking toward the middle.
Even at the time of O’Connell’s release, Ruiz is still trailing Bell.
Yet, he refuses to concede ground, stays glued to Bell’s back and fronts him in order to steal the pass as if he was playing post defense on the basketball court.
O’Connell somehow didn’t learn his lesson right away, as on the next play from scrimmage he again tested Ruiz, only to see him bat down a curl route with ease.
Again, this was not a stellar day for the NU defense, as Bell played a major role in Purdue’s come-from-behind victory. But for a school that does not rake in big-time recruits on the regular, these little bursts of excellence against the other squad’s top talents should be appreciated.
3. Every mistake counts for this defense
The 2019 Northwestern defense was objectively good, finishing 27th in Bill Connelly’s SP+ metric. Maybe not as stout as they’d been in years past, but still good enough to win games.
Unfortunately for the unit, not being the reason the team lost wasn’t good enough. They needed to be the reason the team won, with the seventh-worst offense in the nation as rated by SP+ waiting on the other side. Small mistakes or slip-ups that would equate to paper cuts for normal teams were bullet wounds for the ‘Cats.
So what went wrong there?
For starters, Nate Stanley’s fake to the running back completely fooled not one, not two, not three, but four (!) Wildcats in the second level of the field. Stanley drops back to see Paddy Fisher, Blake Gallagher, Chris Bergin and Ruiz staring him down with their feet planted in order to backpedal, meanwhile his wideouts are streaking up the field.
This is compounded by the fact that this play is designed to send three of the four receiving options to the opposite side of the field, leaving Gallagher to pick up the halfback, Fisher to play underneath coverage on a crosser and Ruiz and Bergin to defend...absolutely nobody. They simply waddle in empty space. Not ideal!
(Also of note: Joe Gaziano and Alex Miller, the team’s two sack leaders in 2019, get double teamed, yet the other two D-lineman are unable to get any pressure on Stanley at all. That’s not going to cut it)
On a play where the Hawkeyes had four pass-catching options going up against seven Wildcats, JR Pace got forced into a one-on-one through no fault of his own and the team got gashed for a big play. Regardless of whether this was the fault of the coaching staff or the players themselves, it’s the kind of mistake the team can hopefully cut out in 2020.
4. Time for the wacky numbers
If you couldn’t tell from my blurb in the previous section, I’m a big fan of ESPN’s Connelly and his SP+ rankings.
As he describes it, the SP+ rankings are, “A tempo- and opponent-adjusted measure of college football efficiency ... intended to be predictive and forward-facing. It is not a résumé ranking that gives credit for big wins or particularly brave scheduling — no good predictive system is. It is simply a measure of the most sustainable and predictable aspects of football. If you’re lucky or unimpressive in a win, your rating will probably fall. If you’re strong and unlucky in a loss, it will probably rise.”
Because it’s a predictive system, Big Ten teams still receive rankings, intended to predict where how their offense and defense will perform during the season. After reading his weekly SP+ update, I noticed something that stood out about the ‘Cats — they ranked an incredible sixth in defense, behind only Georgia, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Clemson and Cincinnati.
Yet, they were still only pegged as the 54th-best team in the country due to their dismal offense, which came in at 117th in SP+, sandwiched between Wyoming and Duke.
To kick off game week, Northwestern slots in at 54th overall in SP+, with the sixth-ranked (!) defense in the country. Quite a disparity between that and the offense, which @ESPN_BillC has at 117th. Four Big Ten teams are rated with top ten defenses, three of them from the West.— Inside NU (@insidenu) October 19, 2020
This got me thinking — does Northwestern has the biggest disparity in SP+ between their offensive and defensive units? On the surface, an 111-spot difference seems pretty hard to top. Most of those stalwarts that placed ahead of the ‘Cats D are title contenders that wreck teams with their offense too. Ohio State, for example, has a “disparity score” of 0, with both their offense and defense ranking second in the country in SP+ (in a related note, the Buckeyes are the favorites to win the Big Ten).
Well turns out, despite my confident assumptions, there is still ONE team in the entire 130 teams that compose the FBS that out disparity-ed Northwestern. The freaking Aztecs of San Diego State. And not just that, they managed to do it by a single point, as their 123rd-ranked offense and 11th-ranked defense combined to create a disparity of 112 points.
To give you an idea of how rare this type of skew toward one side of the ball is, the next highest disparity scores belong to Michigan State and Arkansas State, who hold “mere” 96-point disparities.
As for the Big Ten, the gap between NU and Michigan State and the rest of the conference is simply laughable, with third-place Iowa’s 53 being closer to Ohio State than the ‘Cats.
Here’s to hoping Ramsey, Bajakian and Co. can boost up what is projected to be the anchor weighing down Northwestern.
Northwestern football begins its season under the lights at Ryan Field on October 24. To stay updated on all of our football coverage, subscribe to the Inside NUsletter, delivered to your inboxes every Friday. Next week we’ll roll out a comprehensive season preview issue featuring all of our preseason content, game week coverage, features, exclusive articles and guest predictions. Every week thereafter it’ll prepare you for Saturday’s game and more. It’s your one-stop shop for everything Wildcat football.