It’s no secret that last year’s Northwestern offense was terrible. From quarterback troubles to poor playcalling, the unit finished 2019 as the seventh-worst in the FBS according to SP+. In the offseason, Pat Fitzgerald addressed the key issues that had plagued the Wildcats by bringing in a new coordinator and two grad transfers, one at quarterback and the other at tight end. It’s now clear that these moves paid off in a big way, as each of them have played a vital role in Northwestern’s bounce-back season this year. However, while the offense as a whole has made strides from last year, there are still areas in which they’ve struggled for most of the season.
As we approach the Big Ten Championship, let’s take a look at some of the numbers that paint the picture of exactly how good — and bad — this Northwestern offense has been this season.
1. Rushing yards per carry (3.9)
At first glance, this number doesn’t seem to stand out as particularly good or bad, as it ranks ninth in the Big Ten. However, the statistic is quite misleading, as it is heavily inflated by Northwestern’s first and last game of the regular season in which they rushed for a total of 736 yards against two of the weakest rushing defenses in the conference. Take those two games away and the yards per rush attempt drop to a dismal 2.3. Sources tell us that isn’t very good.
2. Fourth down conversion rate (73.7%)
On fourth down, Northwestern’s offense has really been elite. Among teams that have gone for it more than 10 times, the unit ranks an impressive 10th in conversion percentage in the FBS and first in the Big Ten. Whether it has been fourth-and-1 or fourth-and-long, Mike Bajakian has done an excellent job of drawing up effective plays in these scenarios. This figure is a marked improvement from last year’s 39% conversion rate on fourth downs.
3. Points scored in the last eight minutes of play (0)
This one is really shocking. Despite Northwestern’s propensity for squeezing out close games this season, the Wildcats have not scored a single point in the final eight minutes of all seven games they have played this season. Instead, it has been the defense that NU has relied on to close games out all season long while the offense has struggled to find any type of late-game success. Northwestern has also scored just two fourth-quarter touchdowns all year.
The statistic has come partly as a result of conservative playcalling, as NU has typically been in control of every game they’ve played this season, but also struggles executing on offense. This inability to score late has only really hurt the ‘Cats once against MSU, but in order to have a chance against high-powered Ohio State, the offense will need to muster some scoring drives in crunch time.
4. Plays of 30+ yards (8)
After 2019 featured a Northwestern offense that was the epitome of unexplosive, not much has changed in its ability to generate those types of plays this year. The ‘Cats have had just eight plays of 30 yards or longer this season and only two plays of more than 40 yards, which puts them at dead last in the category among Big Ten teams and fourth-fewest in the nation. Ohio State has been gashed by big plays a couple of times this season, but the fact that Northwestern hasn’t been able to make things happen against lesser defenses is not an encouraging sign.
5. Third-quarter points per game (7)
It isn’t anything crazy, but Northwestern’s consistency in the third quarter makes this statistic worth mentioning. In fact, NU has scored at least one touchdown in every third quarter this season except for one. This is a testament to the adjustments that Mike Bajakian makes during halftime, and it is a trend that Northwestern fans will hope to see continue in the Big Ten Championship on Saturday. It’s also important to note that the ‘Cats have outscored their opponents 49-3 (!) in third quarters this season.
6. Total yards per game (351.4)
Behind a serviceable passing attack and inconsistent running game, Northwestern has the third-worst statistical offense in the Big Ten when it comes to moving the ball down the field. At 351 yards per game, Northwestern’s offense is respectable, which is a major step up from last year’s average of 297 per game. But when you compare it to Ohio State’s average of 532 yards per game, it becomes clear just how many more improvements NU can make.
7. S&P+ offense (99th/127)
This number seems about right. Northwestern’s offense has by no means been electric this season, but it has managed a respectable 25 points per game against some of the best defenses in the country. The unit’s low rating is probably also due in part to difficulties rushing the football and low yards per game totals. Still, it’s a pretty significant improvement over last year’s squad, and it’s been just enough to win football games all season long.