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By the numbers — Northwestern football’s statistical performance through three games

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You don’t need a Statistics major to tell you that the ‘Cats haven’t been very good.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Duke William Howard-USA TODAY Sports

After its first two contests, Northwestern sits at 1-2, a record that few envisioned would be the case — especially Pat Fitzgerald. Even in their lone victory of the season, the Wildcats looked out of sorts at times, and most importantly, a distant shadow from their College Football Playoff-aspirational selves from a year ago.

Given the inquisitive and information-seeking fan that you are, you may be wondering how NU has fared in terms of statistics. Do the numbers bolster the quality of play we’ve seen on the field? Is Mike Bajakian’s offense really that subpar?

Below, I’ve compiled a comprehensive list of offensive, defensive and miscellaneous metrics that categorize Northwestern thus far. Be warned: much of it is not pretty.

Offense

Points/Game: 22.7 (104th)

Passing YPG: 203.0 (93rd)

Team Passing Efficiency: 123.42 (97th)

Rushing YPG: 161.0 (68th)

Yards/Game: 364 (89th)

First Downs: 60 (T-82nd)

Red Zone Offense: Scoring at .727 clip (T-108th); eight scores in 11 red zone trips, seven of which are TDs

Turnovers: Seven (Three fumbles, four INTs; T-117th)

3rd Down Conversion %: .391 (77th)

Tackles for Loss Allowed/Game: 7.67 (T-109th)

Sacks Allowed: Eight (T-96th)

In response to the question I posed several paragraphs above: yes, Bajakian’s offense has really been this subpar, as Northwestern has just two rankings better than 75th in the entire country.

Let’s start with the good.

First, the ‘Cats’ rushing attack has been solid all year. Evan Hull was monstrous in his matchup against Indiana State, so look for him to terrorize the Ohio Bobcats this Saturday. Further, for all of the qualms that NU has had at quarterback — especially recently — Bajakian’s unit has moved the chains 60 times, a number which one would project to be much lower.

Outside of the run game and first down success, little has gone in Northwestern’s favor. It’s important to contextualize the seven turnovers, as five (!) of them were lost against Duke last Saturday. Even then, that figure is far too high for an offense that’s predicated upon not handing the ball over.

Though it’s more than CFB blueblood Clemson has tallied, posting just under 23 points per game simply isn’t good enough to buoy this team, especially with a defense that’s also had its fair share of growing pains — more on that in a second. Granted, the ‘Cats scored 24.7 points per matchup in 2020, but the circumstances have changed drastically.

Finally, the last two numbers are truly indicative of the struggles of Northwestern’s offensive line. With some pre-existing chemistry and veteran presences, many expected Kurt Anderson’s OL to be the fortress of this team, but that has not come to fruition. Whether by not protecting the quarterback adequately enough or not allowing running backs or other skill players to gain positive yardage, NU’s offensive line is certainly culpable for its poor overall start.

Defense

Points Allowed/Game: 24.67 (72nd)

Passing YPG Allowed: 224.3 (T-76th)

Team Passing Efficiency Defense: 125.88 (69th)

Rushing YPG Allowed: 188.3 (T-104th)

YPG Allowed: 412.7 (96th)

First Downs Allowed: 61 (T-80th)

Red Zone Defense: Teams scoring at a .909 clip (T-94th); seven touchdowns allowed in 11 trips

Takeaways: Five (T-45th)

3rd Down Conversion % Allowed: .404 (82nd)

Tackles for Loss: 14 (T-97th)

Sacks: Six (T-63rd)

Based upon how the initial three matchups have shaken out, it should come as little surprise to see Northwestern’s defense rank worse across the board.

The most alarming elements of Jim O’Neil’s unit are sizeable gaps in points per game (+8.77) and yards allowed per game (+71.5). Additionally, it’s jarring to see the ‘Cats yield over 188 yards on the ground in each showdown, but it’s worth noting that even last year’s defense wasn’t elite versus the run (145.9 yards/game).

In 2020, Mike Hankwitz’ defense forced 18 turnovers from opposing offenses. Yet this year, Northwestern has fewer takeaways (five) than Brandon Joseph alone garnered (six) during his All-American campaign.

All in all, the statistics represent that NU’s defense has wilted without players like Greg Newsome, Paddy Fisher, Earnest Brown IV and Blake Gallagher — though as a whole, the unit hasn’t been outright terrible.

Miscellaneous

Turnover Margin: -2 (T-98th)

4th Down Conversion %: .625 (5/8; T-51st)

Opposing 4th Down Conversion %: .750 (3/4; T-104th)

No blocked kicks/punts; also no blocked kicks/punts allowed

Penalties: 16 (T-32nd)

Penalty Yards/Game: 45 (T-29th)

Avg. Kick Return Yardage: 20.67 (60th)

Avg. Opponent Kick Return Yardage: 17 (T-43rd; four touchbacks, T-4th-fewest)

Net Punting: 40.64 Yards (56th)

Avg. Punt Return Yardage: 24.38 (5th)

Avg. Opponent Punt Return Yardage: 8.33 (88th)

Among this smorgasbord of stats, a few numbers stand out to me.

Despite the fact that his team is leaps and bounds away from where it wants to be, Fitzgerald’s contingent has stayed fundamentally sound by avoiding penalties, a testament to the culture that the head coach has worked so diligently to inculcate.

Moreover, Special Teams Coordinator Jeff Genyk has to be overjoyed with the success of NU’s punt returns. Catalyzed by Brandon Joseph and Ray Niro III, the ‘Cats have had a slew of explosive plays in the return game — but have largely failed to capitalize upon them on offense.

Lastly, it’s stunning to see that Northwestern has posted just four touchbacks. I’m not sure if it’s a deliberate choice by Genyk and Fitzgerald to warrant opposing returns or a lack of leg strength from Charlie Kuhbander, but it’s fascinating either way.