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Back to basics: Stats where Northwestern football can improve next season

The process of a rebuild has to start with baby steps.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 19 Northwestern at Purdue Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Northwestern’s football team has rarely made its way onto the brochures the admissions department sends out to prospective students. It’s never been the reason non-athletes come to the school. Since 1965, the ‘Cats have only clawed their way inside the top 10 of the AP poll once (shout out that 1995 NU squad).

Yes, it’s true Northwestern isn’t a football school. But it isn’t not a football school either, at least in the 21st century. Since 2000, the Wildcats have notched 13 bowl game appearances. Three times in the last 10 seasons has NU boasted a double digit figure in the win column.

All this to say that the nauseous 1-11 campaign of 2022 is an anomaly to some degree. Sure, the ‘Cats are far from cracking even the top 25 in AP’s coveted poll, but the odds of another one win season (*knocks on wood*) are slim, especially under the generally sage guidance of Pat Fitzgerald.

So in an effort to manifest a return to the ‘Cats of old, let’s identify some of the most wince-inducing stats from Northwestern’s 2022 season and justify why those figures are due for a return to the mean. We’ll start with the big picture before whittling our way down to some of the most obscure — yet telling — figures.

Points per game

Perhaps the most glaring issue in NU’s array of deficiencies from last year was its inability to put the ball in the endzone. Good for No. 128 out of 131 FBS teams, the ‘Cats squeaked out a measly 13.8 points per game in 2022.

For reference, the team’s opponents averaged more than double what Northwestern produced. That’s right. NU’s defense let up more than 28 points per game in comparison to the less than 14 the purple offense managed.

So why the optimism? Fair question. Hopefully, new QB transfer Ben Bryant should rev up an offense that flailed in the Big Ten last season. Bryant’s a former three-star prospect and is fresh off a five-year stint (mostly) at Cincinnati, where he put up 35 touchdowns to 14 interceptions in his last two seasons combined. Pair that talent with additions at the wide receiver position (see: A.J. Henning and Cam Johnson), and it’s hard to imagine an air attack worse than what we were subjected to last season.

Turnover margin per game

In 2020, Northwestern flexed a positive turnover differential, averaging 0.4 net takeaways per game — making that squad the 33rd-best in the nation in that department. In 2021, that figure dipped into the red, as the ‘Cats averaged a net takeaway margin of -0.8 per game (No. 97 of 131). And in 2022, that most recent figure almost doubled in the wrong direction, as NU had a net turnover rate of -1.4 per game.

Ryan Hilinski certainly didn’t help the cause, but his flurry of backups and replacements were detrimental to protecting the ball on offense. Even for Evan Hull, one of the brightest spots on that side of the ball, fumbles were frequent.

By no means am I happy about the hole Hull will leave in the ‘Cats’ running back room, but perhaps fumbles will decrease this season. As for Bryant, his touchdown to interception rate was almost three times higher than any quarterback on Northwestern’s roster last season.

Opponent fourth down conversion rate

I won’t pretend like the 12 fourth down conversions the Wildcats allowed in 2022 were the difference between their actual fate and making the College Football Playoff, but the rate at which Jim O’Neil’s defense let up on fourth downs seemed to correlate with outcomes of one score games. Teams converted 70.59% of their fourth down attempts against O’Neil and Co. — good for No. 107 out of 131 in the FBS.

In 2021, that figure was all the way down at 54.55%, which was only a little below average at the time. The 2022 clip is symbolic of the general flaw of the Wildcats — being bad at small things makes it impossible to be good at the big ones.

Luckily, athletic director Derrick Gragg was quick to replace O’Neil with David Braun, who led North Dakota State to two FCS national titles. It’s impossible to honestly predict how Braun will fare at the next level, but it’s reasonable to assume that a champion-caliber coach — at any collegiate level — would be able to improve such a dismal fourth-down defense.

First-quarter offense

The stat that strikes the strongest chord for me, Northwestern’s utter incompetence in the first quarter of games last season made the team almost unbearable to watch. The ‘Cats averaged just 2.2 points in the opening period of contests last year, landing them the title of the second-slowest starting team in the FBS (only Colorado was more lethargic, averaging a painfully meager 1.3 points per first quarter).

With the exception of the COVID-influenced 2020 season, Northwestern’s last three campaigns have all been marred by this stat. In 2019, the team ranked No. 125 out of 131. In 2021, the squad finished No. 126.

So are the odds great that Mike Bajakian can figure out how to escape the perilous first quarter rut that’s so often gotten his team’s playing from behind? No. But a decent revamp of the offense thanks to the transfer portal and some unwarranted optimism on my part should be enough to get things going in the right direction.