The "bad on offense, good on defense" line sounds like oversimplification, and since this is day one of getting to know our bowl foes I'm sure we'll dabble in that territory. But in starting to look a little closer at Northwestern, there's plenty of truth on both sides of the ball.
Like, really bad on offense.
In Northwestern's advanced statistical profile, the Wildcats rank between 86th and 122nd nationally in all four major offensive categories. Three times this year they averaged less than three yards per play: their blowout losses to Iowa and Michigan, and two weeks ago at Wisconsin in a game they actually won 13-7. They also beat Duke 19-10 while averaging just 3.5 yards per play. On the year their 4.52 yards per play is 120th nationally. This is Vanderbilt/Missouri/Clawfense territory.
And yet it has repeatedly been enough. If Tennessee is looking to study a team that knows how to win close games, may I present Northwestern. In FBS games the Wildcats scored 207 points, gave up 197 points, and went 9-2. Other than a 27-0 blowout of Minnesota they won every FBS game by 10 points or less. The biggest margin? Yep, it's Stanford in the opener. They beat the #6 Cardinal 16-6 and beat 2-10 Purdue 21-14. This is Northwestern.
Their offensive gameplan, your mileage may vary on oversimplification, is give it to Justin Jackson. The sophomore tailback is third nationally with 24.8 carries per game, including 72 carries in the last two games. He was taken away by Michigan and Iowa before Northwestern fell so far behind they had to abandon the gameplan, getting 22 carries for 55 yards in those two losses. Jackson is 20th nationally in rushing but is one of only three players in the Top 30 to average less than five yards per carry. You have to go down to Vanderbilt's Ralph Webb at #39 to find a lower average per carry.
The passing game offers little alternative. Redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson averages 22.9 attempts per game with seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. Six times this year he has averaged less than five yards per attempt; his best game by that metric in Big Ten play was going 5 of 8 for 58 yards against Penn State. Inside NU has a great season recap on Thorson's first year as the starter.
They are not explosive, efficient, and often fail to finish drives. And yet they are 10-2.
Like, really good on defense.
Here's the yards per play allowed leaderboard:
- Boston College 4.07
- Alabama 4.13
- Missouri 4.32
- Wisconsin 4.39
- Ohio State 4.39
- Michigan 4.41
- Northwestern 4.48
- Florida 4.49
- San Diego State 4.68
- Clemson 4.68
- Oklahoma 4.68
- Georgia 4.70