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First Look: Northwestern

One of the nation's least efficient offenses and one of the nation's best overall defenses has led to 10 wins for Northwestern.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

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:

  1. Boston College 4.07
  2. Alabama 4.13
  3. Missouri 4.32
  4. Wisconsin 4.39
  5. Ohio State 4.39
  6. Michigan 4.41
  7. Northwestern 4.48
  8. Florida 4.49
  9. San Diego State 4.68
  10. Clemson 4.68
  11. Oklahoma 4.68
  12. Georgia 4.70
So it will at least be familiar.  The team that's hurt Northwestern the most this year was Iowa, 6.31 yards per play for 492 total in a 40-10 win.  But it's worth noting Iowa led just 16-10 at halftime.  The Hawkeyes did march 80 yards in 12 plays (10 runs #bigtenfootball) to make it 23-10 to open the third quarter, then Northwestern fumbled on its next snap and again early in the fourth quarter to grease the floodgates.

But otherwise the Wildcats have been stellar defensively.  They have allowed just 15 plays of 30+ yards (ninth nationally) and only three plays of 40+ yards (second nationally).  Just getting to the red zone is a chore (31 attempts in 12 games, 8th nationally) and Northwestern has turned teams away empty handed inside the 20 25.8% of the time, 12th nationally.  The Wildcats are fourth nationally in points per trip inside the 40.

They're not really doing it with flash:  Northwestern is 47th in turnovers forced, 43rd in sacks,  33rd in tackles for loss.  They're just solid all around defensively, and like Tennessee they play a clean game:  the Vols are sixth in fewest penalty yards per game, and Northwestern is 15th.

So there's an early narrative here for Tennessee:  run the risk management stuff all day and win this thing the Missouri way 19-8, and don't tell ESPN.  It will be interesting to see what Butch Jones and Mike DeBord have up their sleeves with a month to prepare; last year the Vols really surprised Iowa with their tempo and Tennessee's speed and athleticism took over from there.  To be clear, I would expect this Northwestern team to put up a tougher fight; that Iowa team peaced out at 21-0, but a 10-2 Wildcat squad that hasn't gone bowling the last two years will be in it for the long haul.  And it may take all of it to get the job done for the Vols, who opened as a seven point favorite.  Perhaps the Wildcats can come up with something new offensively in the meantime as well.

It is a stiff challenge defensively, but little to scare you on the other side.  Fortunately, the Vols have seen this movie several times this year with a great defense and this kind of imbalance recently with Missouri.  You know the drill with Dobbs, Hurd, and Kamara.  We'll see how well they can execute it in three and a half weeks.