Football: Stats show Wildcats can make plays in close games

Daily file photo by Kaitlin Svabek

Northwestern cornerback Demetrius Dugar and the Wildcats’ secondary have been criticized for giving up the big play often this season. A Michigan Hail Mary at the end of last Saturday’s game paved the way for a Wolverine victory.

Rohan Nadkarni, Assistant Sports Editor

Despite the end-of-the-world attitude taken by most fans every time Northwestern enters the fourth quarter of a close game, coach Pat Fitzgerald believes the narrative around his team skews reality.

“More times than not, we win. That’s what happens,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald has also echoed the necessity for NU to “make one more play” to pull wins out of close games. By using win probability to isolate how actually impactful a single play was, it could be seen that the Cats do often make plays at the end of games to pull ahead.

The opener against Syracuse turned out to be one of the biggest rollercoaster games NU played all season. When the Cats went ahead by 22 in the middle of the third quarter, their win probability was an astounding 98 percent. But the probability took a catastrophic fall with two minutes and 40 seconds left, when Syracuse went ahead by 6 and NU had only a 26 percent chance to win.

However, the Cats proved they could hang tough down the stretch, and sophomore quarterback Trevor Siemian’s touchdown pass with 44 seconds left defied the odds and put NU ahead for good.

Against SEC foe Vanderbilt, the Cats made two big plays toward the end of the game to swing the pendulum in their favor.

With NU clinging to a late 3-point lead, junior defensive end Tyler Scott picked up a sack and forced fumble, giving his offense the ball. That play alone accounted for an 17 percent difference in win probability, and junior quarterback Kain Colter’s touchdown run a few plays later sealed the game for the Cats.

Taking a look at NU’s most recent game against Michigan, although the Cats let a 10-point lead slip away, they still made plays down the stretch that put them in a position to win.

Senior cornerback Demetrius Dugar played a rough game against the Wolverines before coming up with a clutch interception late in the fourth quarter. Dugar’s pick with 3 minutes and 47 seconds left created a 19 percent swing in win probability, moving the Cats from 65 percent to 84 percent.

Once NU regained possession, Fitzgerald’s aggressive playcalling improved its odds even more. Fitzgerald asked Colter to convert a fourth and one with just over 3 minutes left, and when the junior quarterback came through, the Cats’ odds jumped another 6 percent to 90.

But of course, it was Michigan who mounted an improbable comeback in that game, courtesy of the Roy Roundtree Hail Mary reception with 8 seconds left in regulation.

“It was another of those luck-of-the-bounce type plays,” said redshirt sophomore cornerback Daniel Jones, who was in coverage on the play. “I thought I was in great position. I was the first guy up. I actually hit the ball and, in my mind, I’d just made the play that ended the game. But it happened to fall into his arms. It was just an unfortunate bounce for us.”

In reality, as was the case in earlier one-score games when the Cats won, luck and unfortunate bounces plays a role in every contest. NU’s Pythagorean projection for wins is close to 6.4, indicating they may be luckier with a 7-3 record than fans believe.

But junior linebacker Damien Proby still summed it up best when asked about the end of the fourth quarter against Michigan.

“It sucked,” Proby said.

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