Hayes: Northwestern football ready for a bounceback season


Bob Hayes, Columnist

Now that the flurry of National Signing Day is behind us and Northwestern’s 2014 football recruiting class is set in stone, we can get to evaluating the state of the NU football program. In order to properly analyze the quality of the Wildcats right now, we must first look into the past.

Any Cats fan can tell you that the 2013 season was largely a disappointment. What started as Rose Bowl hopes turned into Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl hopes, and unfortunately those were not even met.

However, the 2013 team was far better than the win-loss total shows and in fact was very similar to the 10-win team that took the field in 2012.

Grantland’s Bill Barnwell wrote a great column a couple years ago on evaluating NFL teams beyond win-loss totals. While the college game is a little different due to a greater talent disparity between teams, many of these formulas hold true for collegiate teams.

Barnwell’s evaluation that record in close games is largely random supports the belief that many of the Cats’ failures this year were inherently random events. Besides the Wisconsin and Michigan State losses, the Cats had legitimate chances to win in all five of their remaining games. Of course, all five of these losses – ignoring the meaningless touchdown on the final play versus Ohio State – finished with NU losing by no more than a touchdown. Over a large sample size, Barnwell says, a team can expect roughly a .500 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. This year, unfortunately, the Cats found themselves 0-5 in such games, while the 2012 team went 3-2 in one-score games.

With a fourth-down conversion versus Ohio State, one more drive versus Minnesota, a couple more first downs in Iowa, a batted Hail Mary versus Nebraska and a fourth-and-long stop versus Michigan, this perceived failure of a team would have been one of the top teams in the Big Ten. It sounds like a lot when listed like that, but it really came down to just one play in many of NU’s losses – and once you add them up, they become the difference between a Capital One Bowl appearance and sitting at home watching.

Another telling statistic regarding a team’s luck is turnover luck. According to Football Study Hall’s Bill Connelly, teams over a large sample recover 50 percent of fumbles and intercept around 22 percent of passes defended. When all of the statistics over the course of the season are compiled, the Cats lost around 1.03 points per game on turnover luck, which statisticians say will even out over time. While it may not seem like a lot, with all of NU’s close games, turnover luck certainly could have played a factor.

Unfortunately, no statistic can tell you the lack of luck when it comes to the injury bug, which was perhaps the Cats’ greatest enemy this season. All-American running back Venric Mark effectively missed every game but the matchup with Ohio State, in which he and quarterback Kain Colter – who struggled with his own injuries – carried the offense to its most impressive performance in recent memory. Injuries to key defensive contributors like cornerback Daniel Jones and defensive tackle Sean McEvilly further hurt the Cats’ chances in the Big Ten.

Now, as we transition into the 2014 season, we can put all the bad luck behind us and evaluate the true quality of the Cats. Mark returns for a final year of eligibility and is a huge addition to the offense, which will see the return of quarterback Trevor Siemian and four of his top five receivers. The defense will lose star linebacker Damien Proby and defensive end Tyler Scott but has several key contributors returning.

Although this year’s recruiting class brought in just 15 players, analysts are heralding coach Pat Fitzgerald’s class as among his best ever. Cornerback Parrker Westphal, quarterback Clayton Thorson and Garrett Dickerson – listed as a tight end, though the NU offense does not utilize tight ends – are all ranked by ESPN in the top ten nationally at their respective positions. In addition to the star trio, Fitzgerald has brought in a three-headed hydra of top running backs, including Justin Jackson, the two-time Gatorade Player of the Year for Illinois.

Beyond this year’s class, current freshman quarterback Matt Alviti and safety Godwin Igwebuike – both of whom redshirted this season after being highly touted recruits last season – are expected to be standouts going forward.

The key for Fitzgerald this year was locking up in-state recruits. Three of NU’s top four recruits come from Illinois, including the state’s top quarterback (Thorson), running back (Jackson) and defensive back (Westphal). In previous years, such highly regarded players from Illinois have very rarely committed to play at NU.

After an unlucky anomaly of a 2013 season coupled with an unprecedented recruiting class, Cats fans should be looking forward to a series of exciting years of football to come at Ryan Field.

Bob Hayes is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].