What happened to Northwestern the past two weeks? The answer is as simple as it is demoralizing: The Wildcats just aren’t very good, and they never were.
There was a surprising but, at the time, not wholly outlandish upset of a Stanford team that currently looks like the class of the Pac-12. There was the routine beat-down of an FCS cupcake, and the fluky win over Duke on the road that masked many of the team’s deficiencies. An all-too-narrow win over Ball State and a romp over mediocre Minnesota convinced many spectators the Cats actually might be for real, and NU ascended all the way to No. 13 in the AP poll.
Then, in arguably their two most important games of the season in terms of national relevance and conference standings, the Cats unequivocally wilted. NU had two chances to beat a ranked opponent and take a step toward winning the Big Ten West, and lost both by a combined margin of 78-10.
It would be reassuring if there were some mitigating factor like injuries in play, or if the annual October collapse wasn’t so woven into the fabric of the program, but neither of those is true. For five weeks, NU just managed to fool everyone, perhaps even itself, that it was a good football team.
The win over Stanford feels akin to eventual national champion Ohio State’s loss to Virginia Tech last year. NU barely outmaneuvered a young Cardinal defense that was replacing nine starters, scoring just one touchdown, benefitted from some conservative play-calling by Stanford coach David Shaw and held the Cardinal offense to an unsustainable 20 percent third down conversion rate. Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson didn’t turn the ball over, in spite of some very questionable throws, and the Cats won.
The formula was much the same against Duke. NU’s only touchdowns came on a kickoff return by sophomore Solomon Vault and a 55-yard sprint against a misaligned Blue Devils’ defense by junior Warren Long. Thorson was a laughably bad 9-of-23 for 70 yards and sophomore running back Justin Jackson averaged just 3.4 yards a carry, but Duke committed three turnovers to NU’s two, and the Cats won.
Even NU’s shutout victory over Minnesota looks far less impressive under a microscope. The Cats had just one sustained touchdown drive, with the other touchdowns resulting from a five-yard field and a scoop-and-score by sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker.
The stats, traditional and advanced, fully illuminate the degree to which NU has overachieved this season. Thorson is the second-worst regular quarterback in the Big Ten, averaging 5.4 yards per attempts — that’s nearly a full 4 yards behind the conference leader, Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld — and completing just 54 percent of his passes. Jackson, the alleged star of the offense, leads the Big Ten in carries with 160 but ranks 25th among qualified backs in yards per attempt. As a team, the Cats average the fewest points per game in the conference and also rank dead-last in yards per play. That shouldn’t happen on a team with four-star recruits at quarterback and running back.
To be fair, NU still boasts an excellent defense that ranks sixth nationally according to Football Outsiders’ S&P+ metric, even taking into account the blasting it took at the hands of Iowa. The defense has kept games close, giving luck a chance to swing in the Cats’ favor.
That idea is best summed up by Football Outsiders’ second-order wins, which attempts to measure how many games a team is expected to win based on its advanced stats. NU’s total is 3.6 wins, and the -1.4 difference between its predicted and actual record is the fourth-largest negative disparity in the FBS.
The Cats’ record has outpaced their mediocre performance, but that doesn’t change the fact those five wins are in the bank. NU will make a bowl game — having Purdue on the schedule all but guarantees the sixth win needed for eligibility — which stands as an improvement over the previous two 5-7 seasons.
But in light of the last two games, expectations of NU for the rest of this season and beyond need to be reevaluated. When it comes to competing for the Big Ten West or on a national stage, this isn’t the team the Cats have been looking for.
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