Three weeks ago, after Northwestern slid from 5-0 to 5-2 with a pair of very ugly losses, I wrote that the team was simply never as good as we thought. Now at 7-2 and ranked No. 18 in the College Football Playoff rankings, the Wildcats are trying in earnest to prove me wrong.
Though some have claimed this 2015 iteration of NU football is among the best ever, I can’t help but feel the team is lucky to have succeeded these past two weeks, just as it’s been seemingly lucky all season long. To see if luck really had an outsized impact, let’s look back on the Nebraska and Penn State games, decided by a grand total of 4 points.
Against the Cornhuskers, it seems like the Cats got away with one. The game came down to a failed 2-point conversion and Nebraska completely dominated time of possession, 39 minutes to 21. The deciding score for NU proved to be a pick-six.
Though the defensive touchdown has the residue of luck, keep in mind the Cats still boast the best pass defense in the country, as measured by yards per attempt allowed. And the objective of football is to score points, not just hold on to the ball. Nebraska ground its way down the field at an inefficient 4.3 yards per play, eating up clock but not putting up points. NU, on the other hand, managed a handful of explosive plays from redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson. Those proved to be the difference.
A last-second escape over Penn State also screams to be explained by luck, especially considering the Cats did it with backup quarterback senior Zack Oliver playing most of the game. NU’s big breaks this time came in the form of a kickoff return touchdown by sophomore Solomon Vault and a late interception by senior cornerback Nick VanHoose.
But it’s no accident that NU’s strong defense bewildered a notoriously inconsistent quarterback in Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg for most of the game and finally came up with a turnover. And Chicago natives should know more than anyone else that there is such a thing as a skilled return man, exhibit A being longtime Bear Devin Hester.
It certainly can’t be called luck that Mr. Clutch himself, junior kicker Jack Mitchell, nailed a field goal to give the Cats the win.
So maybe NU does actually have something sustainable going on, though advanced stats continue to point in the opposite direction. Football Outsiders’ Second-Order Wins, a way to estimate win-loss total based on other metrics, pegs the Cats at a lowly 4.8 wins, while NU’s Pythagorean expectation isn’t much better at 5.3 wins. The Cats rank 47th in Football Outsiders’ S&P+ rankings, well below their No. 18 standing in the Playoff ranking.
Put together, all that information says NU isn’t very good when considered on a play-by-play or drive-by-drive basis, but we shouldn’t totally discount that the Cats still manage to win games. And looking at the season-long picture, the team hasn’t been exceptionally lucky. NU is 3-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less, which isn’t an absurd outlier in a realm where teams are typically .500. The Cats’ season turnover margin is just +3, and they haven’t plowed through a cupcake schedule like 9-0 conference rival Iowa.
Has NU benefitted from some favorable bounces of the ball? Almost certainly, but most successful teams do at one point or another. The Cats’ true standing in the college football world probably lies somewhere in between their Playoff ranking and S&P+ valuation, which is to say the team is still pretty good regardless of luck.
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