Hit the sack

Towson and Eastern Michigan weren't able to get much of a pass rush against Northwestern. But the last couple of weeks, against Syracuse and Minnesota, QB Mike Kafka has been under siege. Inside, Purple Reign looks at NU's recent sack woes and what it's doing to the offense.

Pretty much every statistic in pretty much every sport is dependent upon a number of factors. Assists in basketball, for instance, require not only deft passing, but also the ability to hit shots. Same goes for assists in hockey – you can put the puck on your teammate's stick, but he's got to put it home.

Football, of course, is no different. Player stats always have a team element. Always. If you see a pretty touchdown pass, you also saw someone catch the ball. A nifty run is more often than not aided by some good blocking (and possibly poor tackling). A field goal requires not just the kicker's leg, but also the offensive line buying that kicker a moment of time, a good long snap, the holder getting the ball down – laces out, of course.

Well, sacks are one of those stats that cannot happen without a melding of numerous factors. Starts with the quarterback, who is sometimes guilty of holding on to the ball too long. Quarterbacks, of course, are supposed to have a sixth sense for this, an internal clock. The ability to, as commentators say, "Sense the rush coming and get rid of it." Whatever sense the rush means.

Indeed, when a sack happens, it's a quarterback sack. It counts against the quarterback's rushing yards, the defense "got to the QB." The quarterback is culpable.

But the quarterback is never alone when a sack occurs. What about his receivers? When a QB bites the dust on a sack, he's the guy everyone looks at. What's he to do, though, if his receivers aren't open? If there is no one to throw to, a sack is the only option. The receivers may be off-screen, and they may be easy to forget about. But they have everything to do with a sack.

Alas, it's not all on the wideouts. What about the offensive line? Where were they at? Yeah, the quarterback needs to get rid of the ball. And yeah, the receivers need to give the QB a place to throw the ball. But if the line doesn't hold, those two variables are moot. The receiver can have a step, and the QB can be as decisive as he can possibly be. But if there's not time then, well, there's no time.

You could also bring the offensive coordinator into the equation. Maybe the play-calling is too predictable. Maybe there are too many passes. Maybe the players don't mesh with the system. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

The point? Well, for whatever reason, Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka has been getting sacked a lot this season. And recently, in the past few weeks, a whole lot. * Purple Reign is not pointing fingers at any individual – player or coach – as the reason for these sack problems. As was said, sacks are a team effort. But whether Kafka isn't getting the ball out quickly enough, whether the receivers aren't getting open, whether the line isn't blocking well enough, whether offensive coordinator Mick McCall is still adapting to personnel changes, the sacks are accumulating. And while it is sometimes hard to ID the main culprit of a sack, it's not hard to ID the effect: It's bad.

* Purple Reign won't look too closely at the first two games, because looking too closely at Towson and Eastern Michigan can be an eyesore. But for the record, Towson got one sack against Kafka (he had 20 attempts), and Eastern Michigan got none (24 attempts). If you want to take those games as evidence that NU doesn't have a sack problem, that's fine. But both those teams are pretty weak: A combined 1-5, with that one coming against Coastal Carolina. Plus Towson and EMU each have four sacks this season. So those two teams will heretofore be neglected in this sack discussion.

OK, the non-cupcake stats: Against Syracuse (2-2) and Minnesota (3-1) – both losses – NU has given up nine sacks – five against Syracuse and another four Saturday against the Gophers. Compare that to the rest of the Big Ten, and it's not good.

The Cats are tied for the conference lead with Illinois and Iowa in sacks against – not something you want to lead in. And while sacks are always bad, it looks like Iowa is, uh, "better" at how it gives them up. Unlike NU, which pushed over the pushovers, the Hawkeyes have been more consistent.

Again: Sacks = Bad. But the Hawkeyes haven't been swarmed by tough teams. They're spreading it out. Iowa gave up four sacks against Northern Iowa – OK, that's not good – but one against Iowa State, three against Arizona and two in this weekend's upset of Penn State. The sacks are well distributed – no two-week stretches with nine sacks, no one game with five – plus there is a trend toward improvement.*

* The way the Illini give up sacks is pretty indefensible. Illinois gave up three sacks to Missouri, two to Illinois State, and five to Ohio State. So that outfit is no better than NU in this regard – worse, actually, seeing as Ron Zook's squad has played just three games. Illinois also has 53 fewer pass attempts than NU. So yeah, Illinois is pretty bad in this respect. But being better than Illinois is nothing to write home about. Not this season, at least. By the way, what has happened to Illinois the past few years?

Now, NU has attempted 136 passes on the season, which is tied with Penn State for the third most in the conference (behind Michigan State's 147 and Purdue's 141). Thus, the Cats should be up there in sacks against with how much they pass. But still, these sacks are killing. Just killing.

Look a the Syracuse game. The first offensive play, with NU already down 3-0, was a sack. And fumble. Syracuse recovered and went in to score – 10-0 almost immediately. The second SU sack came on 2nd-and-three. Kafka was called for intentional grounding – officially a sack – and the result was a loss of eight yards. Not surprisingly, the Cats didn't convert that 3rd-and-11. The third sack came on 2nd-and-eight and went for a loss of five yards. The Cats didn't get that first down either.

The fourth and fifth sacks, though, were the real killers. The fourth one, with about 20 seconds to go in the first half and SU leading 24-21, nixed a Wildcat scoring chance as NU was vying to take the lead (or at least tie). Syracuse didn't score on the subsequent possession, but the snafu nonetheless ended NU's chance at scoring.

The fifth sack came on 1st-and-10 with NU trailing 27-21 in the third. It was a loss of seven yards and the drive resulted in a punt.

So, that's five sacks.

1) Resulted in lost fumble; led to SU score
2) Resulted in a loss of eight on second down; led to punt
3) Resulted in a loss of five on second down; led to punt
4) Resulted in lost fumble; killed scoring chance
5) Resulted in seven-yard loss; led to punt

Two fumbles and three punts. Uggh.

What's that? You're dying to look at the Minnesota sacks. Well, let's do it!

The Gophers got four of them. The first one came on a 1st-and-10 and resulted in a huge 12-yard loss; the Cats would punt three plays later. The second sack, on a 2nd-and-three, came via an intentional grounding and went for an 11-yard loss. Number three harkened to the Syracuse game: A lost fumble with about three minutes left in the game, NU down by seven. The ensuing UM drive started at the three yard-line, and the ensuing NU possession started with a 14-point deficit.

The fourth sack – which came on the next offensive play – was also good for a lost fumble, this one with about 1:30 to go. That was it.

So, a recap of the four UM sacks:

1) Resulted in a 12-yard loss; led to a punt
2) Resulted in an 11-yard loss; led to a punt
3) Resulted in a lost fumble; set up UM on the NU three
4) Resulted in a lost fumble; led to end of game

It's interesting not just that NU is giving up 4.5 sacks per game in its last two outings. What's more, these are HUGE sacks. First off, the total yardage lost on these nine sacks is 75 – well over eight yards per sack. That's bad. Penn State, for example, is losing less than six yards per sack. Michigan is losing right at six. Ohio State is losing about four yards per sack. Minnesota is – well, you get the point. NU trails only Iowa in yards-per-sack.

As a result, in the last two weeks the Cats have not converted a single first down on a drive where Kafka got sacked. And this from the No. 8 team in the nation in terms of third down conversions (56 percent). Over the past two weeks, NU is 15-of-31 on third down – but 0-for-9 when there's a sack. (Hey, at least that means the Cats are converting at a 15-of-22 clip when they don't get sacked.) It's not rocket science, but sacks really kill drives. Like, really kill drives.

And that's not all. Look at the turnovers. Of the nine sacks the last two weeks, FOUR of them have resulted in lost fumbles. One of them set up SU with incredible field position and led to a TD. One of them killed a drive at the end of the first half. Two more came in the waning moments of a once-close game against Minnesota – and one of those also set up a score.

It's not coincidence that NU has lost the past two games.* Sacks are killing drives and leading to turnovers. Until this gets rectified, it's going to be hard to win games.

* Admitted caveat: While the sack numbers against those first two opponents are skewed because those teams aren't that good, the recent sack numbers could be skewed as well because of the health of starting running back Stephen Simmons. Simmons, who hasn't played the last two weeks with injury, took some pressure off the NU passing game, for sure. But if he's out for a while – and he has a history with injuries – then the offense we've seen the past few weeks will likely be the offense we see the next few weeks. And the few weeks after that.

So basically, Kafka needs to quit getting sacked. Or the receivers need to do a better job getting open. Or the line needs to do a better job of blocking. Or McCall needs to put his players in better positions.

Whatever needs to happen, it needs to happen quickly.

Purple Wildcats Top Stories