Weekly Wildcat Watch

Purple Reign went out and found any and all stories about Northwestern. A link-fest to those articles, plus an addendum to a PR story written last week. News and commentary this week comes from ESPN, the Tribune, the Herald, the Daily Northwestern and more.

Here we are, having just wrapped up Week 4 of the college football season, Big Ten play is underway, Mike Kafka is helping rewrite the Northwestern record book, and there just aren't many stories about the Wildcats. A few, sure, and those can be found below.

But Purple Reign once again won the Best Northwestern Coverage of the Week Award.*

* As voted by Purple Reign.

So before we pick up the meager scraps of news from the non-PR world, let's recap last week at Purple Reign.

Usually things start with a few links and a few excerpts. But this week, Purple Reign wants to pen an addendum to a recent piece about third down conversion percentage. You may remember this article about how NU has been good at converting third downs this season – and in seasons past.

In 2007, NU ranked 19th in the nation in third down efficiency at 45.8 percent; that was No. 13 among BCS schools….In 2008, the Cats were 21st – 10th among BCS conference teams – converting 46.41 percent of their third downs.

Northwestern's back-to-back top 21 finishes in third-down efficiency – coupled with the hot start this season on third down – are all the more impressive when you consider who else appears that high on the list in 2008 and 2007. The other teams that were No. 21 or higher both seasons:

Florida
Penn State
Texas Tech
Texas
Oklahoma
Missouri
Navy

That accounts for five Heisman finalist in 2008 and 2007 – OU's Sam Bradford, MU's Chase Daniel, UT's Colt McCoy and UF's Tim Tebow (twice). Oh, and every one of those teams – besides Navy – was ranked No. 1 in the nation or receiving first-place votes at some point the last two seasons….

OK, so there's the premise: NU is in elite company when it comes to third down efficiency. Clear enough. But Purple Reign looked a little deeper – past the fact that NU is good on third down, and into the significance of what converting those third downs actually means. That's where the addendum goes.

Remember this part?

Consider: Of NU's 13 games in 2008, the eight worst in terms of third-down conversion percentage were all wins. And of the remaining five – the "top" five – four of them were losses….

Well, that probably could have been clearer in graph form. So thanks to a crash course in HTML coding, here is a chart that clearly articulates what that article tried saying with words.

Opponent 3rd down % 3rd down % rank Result
Syracuse 45.4 9 W
Duke 30.7 12 W
So. Ill. 56.3 2 W
Ohio 31.3 11 W
Iowa 47.4 6 W
MSU 62.5 1 L
Purdue 46.2 8 W
Indiana 52.6 4 L
Minnesota 20 13 W
OSU 53.3 3 L
Michigan 35.3 10 W
Illinois 46.7 7 W
Missouri 52.4 5 L

Or we could put it in order, from worst first down game to best.

Opponent 3rd down % 3rd down % rank Result
Minnesota 20 13 W
Duke 30.7 12 W
Ohio 31.3 11 W
Michigan 35.3 10 W
Syracuse 45.4 9 W
Purdue 46.2 8 W
Illinois 46.7 7 W
Iowa 47.4 6 W
Missouri 52.4 5 L
Indiana 52.6 4 L
OSU 53.3 3 L
So. Ill. 56.3 2 W
MSU 62.5 1 L

That's pretty staggering – save the Southern Illinois game, the better NU did on third down, the worse the result. Pretty much to a T. Like the article said, being good on third down is invariably a good thing. The point isn't to suggest, Hey, maybe the Wildcats should start sucking on third down. Then they'd win more!! Well, no. That's not true.

What is true though: In 2008, the Cats somehow lost the games in which they did the best on third down. And won the games in which they did the worst. Go figure.

This was another of this week's gems – about how Mike Kafka is getting lit up the last few weeks; he's been sacked nine times in two weeks. Once again, PR got pretty into the numbers.

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….

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 – more than 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 the yards-per-sack category.

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.

Finally, kudos to Macro LaNave and Austin Cumblad, a pair of sports writers from the Minnesota Daily – UM's student paper – who were not only nice enough to indulge Purple Reign in this email exchange, but also got pretty darn close in predicting the outcome.

Macro LaNave: I predict this game will go at least 3 ½ hours with all the passes thrown, and I think the Gophers – with their veteran team and a strong defense – pull it out, 27-23.

Austin Cumblad: Well, I can go against the Cats, too, and even still feel like I'm making an objective choice. I predict this game to be played almost strictly through the air and each team to have a couple picks, but the shootout will ultimately end in a 31-27 win for Minnesota. But what do I know. Should be a fun one.

The final, of course, was 35-24 Minnesota, so both guys were right on. Purple Reign, with a 34-31 prediction in favor or NU, wasn't so on.

*********

Alright, now for the news – or lack thereof – about the Wildcats from other sources. This week's relative dearth of news is especially interesting considering that there were some pretty packed Weekly Wildcat Watches this summer. And definitely in the build-up to the football season. But man, this week – not much.

The most interesting thing about other outlets' coverage of NU is this: Three different recaps of the Minnesota game started off pretty much exactly the same way. There would be cries of plagiarism if three students in a high school English class did what the Daily Herald, Tribune and Daily Northwestern did on Sunday.

From the Herald:

Pat Fitzgerald needed just two words to describe his team's tackling on Saturday. And Northwestern's coach spat them out as if they gored him to his core.

"Awful," Fitzgerald said. "Awful."…

From the Tribune:

Two words stood out from coach Pat Fitzgerald's postgame news conference: "Awful" and "shocked."

"Awful" was how he characterized Northwestern's tackling performance Saturday in its 35-24 loss to Minnesota.

From the Daily Northwestern:

Coach Pat Fitzgerald needed on word to describe the Wildcats' tackling on Saturday: "Awful." Purple Reign is not insinuating that these writers copied each other. Not at all. It's just that, when scouring for news about Northwestern, one couldn't help but notice two things – (a) there wasn't much news this week, and (b) the news that there was had a broken-record feel.

There was one interesting, non-recycled article about the Cats this week – this one about Kafka and his use of pronouns like "we" and "us" and "our." The article is basically saying that Kafka is a team player, that he's not all about getting the attention for himself (even though he has broken records this season and still tops the nation in completion percentage among active quarterbacks).*

* South Florida's Matt Grothe is a whisker ahead of Kafka – 72.9 percent to Kafka's 72.2. But Grothe is lost for the year with an ACL injury, thus the "active quarterbacks" caveat. Texas' Colt McCoy is No. 3/No. 2 at 71.0 percent.

This one is from the Chicago Tribune. The crux is basically that NU isn't making many plays, especially on defense, and especially because of missed tackles.

"The tape doesn't lie," Fitzgerald said after reviewing the Minnesota game. "We're not making the plays we're capable of making, and we're getting burned….

"If you miss a lot of tackles on one play, it becomes a big play. Tackle the guy with the ball. Keep your eyes open and trust your technique. We can do it, and we know we can do it because we've done it in the past."

This one here discusses Fitz's involvement in a campaign to cure muscular dystrophy. Fitz and other coaches wore patches on their arms to show support for the cause. Nothing to do with football, but nonetheless good stuff from Fitz and NU.

"So why did you decide to do the Coach for a Cure?" (DMD sufferer) David Tellez asked Fitzgerald.

"Well, when we were approached as coaches we thought it would be a great way to give back a little bit and help a tremendous cause…

"Our entire coaching staff will be doing it. Last year we wore it and we had tremendous awareness raised because all of our games are on national TV."

One more thing: ESPN's Big Ten blogger, Adam Rittenberg, wrote this about NU:

Thumbs down, Northwestern's coaching staff -- When returning starters regress and veteran players struggle fundamentally, the blame has to fall somewhere. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald sounded justifiably shocked at his defense's poor tackling against Minnesota. It is stunning to see a unit that returned eight starters struggle so much, but it has been the case for three weeks. Clearly, something isn't carrying over from the practice field to Saturdays, and the coaches need to get it fixed real fast.

Purple Reign kind of ribbed Rittenberg this summer because Rittenberg, an NU grad, wrote what seemed to be a disproportionate amount about the Wildcats. And he was also pretty kind to the Cats – tabbing them No. 5 in his Power Rankings even though the rest of the football world picked them to finish ninth or 10th in the conference.

Now, though, it looks like Rittenberg's glasses don't have such a purple tint – not only is he covering the Cats way, way less, but he's also added a scathing tone to his coverage. Maybe he's not such a homer after all. Maybe…

Purple Reign is a bit surprised that there isn't more in this week's WWW. But honestly, there just wasn't much Northwestern news out there. Maybe it was lofty expectations that fueled the preseason football coverage, or maybe a disappointing 2-2 start – couple with the Bears, Notre Dame, etc. – has rendered NU somewhat irrelevant to the media world at large.

Rest assured, though, that Purple Reign is not large. Nor will the news and analysis stop. Not here, at least.


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