In defense of the defense

For the past few weeks, there have been murmurs about the play of the Wildcats' defense. But even before last weekend's strong showing against Purdue, NU's defense was playing better than the press clippings – and the scoreboard – would indicate. Purple Reign dives into the numbers in defense of the defense.

Recently, there has been a recurring theme to coverage of Northwestern's football team: That the defense has been a problem this season.

It started back in mid-September after NU's win against Eastern Michigan. Louie Vaccher, who authors the popular Northwestern page for Rivals.com, wrote an article under the headline "‘D' a cause for concern?"

The teaser for Vaccher's story read:

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said that winning a game the way that Northwestern did on Saturday is "worrisome across the board." One of his chief concerns is a defense that allowed Eastern Michigan -- a team that ran for just 40 yards and 1.4 yards per carry against Army -- to rush for 172 yards and two touchdowns. WildcatReport takes a look at NU's troubling defensive performance.

So questions about the Cats' defense aren't brand new; Vaccher kicked it off a while back. But the number of those voicing concern seems to have picked up.

Prior to the Purdue game, the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein penned an article entitled "Defensive statistics misleading at Northwestern."

In his piece, Greenstein conceded that the Wildcats ranked favorably in the Big Ten in some crucial defensive statistics – fifth in total defense, fifth in rushing defense and fourth in passing defense. Nonetheless, he still asserted that the defense is something of a liability. From Greenstein:

So how does all that add up to a big, fat ninth in scoring defense (27.5 points per game) and, more to the point, a 2-2 record with only one victory over an FBS team?

Because those statistics do not represent the Wildcats' inability to make big plays. They're last in the league in tackles for a loss at 4.25 per game. And they're not causing enough turnovers.*

* It's ironic that the next game NU would create six turnovers, but that's not the point here.

And earlier in the week, ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg gave Northwestern's coaching staff a "thumbs down," writing:

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.

Also making insinuations about the D was Cliff Brunt, who covered the Purdue game for the Associated Press.

Brunt's recap of the contest began: "Northwestern's potent offense finally got the help it needed from its defense." That article appeared in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune with the headline, "Wildcats show they can play defense, too".

So as far back as Week 3 we have Rivals sounding warning bells about NU's troubling defensive performance. Then, following Week 4, we have Rittenberg talking about the devolution of NU's players, and the Tribune running a story about how NU's defense is giving up too many points. And even after the Week 5 win, we have an AP gamer that leads with a line about how NU's offense finally got help from the defense.

Not the most flattering coverage, huh? And the way Purple Reign sees it, not the most accurate coverage, either.

Now, Greenstein was definitely right about one thing: "The statistics do not represent the Wildcats." Indeed, they are misleading. Because even before Purdue, NU's defense was playing fine, maybe even good.

The stat that leads to most of this quasi-criticism of the Wildcat defense is probably this one: NU ranks ninth in the Big Ten in scoring defense. The Cats give up 26.2 points per game, and if you take out the Towson game – which we do here pretty much any time we talk about statistics – the D is actually giving up 29.3 points per game. Two of the last three weeks NU's opponents have scored at least 35 points.

So yeah, they give up points. The most prominent statistic out there – points allowed – is one with which the Cats don't do well. Purple Reign concedes as much.

But the points stat isn't totally fair, and here is one reason why: The starting field position of Northwestern's opponents' scoring drives has been really, really good.

Against Eastern Michigan, the Eagles' four scoring drives began, on average, from their 46.5 yard-line – right around midfield. Included in there were possessions that began at the NU 12 (following an Arby Fields fumble) and the NU 35 (following a Brendan Smith fumble). Not a lot of field for the D to work with.

And it wasn't just EMU. Against the Orange, the average starting field position for Syracuse's scoring drives was its 43.6 yard-line. Of SU's six scoring drives, three of them began in Northwestern territory because of two Kafka turnovers and a 48-yard kickoff return. None of SU's scoring drives began inside the Orange's 20.

The same thing happened in the Minnesota game. The Gophers twice started drives on the Cats' side of the field, including once at the three yard-line after Kafka coughed it up on a late sack. All told, UM's average starting field position on scoring drives was its 45.6.

Now, the field-position alibi isn't quite as strong for the Purdue game. The Boilermakers' average starting point on their three scores was their own 39 yard-line. But hey, with the five turnovers that the defense created, and with the game-saving goal line stand, and with a second-half shutout, NU's defensive performance certainly gets a passing grade.

So, has NU's defense given up a lot of points because it's a bad outfit, or because it has, all season long, been put in sticky situations? The Cats' offense is second in the Big Ten (to Purdue) in turnovers, which doesn't bode well for field position. In the four non-Towson games, NU has given its opponent possession on the wrong side of the 40 yard-line six times because of turnovers – and three of those were inside the 21, two of them inside the 12.

Think about this: If you take away the points that NU has given up on drives that started inside its own 21 yard-line – three drives for 17 points – then the Cats would be giving up an average of 22.8 points per game. That would be fourth in the conference.

Look at some other stats – the non-points per game stats – and you'll see that the defense is actually pretty stout when compared to the rest of the Big Ten. The Cats are No. 6 in the conference in pass defense, conceding just 226.6 yards per game. The teams ahead of them are Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa, Minnesota and Indiana.* Those first three squads are just really good – a combined 13-2 – and Minnesota has the statistical luxury of having played Air Force, a team that has 52 pass attempts ON THE SEASON compared to a whopping 317 rushes, so that is an artificially deflated stat.

* There is no quick rationalization for Indiana being ahead of NU. Actually, it looks like Indiana might be pretty good. Sure, the Hoosiers got spanked this weekend by Ohio State, but they won their first three games and lost a 36-33 heartbreaker in the Big House to then-No. 23 Michigan in Week 4. It may not be the worst thing in the world to be in company with the 3-2 Hoosiers.

NU's rushing defense is quality too. It ranks fourth in the conference – behind OSU, PSU and MSU – and gives up just 118 yards per game. All told, NU ranks sixth in the conference in total defense, giving up 344.6 per game. That trails only OSU, PSU, Iowa, Indiana and MSU. Plus, No. 4 MSU gives up 340.4 and No. 5 Indiana 337.4, so NU is a whisker away from being in the top four.

Another good defensive stat for the Cats is takeaways – of which NU has 13, the third best total in the conference. Of course that stat is buoyed by the six-takeaway game against Purdue; the Cats won't get six turnovers often. But they at least have the propensity to steal possession away. That the Wildcats are that good at takeaways and still rank fifth in the Big Ten in turnover margin is a testament to the offense's tendency to cough it up themselves.

Purple Reign hypothesizes that people have been so down on the defense not because of the stats. Indeed, if you look at the stats, save the points, they're not bad. And while the points are the bottom line, there are other factors, like, you know, field position, that can make them deceptive.

PR instead thinks people are up in arms because of how hapless NU has looked – one certain plays – to the naked eye. Eric Decker made a mockery of NU tacklers when the Cats fell to the Gophers (see picture above), inspiring Fitz to say that his team's tackling was "awful" in the post-game press conference.

The tackling again looked pretty pitiful against Purdue, at least at moments. The 67-yard wide receiver screen pass – anytime a screen goes for 67 yards, someone probably missed a tackle – was an exhibition in shoddy tackling. A quick stiff-arm from Aaron Valentin, and that was that.

So NU has, at times, failed miserably at passing the eye test. But seriously, the defense is getting the job done most of the time. Every now and then, the tackling has looked awful. But NU has still only given up one run this season longer than 18 yards (a 35-yarder against Eastern Michigan). Again: Only one run longer than 18 yards.

And take out two long pass plays – a 66-yarder against Syracuse and the 67-yarder last week – and teams aren't busting big plays against the D. Outside of those two, only two other passes have gone for more than 30 yards. Maybe people just tend to remember those plays more.

Because really, even before Purdue, the defense has been fine. The scoreboard and the team's record, not so much. But don't pin it all on the D.

To reach Purple Reign, please write to northwestern.scout@gmail.com.


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