Before The Raid: The Northwestern Defense

Gotta keep this guy away from Mr. Goff - US PRESSWIRE

If Berkelium's rundown of Northwestern's offense put you in a pessimistic mood, I'll try my best to raise your hopes, if only just a bit.

If you remember all of the opponent defense previews I wrote last year (and why wouldn't you have memorized every word?!) then you might recall me complaining about how hard these are to write early in the season. It's obvious why - we have only partially relevant data with which to analyze and reach conclusions with.

It's worse this year. Last year, we knew that the Bears would be coming back with essentially the same system they had been running every year under Jeff Tedford. But the offense is now entirely different, the defense is running a 4-3 (and, presumably, has some modicum of good health) and last year's stats are nearly irrelevant.

That's a good thing for us fans, because last year was a nightmare that I had scrubbed from my eyes with the coarsest of sand. But it's a bad thing for any schmuck trying to predict what will happen on the field. Luckily, Northwestern is significantly more stable than our Bears, so I can safely say a few things about the Wildcats without endless boring caveats.

I suppose it goes without saying, but all stats noted below unless otherwise noted are for the 2012 season.

Personnel

Defensive Line: Tyler Scott, Sr. DE ; Sean McEvilly, Jr. DT ; Chance Carter, Jr DT ; Dean Lowry, So. DE OR Deonte Gibson, So. DE

Scott is the man to watch - he collected nine sacks last year, and no other returning starter managed more than three. He'll be an immediate test for Cal's rebuilt line, though I can only speculate if he'll be lined up consistently on the right or the left. Maybe both.

Carter and Lowry/Gibson were all reserves last year and will have to step in for departing seniors. McEvilly has a great name but his production is limited in terms of what actually shows up on a stat sheet.

Key Matchup: Freddie Tags vs. Tyler Scott. If Cal's most talented but inexperienced lineman can keep Scott in check, Cal should be in solid shape.

Linebackers: Colin Ellis, Jr. SLB ; Damien Proby, Sr. MLB ; Chi Chi Ariguzo, Jr. WLB

Likely the strength of the defense. Proby and Ariguzo are both plenty experienced - Proby is the steady, high volume tackler, while Ariguzo is the more disruptive force who will be sent on more often on blitzes. Combined they return 203 tackles from the previous season.

Key Matchup: Outside contain vs. Brendan Bigelow: Biggie made Ohio St.'s linebackers look pretty damn silly, but he's hardly an unknown quantity any more. Can he do the same to a veteran, disciplined crew?

Secondary: Daniel Jones, Jr. CB ; Nick Van Hoose, So. CB ; Traveon Henry, So. SS ; Ibraheim Campbell, Jr. FS

Like most good free safeties, Campbell led the Wildcats in passes defensed and broken up, and his 89 total tackles indicate that he's solid in run support as well.

There are question marks in the secondary, which might be a good sign for the Bear Raid. Three players who got significant playing time last year graduated, and as a result I would imagine that secondary depth would be a concern. The starters should be solid (although there are questions at strong safety), but like Cal, Northwestern may struggle when forced to play nickel and dime packages against multiple receivers . . . which Cal will run on basically every play.

Key Matchup: Cal's inside receivers vs. ??? I don't really know who Northwestern will be deploying on Cal's inside receivers. I don't think they'd risk putting linebackers on guys like Richard Rodgers, but who knows? This is where Cal has to exploit Northwestern, and if they can't the Wildcats probably win.

Against the Run

3.77 yards allowed/attempt, 34th in the nation

Good, solid numbers, and a large portion of credit should go to the veteran group of linebackers mentioned above, along with Campbell's ability to help in run support. They accomplished solid run numbers not by racking up a ton of tackles for loss on runs (41 in total last year, or about 3.2/game), but rather by keeping the offense in front of them and preventing long gains. Only 17 runs went for longer than 20 yards, and only six went for longer than 30. Brendan Bigelow would certainly like to show the Wildcats that he can't be contained, but the Bears might have greatest success grabbing a consistent 5 yards. Big run plays will be hard to come by, but the air raid isn't really built on big plays anyway.

Against the Pass

6.6 yards allowed/attempt, 32nd in the nation

You'll see a bit more context in stats below, but Northwestern did well against the pass . . . until it became a clear passing down. The pass rush was weak, and the indication I get is that Northwestern's defensive coordinator was somewhat blitz averse. Whatever the reason, the pass rush that was reasonably successful on standard downs couldn't get the job done on passing downs.

Again, this was a defense that did reasonably well preventing big plays (only 10 passes went for more than 40 yards, and none went for 60+. But again, the Bear Raid isn't necessarily designed to do that, so it's not necessarily worrisome.

Advanced Stats

S&P STATS

Total Defense

Standard Downs

Passing Downs

Run Defense

Pass Defense

National Rank

50

42

95

63

53


FEI+ total defensive efficiency rank: 45th in the nation

You will notice that standard stats indicate Northwestern had a borderline top-25 defense, while the advanced stats say they were significantly more mediocre. Why the discrepancy?

Northwestern 2012 opponents:

Team

Offense S&P rank

Syracuse

35

Vanderbilt

61

Boston College

90

South Dakota

N/A - FCS

Indiana

54

Penn State

48

Minnesota

83

Nebraska

8

Iowa

92

Michigan

9

Michigan St.

59

Illinois

109

Mississippi St.

51


Those are some pretty bad offenses. Northwestern benefited from avoiding Ohio St. and Wisconsin, the two best offensive teams in whatever-the-other-Big-10-Division-is-called-these-days. I'd only classify three teams on their schedule as above average offensively, and against those teams (Michigan, Nebraska and Syracuse) Northwestern allowed an average of 34 points in regulation.

So this becomes a two part question: 1. Is Northwestern likely to improve upon a defense that probably wasn't quite as shiny as the counting stats indicate? 2. Is Cal likely, in the very first game under Sonny Dykes, to immediately have an offense that would rank in the top 3rd of D1 football? Your answer to those two questions should tell you what you'll expect on Saturday.

Stats of Dubious Value


As a reminder: Below are stats that, while interesting, may have little if any predictive value on what will occur over the course of 60-90 offensive snaps tomorrow.

Turnovers

29 forced turnovers, 20th in the nation (16 fumbles, 13 interceptions)

Another reason the standard stats might be flattering the 2012 Wildcats a bit? 16 fumble recoveries puts them tied for 5th in the country. And in case you think that ranking is a reflection of skill, they are tied with noted smash-mouth defenses like SMU and Rice, and behind even more noted smash-mouth defenses like UCLA. Alabama's mediocre defense is only 53rd. According to the Northwestern stat sheet (which could very well have errors) the Wildcats forced only 13 fumbles, which seems to imply that their opponents had a penchant for just dropping the ball. I would advise Cal not to do that.

Man do I hope the fickle Gods of fumble recoveries shine on us this year.

13 interceptions is about 1 more than an average FBS team. No one player had more than three, and six of the interceptions came from players who graduated, so I don't think there's any one ball-hawk we should be overly concerned about. The practice perception of Jared Goff is that he's not especially turnover prone. If that perception is reality, the Bears should be able to hold onto the ball on Saturday.

3rd Down

Opponent 3rd down conversion rate of 40.64, 66th in the nation

A rather mediocre rate considering the opposition, which squares with Northwestern's oddly poor performance on passing downs. Like I said above, I'm not sure what the cause of that issue is, other than a potential lack of secondary depth/iffy nickel and dime packages.

Red Zone

Opponent scoring percentage of 79.59, 46th in the nation
Opponent touchdown percentage of 55.10, 41st in the nation

More slightly better than average stats against worse than average opposition.

Conclusions

Here's the thing. Last year, Northwestern was a good team. But they probably weren't 10-3 good, because the schedule was so weak. That's not to say that we should underestimate them, but we shouldn't irrationally fear them either.

Keeping with the theme: last year's Northwestern defense was good. But it wasn't a defense that could win a game single-handedly, and they didn't meet many offenses as (hypothetically) good as a Sonny Dykes air raid offense.

Cal may have one other ace up their sleeve: Tempo. If you read Bill Connelly's always excellent preview of Northwestern, you'll see many mentions of defensive depth issues. Is there a better scenario to exploit a lack of defensive depth than a warp speed air raid against a team 2,000 miles from home, playing at a weird time of day?

Ah, but there's the rub. There's plenty of reason to doubt that the Bear Raid will be ready to go at full speed from day 1.

Really, the Northwestern defense is the control in this little experiment. They were consistently solid-but-not-spectacular last year, and are overwhelmingly likely be consistently solid-but-not-spectacular this year. No, the variable is the Bear Raid. Is this offense ready to get plays off in under 10 seconds? Is the young offensive line ready to protect the quarterback? And is a certain true freshman ready to make all of his reads, to make the smart pass, to avoid the crushing mistake? If those variables are answered in the affirmative, then the Bears should be ready to score points - enough points to win.

Hopefully that's not too much to ask.

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