Commentary: Fitz and the Fourth Quarter
by Jonathan Hodges

Last Saturday's loss to Michigan State marked Northwestern's second consecutive game in which the 'Cats blew a fourth quarter lead.  Winning just one of those games would put NU in the national rankings (and with two wins: well, one can dream).  With a similar streak last season (consecutive blown fourth quarter leads to Syracuse and Minnesota), it really begs the question: do Coach Fitz's teams lack that fourth quarter instinct that seemed to make Randy Walker's teams so special?  Let's take a closer look.

In Position to Win

Going into the fourth quarter, Fitz's teams have been tied or had the lead 64.9% of the time in his head coaching career (57 games).  Which means, almost two thirds of the time, Fitz has his teams in a position to take the game down the stretch.  If one expands that by looking at the games where NU has held a lead or been tied in the fourth quarter, that percentage goes up to 71.9%, quite an impressive number given that the 'Cats' sustained 8 losses in his first year and NU has only been favored in 47.4% of his games as head coach.

In fact, Fitz has easily eclipsed his predecessor in terms of putting NU in a position to win: Walker's teams entered the fourth quarter tied or with the lead just 43.9% of the time and either became tied or held a lead sometime during the fourth quarter 52.4% of the time.  Fitz has approximately a 20% edge in both of those statistics (noting that Walker's career spanned 82 games).

It's clear that Fitz's recruiting efforts, coordinator/assistant coach hires, and leadership ability have helped propel Northwestern into a position where it can win almost any game.  And that's even an upgrade from Walker, who presided over one of the most consistent periods in NU football history, with three bowl appearances and another 6-6 campaign on his resume.

Fourth Quarter Scoring

Despite putting the Wildcats in a position to win at the end of the game, the 'Cats haven't necessarily performed that well in the final period, under either coach.  Fitz's teams have outscored its opponents just 33.3% of the time in the fourth quarter, while Walker's teams did so even fewer times (30.5%).  Adding in number of times the teams have tied their opponents' scores, those percentages go up to a decent (but not great) 63.2% for Fitz and 51.2% for Randy Walker.

But, adding up the cumulative fourth quarter scores, it provides a slightly different picture: Fitz's teams have a point differential margin per game average of -1.54 points in fourth quarters, while Walker's teams were a full point less at -0.54 points.  Coach Fitz's teams have cumulatively outscored its opponents during only one year of his tenure (2008, by a margin of 62-44), and this year's team has a long way to go as it's been outscored 35-60 (this past week's 3-21 performance certainly didn't help).

Also looking at this year's team, the 'Cats have been outgained in terms of total yards in the final period in 5 of 7 games, with a cumulative differential of -47.1 yards per game in the fourth.  Yes, some garbage time is included in that number, but in some of the closer games (e.g. the most recent two, both losses), the 'Cats have been significantly outplayed.  Meanwhile, Walker's teams generally kept it closer and didn't seem to experience as many complete collapses.

Blown Leads and Comebacks

Speaking of collapses, the most noticeable artifact of a team's fourth quarter prowess is the number of blown leads.  This, of course, is especially pertinent now due to Northwestern's aforementioned current two game blown fourth quarter lead streak.

Walker was known for taking care of business in the fourth quarter, as he held a 86.2% win rate when his teams entered the final quarter with the lead (and an 83.3% rate when they were winning or tied).  Fitz, meanwhile, has lagged in this area, holding a 72.7% win rate when his teams are ahead entering the final quarter (70.3% when winning or tied).  Those are both over 10% lower under Fitz than Walker.

In fact, Fitz has blown a fourth quarter lead 9 times, or 22.5% of the games in which he held such a lead.  Walker only blew 5 such leads in his tenure at Northwestern, or 12.8% of the time; again, about 10% less than Fitz.  Coach Fitz has experienced at least blown lead in every season (although it took until the bowl game in 2008), including 3 such losses in 2007 and 2 in each of the last 2 seasons (including the current season, which has 5 games remaining).

Finally, one must give credit where credit is due, and Fitz has helped his teams to engineer 6 fourth quarter comebacks (10.5% of his total games coached), while Walker's teams managed just 7 such victories (8.5% of his games coached).

What It Means

While Coach Fitz has put his teams in a position to win more games in that final period, his teams haven't necessarily fared as well in that crucial final period, and have, in fact, blown more leads during that span.  His predecessor, Coach Walker, generally did a better job of holding onto his leads and kept the point differential in the final period significantly closer despite dealing with four losing seasons in his tenure (to just one under Fitz).

So, the question is: why?  Some of my ideas appear below.


Coach Walker was well known for his tough conditioning drills and the infamous test.  His teams were physically prepared for the final period, as demonstrated in their 2000 Big Ten title run where they outscored opponents by an average of 1.9 points in the fourth quarter of games.  Meanwhile, Fitzgerald has been a bit more lenient relative to Walker (although he's no pushover) and it has shown in the blown leads, being outgained, and being outscored.

Lack of a Running Game

As I wrote just a couple of weeks ago here at HailToPurple, the current lack of running game has really hurt the 'Cats when trying to preserve and/or extend leads in the fourth quarter.  Fitz's teams have blown 7 fourth quarter leads during years in which the 'Cats have basically lacked a solid ground game (2007, 2009, and 2010).  Meanwhile, Walker's teams had quite a string of solid RBs featured in the offense (Damien Anderson, Jason Wright, Noah Herron, Tyrell Sutton) and were able to take care of business in the final period most of the time with the help of those backs.

Coaching Inexperience

Despite his proven skills in the leadership and recruiting arenas, his in-game management is still lacking at times.  It's hard to knock a coach who has an overall winning record and is on the cusp of entering the top 5 most winning coaches in school history, but part of supporting a winning program is expecting the best from the team.  Fitz has made some questionable decisions that have led to losses (two such decisions come to mind immediately: taking 3 points off the board against Duke in 2007 and not properly anticipating a fake punt attempt in NU's most recent game against MSU), and has also made some general decisions that have forced fans to scratch their heads (going conservative to try and milk the lead, especially when an aggressive offense seems to be working well).  Yes, he now has experienced coordinators at his side, but the decisions are ultimately his, and his still relative lack of experience as the decision maker shows itself from time to time.

Final Thought

What is nice, though, is that Coach Fitz has and continues to put his teams in a position to win games at the end.  He's gaining valuable experience on the job and will be in a much better position in terms of decision-making before too long (and he's already made some great decisions to date).  Improving the run game is a priority, and it's already beginning to show with Northwestern outgaining its last opponent (MSU) on the ground.  And while he may not be matching Walker's demanding conditioning routine, he expects a lot out of his players and is bringing in more talent than anybody else in school history, which, in the long run, will lead to more success than just trying to maximize lower tier players (not to diminish any accomplishments of individual players who rise above their recruiting profile, which is something Northwestern sees quite often).

Hopefully we'll see improvement in all of these areas in order to yield more fourth quarter success for the Wildcats.  It's also tough to meet high expectations in that final period, where Northwestern is almost expected to pull out close victories every game in order to live up to that "Cardiac 'Cats" nickname.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.