Commentary: Northwestern's Fourth Quarter Woes
by Jonathan Hodges

In 3 games thus far in the 2007 season, Northwestern has had the lead and the ball early in the fourth quarter against tough opponents.  In all 3 occasions, the defense held up rather well early in the game, allowing only 14 points to each opponent - giving the offense every opportunity to build a lead.  In a fourth game, NU saw itself down by 6 points in that fourth quarter with the ball inside the opponent's 15 yard line with a chance to get a go-ahead TD twice.  In each of those games, NU came away with a loss after folding late in the game.

Against Michigan, it was an offensive line breakdown in the 4th quarter that led to 4 consecutive turnovers (2 INTs, 2 fumbles) as CJ Bacher was also sacked twice and the offense gained only two first downs - Michigan scored 14 unanswered points off of those turnovers to take the lead and win the game.  Against Purdue, NU went 1/8 passing with 4 total yards as the offense couldn't get anything going (Sutton, who had earlier been rushing for 6.0 yds/carry, was never handed the ball in the 4th quarter), meanwhile the Boilermakers racked up 220 yards in the quarter on their way to scoring 21 points and sealing the win.  Against Iowa, NU had 2 interceptions, was sacked 5 times, and Tyrell Sutton, who had already rushed for 115 yards at over 5 yds/carry on the day, was only handed the ball 2 times - and Iowa scored 14 unanswered points for the win.  And, finally, against Duke NU had the ball on first down inside the 15 twice in the 4th quarter and couldn't manage to come up with the potential lead-taking TD.

So, why all of the fourth quarter woes?  Under Coach Walker, NU only blew a 4th quarter lead in 5 games (PSU 2005, BGSU 2003 - Motor City Bowl, Air Force 2003, BGSU 2001, and PSU 2001) over his 7 year tenure at Northwestern.  Meanwhile, under Coach Fitz, NU has already blown a 4th quarter lead 4 times in 2 seasons (MSU 2006, Michigan 2007, Purdue 2007, and Iowa 2007).  The obvious answer: coaching; NU's current coaching staff (particularly on offense) is young and relatively inexperienced.  In the 4 4th quarter meltdowns under Fitz, NU has scored a total of 0 points, while the opponents have scored a total of 73 points ( 18.25 pts/game) in the final period.  Sure, NU has managed to overcome a 21 point deficit to beat Minnesota (a far inferior team this year) in double overtime, beat a tough MSU team in overtime (who has now lost 5 of their last 6 games with 2 tough games remaining against Purdue and PSU), and beat Nevada (a mediocre mid-major team) on a last minute drive, but the fact is that against tougher Big Ten competition, NU has folded.

It's not all on the coaches, though, as they aren't the ones playing the game out there.  For instance, here are CJ Bacher's 2007 stats broken down into NU's wins and losses

W/L - Games - Cmp/Att (%) - Yds - TD - INT - Sacked
W - 5 games - 147/222 (66%) - 1821 yds - 14 TD - 1 INT - 11 sacks
L - 5 games - 116/217 (53%) - 1249 yds - 2 TD - 16 INT - 21 sacks

And in the 4th quarter of those 4 aforementioned games where NU had the lead but later lost, here are CJ's stats:

Cmp/Att (%) - Yds - TD - INT - Sacked
8/35 (23%) - 90 yds - 0 TD - 5 INT - 9 sacks

I don't want to call CJ out specifically, I think he is an excellent QB and gives NU a great chance at winning ball games, but his performance in the 4th quarter of those NU meltdowns is a perfect example of what we've seen out of the team as a whole.  I could put the defensive stats up there, but the fact is that every Northwestern fan already knows of the defense's continued ineptitude.

In each game, the offense had the opportunity to put the game away either by scoring again or using up a ton of time, which it failed with in each opportunity.  So, the fact is that the offense just is not working in the 4th quarter of those games, and just looking at CJ's stats, there are 2 specific reasons that have led to an ineffective offense:

1. "Pressing."
2. Offensive line play.

Obviously when the offensive line allows the pressure to get to Bacher, things get ugly - CJ is a pocket passer and needs at least a little time to find the open receiver, so when things collapse he has no choice but to either take the sack or throw the ball some place that he doesn't want to - which led to a 23% completion rate, 9 sacks, and 5 INTs.  The fact is that the OL has shown that it can perform well - look at the Michigan State game this year for a perfect example: against a team with a very strong pass rush, they allowed only one sack, which only lost 2 yards (and was actually a bobbled snap).  So, why has the difference been so startling?  Individual breakdowns.

Which brings us to "pressing."

On Coach Fitz's November 5th press conference this year (following the Iowa loss), he attributed the fourth quarter meltdowns to "pressing," which is summed up nicely in this statement from Fitz:

"It looks to me like we're trying to make things happen that we don't need to, playing outside the framework of what we are trying to accomplish offensively and defensively, and the kicking game. That's on us, as coaches, to make sure that we continue to be consistent, throughout the course of practice, to get our guys to believe that's the way they need to play for four strong quarters...."

Basically, there are two areas where NU as a whole has been "pressing," the play calling and the individual on-the-field performance.  In terms of play calling, NU has gotten away from what it needs to do late in the game with a lead and a healthy and effective running back: run the football.  Against Purdue then Iowa, NU handed the ball to Sutton a total of 2 times in the final period after he had been effective earlier in the game.  Sure, it is great to be aggressive (which NU was arguably not last year against MSU as they scored 38 unanswered points) but to go 3 and out and punt thanks to incompletions or give up a turnover opens the door for the opposition to score quickly.

The biggest issue, though, comes down to individual breakdowns.  When someone gets "outside of the framework" and tries to do too much (in blocking, passing, receiving, tackling, etc.) things can get ugly, and just about every member of the team has had some sort of breakdown in the 4th quarter - which is not good given that on any given play all 11 guys out there must be in sync in order to be effective.  Whether it's a missed block when trying to seal off the end by an OL leading to additional pressure on CJ, a forced throw by Bacher that is incomplete or intercepted, a drop by a receiver trying to take off too early, a missed tackle by a defender trying to overpursue, or misinterpreting a route or biting on a play fake by a member of the secondary trying to jump on a play - each of these plays is an individual trying to "do too much" and therefore getting out of the game plan and not completing the task at hand.  And all it takes is one gaffe on a given play for things to blow up, and when there are guys across the field making errors, things really do add up.

Which brings us back to the coaching staff.  As Fitz admitted, it is up to the coaches to set the attitude that if one plays within the given assignments and framework and does their specific job, NU can and will win football games.  Everyone doesn't have to go out to be a hero, and you don't have to go out and tense up when it's crunch time.  Heck, NU has won 3 nail-biters this year that took a lot of guts, even if those games were against relatively weaker teams.

It's up to the staff, and Fitz in particular, to get this point across - and while he doesn't have a lot of experience, hopefully now he can build this team up and lead them to two more victories this season.  Indiana and Illinois are both tough opponents, but definitely win-able games for Northwestern who must "play within the framework" in order to reach that 7 win level that many NU fans, myself included, expected this team to achieve before the year.  Looking at this season so far, NU is 1-1 in games decided before the bitter end, and 4-4 in close games that could have gone either way in the final period - while NU could be 9-1 right now if everything went amazingly well, they could also be 1-9 if the wheels fell off every time, so 5-5 is not a bad place to be.

Go 'Cats!!!

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

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