It's been so long at this point that half of you probably forgot there was even supposed to be a part 3, but it's finally here. In part 1, we looked at the math behind Fitz's close game record, and in part 2 we showed that Fitz's record in close games is a bit deceiving. Part 3 will try to explain what's causing Fitz's excellent close record.
Consider this hypothetical: how would you assemble a team that won more close games than it lost? Let's come up with a few of those traits and see how many apply to Northwestern :
A great quarterback
Quarterback is the most important position on the field, and never more so than when trailing late in the fourth quarter. It's nearly impossible to complete a successful game-winning drive in the final minutes without a good QB.
During Fitzgerald's tenure, Northwestern has generally gotten solid performances from their quarterbacks; C.J. Bacher progressed from below average as a sophomore to above average as a senior, MIke Kafka did a good job as a senior, and Dan Persa was excellent last season.
A powerful running game
When a team has the lead late in the game and needs a couple first downs to kill the clock, it's important to have an effective running game. You're a truly dominant running team when the opposition knows you're going to run and still can't stop you.
Under Fitzgerald, Northwestern has never been a great running team; in fact they've been downright terrible at running the ball since the graduation of Tyrell Sutton. And even during Sutton's final three seasons (when he battled injuries and never lived up to the All-American potential he showed as a freshman), Northwestern was never a team that could run the ball at will.
A dominant defense
The opposing team will get a chance to tie or take the lead down the stretch of almost every close game, so it's obviously important to have a strong defense that can protect the lead in crunch time.
As a coach, Fitzgerald's teams have never had a defense to rival the dominant defenses Fitzgerald anchored during his NU playing days. The 2008 defense was the closest, but still fell quite a bit short of being considered dominant. The 2009 team had an average defense; besides that his defenses have been sub-par.
A clutch kicker
Having a kicker you can rely on down the stretch is a huge advantage in any close game. All three of Northwestern's Big Ten championship teams in the modern era had excellent kickers, in Sam Valensizi, Brian Gowins and Tim Long.
Fitzgerald's teams have continued this tradition of having dependable field goal kicke..
yeah, I couldn't even complete that sentence with a straight face. The kicking game has been a weak spot for years, in particular in bowl games; NU has botched at least one extra point in all 3 bowl games under Fitzgerald.
A brilliant in-game coach
Attempting to answer whether or not Fitzgerald is a brilliant in-game coach has been the entire point of these pieces, and I haven't come up with a conclusive answer yet. Many people are of the opinion that he is indeed a brilliant game manager (which is what inspired this series), but the only piece of hard evidence provided was his excellent record in close games, leading to a bit of circular reasoning*: How do you know Fitz is a brilliant in-game coach? He wins close games. But why is he winning so many close games? Well, because he's a brilliant in-game coach.
* In defense of those people, a cursory glance at the data does indicate that Fitz is doing something right in close games, and they probably don't have the time for exhaustive research into the last five years of Northwestern football as they're writing for better blogs than this one while focusing largely on non-Northwestern topics.
When you look back at Fitzgerald's coaching career, it's hard to recall an instance of obvious brilliance down the stretch (such as Mark Dantonio's ballsy fake field goal to beat Notre Dame in overtime). But plays like that are very rare; it's much more common to see a game won in crunch time because the winning team stuck to a successful game plan, such as running hurry-up the entire game in an attempt to wear down the opposing defense (the Iowa game last year) or dropping 7 or 8 guys into coverage every play and forcing an inexperienced quarterback to make quick reads and accurate throws (the Iowa game in 2009 against James Vandenberg). Fitzgerald has surrounded himself with experienced coordinators in Mick McCall and Mike Hankwitz, who have helped tremendously in this regard, but Fitzgerald deserves a lot of the credit himself.
Fitzgerald also gets credit for generally avoiding the colossal late game blunders that are all too common in college football. He tends to err on the side of caution, but to my knowledge he hasn't done anything completely idiotic in the final minutes of a game, like refuse to take a knee with 26 seconds left on your own 29 yard line and cost his team the game.
Still, I certainly wouldn't use the word "brilliant" to describe his in-game coaching*. He's far too conservative on 4th downs and isn't the type of coach to commission and/or listen to research by others on optimal down and distance strategies (at least judging by his "stats are for losers" type post game comments). He does get bonus points for seemingly learning from his mistakes early in his career (the Duke and Michigan State debacles) and steadily improving as a game manager.
* Yes, I realize that I used the word "brilliant" in the title of these pieces, so I'm effectively tearing down my own straw man.
After looking closer at the five categories, what struck me was that they should be positively correlated not only to winning close games, but also games in general. After all, a team with a great quarterback, a powerful running game, a dominant defense, a clutch kicker and a brilliant in-game coach sounds like a national title contender. So let's expand the data to look the close game records of other Big Ten coaches who have gone up against Fitzgerald in recent years (this list is their record in their last 30 games decided by 8 points or less, for coaches with 20 or more total close games.).
Bret Bielema: 19-7
Pat Fitzgerald: 21-9
Jim Tressel: 20-10
Lloyd Carr: 18-12
Joe Tiller: 15-15
Mark Dantonio: 10-12
Kirk Ferentz: 13-17
Ron Zook: 9-13
Tim Brewster: 8-12
Joe Paterno: 12-18
Clearly there's a correlation between winning close games and winning games overall. Bielema, Tressel and Carr have always been at .500 or better in conference play and usually contended for Big Ten titles, and they're the three best at winning close games besides Tressel. Tiller's Purdue teams were usually around .500 in BIg Ten play during his final years, and sure enough he posted a .500 record in close games. And Zook and Brewster were widely considered the two worst coaches in the league when they were active; sure enough they're well under .500 in close games.
Seeing Paterno with the worst winning percentage is surprising, but his poor record is caused by a brutal 2-11 stretch from 2002 to 2004, the so-called Dark Ages at Penn State. In the past 6 years as Penn State has reclaimed its status as perennial Big Ten title contender, he's been a solid 10-7.
In fact, the wild swing in Paterno's close game record is just one of many examples of the data fluctuating wildly. In 2002 and 2003, Jim Tressel posted an incredible 13-1 record in close games; those 13 close wins were more than he had in his other 8 years at Ohio State combined (in which he went 12-12). Mark Dantonio was an awful 6-12 in his first three years at Michigan State before putting on a clinic in close games in 2010, going 4-0 and making the right call at every opportunity.
Perhaps the best example of this is Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, who's seen his fortunes yo-yo over the past three years. In 2008, Iowa had an excellent team that finished 9-4, but went just 2-4 in close games and couldn't catch a break (their 4 losses were by a combined 12 points). Then in 2009, Iowa went 4-2 in close on their way to an Orange Bowl win (and could have been even better had Ricky Stanzi not fallen victim to the Woottenpocalypse), but reverted back to their un-clutch ways in 2010, going just 2-5 in close games (and it would have been 1-6 had Indiana not dropped a potential go-ahead touchdown pass in the end zone in the final minute).
So did Ferentz suddenly learn how to manage a game in 2009 then forget all his knowledge in 2010? Did Jim Tressel's deal with the devil run out after 2003? Did Mark Dantonio take a course on game management last off-season? As amusing as it would be, the obvious answer is no, it's mostly luck. The better your team is, the more likely you are to win the close ones, but it's undeniable that there's a huge element of luck. We're dealing with amateur athletes who've never faced anything close to the pressure of Big Ten football; it's no surprise that their performance is unpredictable.
Look, this isn't meant as a knock on Pat Fitzgerald. The next decade of Northwestern football has more potential than any decade in the modern era, and Fitzgerald is a big reason why. His record in his first five years on the job rival the best of any Northwestern coach, and his incredible passion for the program combined with unprecedented (for NU) support from the athletic department should pay dividends in the future. But the bottom line is this; he's been getting very lucky in close games.There's no rational explanation for how he's won so many more close games than he's lost despite a losing overall Big Ten record.
As a cautionary tale, think back to the beginning of Randy Walker's coaching career. After a lackluster first year in 1999, Northwestern used the new-fangled spread offense to take the Big Ten by storm in 2000, finishing 8-3 (6-2) and sharing the conference title. Even after a humiliating blowout at the hands of Nebraska in the Alamo Bowl, optimism was incredibly high for 2001, as NU returned almost their entire roster, led by All-American running back Damien Anderson.
All Northwestern fans know how this story ends; Anderson was limited by injuries, the defense collapsed, and the 'Cats would finish the year just 4-7 (2-6). It was incredibly disappointing, yet it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise.
It pains me to say this, because the 2000 team was incredibly fun to watch and challenges the 1995 team for my favorite NU team ever, but that team was arguably the worst Big Ten championship team of all time. Their 4 losses were by 10, 13, 27 and 42 points, and three of their six conference wins were near miracles: Tim Long's 46 yard field goal into a strong wind to force overtime at Wisconsin, Zak Kustok's Hail Mary to beat Minnesota, and the Anthony Thomas fumble against Michigan that truly made me think a higher power had intervened in Northwestern's favor (had Thomas tripped and fell at the spot he fumbled, the game was over). With even average luck, that team was in danger of finishing with a losing record.
The 2001 team started off 4-1 despite the tragic death of starting safety Rashidi Wheeler in a pre-season workout, but NU would lose their last 6 games, four of which were decided by 6 points or less. The injuries piled up, and despite generally brilliant play from quarterback Zak Kustok, luck just wasn't on Northwestern's side like it had been the year before. In reality, both the 2000 and 2001 teams should have gone about 6-5, it's just that everything went right in 2000 while everything went wrong in 2001. For a program like Northwestern that's not overwhelming Big Ten foes with superior depth and talent, the margin between a conference co-championship and the conference basement is razor thin.
Inevitably, one of Pat Fitzgerald's teams will have a season like 2001. It might be this year, or it might not happen for a few years, but the man can't keep defying the law of averages forever. Hopefully, by the time the bad luck strikes, Fitz will have built up the program to the point where NU can still make it to a bowl game despite nothing going their way. Until then, let's hope he holds onto his luckbox.