Thursday, February 6, 2014

Northwestern's Offensive and Defensive Effectiveness

Raise your hand if you predicted Northwestern's season to go at all like it has up to this point. If your hand is up, you're lying. Before this season started, I did not expect much from this team. Few did. Aside from Crawford and Cobb, the team appeared to lack talent. Through the non-conference schedule and early conference schedule, the 'Cats seemed to be affirming my predictions. Well, actually, they seemed even worse than I predicted. I all but threw this season out and was actually starting to worry about Collins as a coach. Then, all of a sudden, something clicked. Northwestern didn't look any prettier on the court, but they started winning. And these are not cupcakes they've been beating. They're 5-2 in their last 7 with wins over Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. ...Wow. Collins and the 'Cats made me look like a fool, and I love it.
Now let me make something clear right up front: Northwestern's recent degree of success is an anomaly. This is not to say it's been unearned, but, statistically speaking, it makes very little sense. According to Ken Pomeroy's predictive ratings (which are usually very, very good), we should be the 109th best team in the country and worst in the conference. suggests that, statistically speaking, we are 93rd in the country and 10th in the conference. According to Sports-Reference's Simple Rating System we're the 97th best team in the country and last in the Big Ten. Despite all this, the 'Cats are sitting at 5-5 in conference, good for a tie at 4th place. Let's take a look at some stats and see if we can make heads or tails of this success.


Looking at points per game, Northwestern's offense looks truly awful, scoring only 61.3 points per game. This means they are tied for 342nd in the country (out of only 351 teams!) and dead last among teams in BCS conferences. Limiting the search to only conference games, the period during which NU seems to have hit their stride, does not help. Here, the Wildcats are only putting up 54.3 points per game. Only one team, Washington State, has a worse mark in the country.
"Ok," you may be saying to yourself, "using points per game as a scale of Northwestern's offense is not fair." You would, of course, be exactly right. Northwestern plays at an extremely slow pace (according to, only 10 teams play slower). As such, they get off fewer shots than other teams, and, consequently, will score fewer points. So let's take a look at some tempo-free statistics. According to Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive ratings, the 'Cats are scoring only 95.8 points per 100 possessions, good for 314th nationally. This is a slight, but only very slight, improvement over the ppg rating. To put this number into context, last year's terrible Northwestern team had an AdjO of 101.8 ( 151st in the country), and the uncharacteristically good 2012 team had an excellent AdjO of 113.3 (16th in the country).
So, Northwestern's offense has not been good. But why? Reason one is simply that the Wildcats are shooting poorly. They have a true shooting percentage (a measure that appropriately weights the value of 2-pointers, 3-pointers, and free throws) of 50.2%. That's 320th in the country. This poor shooting is very visible behind the arc. In a number that would surely make Bill Carmody cry, NU is only making 30.2% of their threes. That number drops to 26.5% in conference games.
Considering Northwestern has many of the same players as were around in the Carmody era, why is there such a significant drop off? The answer primarily lies in the change of system. In Collins's new pick and roll system, players are getting fewer open looks, leading to a drop in percentages. The Wildcats's current players simply are having difficulty creating their own looks (with the exception of Demps and occasionally Crawford). The change of system becomes very clear when looking at assist numbers. Whereas the wildcats were consistently among the best nationally in assists per game under Carmody, they are 265th nationally this year. Of course, considering NU's low scoring, a fairly large percentage of NU's points still come off assists, but, given that the Wildcats were top 5 in assist percentage in every year of Carmody's tenure, their decline is still a very large drop-off.
One final issue with Northwestern's offense lies in rebounding. While the Wildcats have not been good at offensive rebounding at any point in recent history, their paltry 7.9 per game stand out as even worse when coupled with the 'Cats poor shooting.


So it's clear the Northwestern offense is not good. So is the defense better? Yes, and it's not even remotely close. In terms of of PPG allowed, Northwestern is 32nd in the country and 2nd in the conference, allowing only 63.3 PPG. Looking only at conference games, the Wildcats are still at 63.3 PPG, but, here, that's best in the conference. 
Now, of course, in the same way a slow tempo can hurt offensive numbers, it can also help defensive numbers. So it stands to reason the Wildcats' adjusted tempo-free numbers would take a hit, right? Actually, the answer is no. According to KenPom's AdjD, the 'Cats are allowing only 91.6 points per possession adjusted. That's 11th in the country! 
Of course, if you've been following the Wildcats for the last several years, this seems insane. Even when Northwestern has been a good team, the defense has been sneaky-good at best and beyond atrocious at worst. So how are the 'Cats playing legitimately solid defense? For one thing, they're just not letting teams get good looks. Their 49.1% TS% allowed is 31st in the country and best in the conference. Typically, when teams have good defense in regards to TS%, it comes, at least in part, due to the team not allowing their opponent to the rim. However, Northwestern has allowed a fairly high 38.6% of opponents shots to occur at the rim. Despite this, they are allowing only 56.1% of those types of shots to fall, good for 4th in the Big Ten. The Wildcats are at there best when they slow down there opponents in the half court game and funnel driving players into Alex Olah, and they have been doing this successfully. 
Also adding to the Wildcats' success is that they have been grabbing defensive rebounds at a much higher rater than previous years. Their 26.3 defensive rebounds per game is good for 43rd in the country and puts their 21.8 from last year and 20.8 from the year before to shame. 


So, long story short, Northwestern has had a dreadful offense and a fantastic defense. In fact, according to Ken Pomeroy's ratings, nobody else has as large a disparity between offensive and defensive efficiency as do the 'Cats. Fortunately, as of late, Northwestern has been able to play its strengths, acknowledging that they won't be able to put up many points and just making sure their opponents put up even fewer. However, it should be noted that what they have been doing may not be sustainable. According to Ken Pomeroy, the 'Cats are one of the luckier teams in the country. Of course, "luck" here does not necessarily refer to luck as we typically think of it. It's simply a measure of the disparity between expected and actual outcomes. Factors, other than actual luck (such as late-game coaching) may come into play. Hopefully Northwestern can keep up its magical run, but, to be honest, it will be far from easy. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Northwestern Men's Basketball Preview

I just got really excited because I realized I have something legitimate to write about instead of football: Northwestern basketball starts this Saturday! As most of you are well aware, Northwestern let Bill Carmody go in the offseason, and replaced him with former Duke assistant coach Chris Collins. As a result, expect Northwestern basketball to look very different than it once did. Gone will be the slow-paced, methodical Princeton offense. In its place will be a faster-paced offense that will give playmakers more room to create. Many Northwestern fans are concerned about the ramifications of this change for this year, as Northwestern's current players were all recruited to be a part of a Princeton offense. However, I believe the current system will be more beneficial to players like Crawford and Cobb than was the Princeton offense. Gone too will be gimmicky defenses like the 1-3-1 and the bizarre version of the 2-3 we occasionally used. Instead, Northwestern figures to use man defense almost exclusively. Collins has supposedly put a huge emphasis on defensive principles, which, to be honest, is way past due. Unfortunately, this Northwestern team is not at all deep, and the odds of them making the tournament are quite slim. However, this should still be an exciting year, as we will catch a glimpse of the future of Northwestern basketball. Anyways, lets take a look at Northwestern's players and how they figure to fit in this year.


Dave Sobolewski, JR: Sobolewski projects to be the starting point guard for the Wildcats for the third straight year. Depending on the game, Sobolewski has either been very impressive or totally infuriating throughout his career. He can be a tremendous liability on the defensive end, with a 109.7 defensive rating (estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions). To put that in context, a well-respected defensive point guard, Aaron Craft, has a career defensive rating of 90.5. His scoring was inconsistent, as he had some very efficient scoring performances, but he also took some very ill-advised driving layups. Ultimately, he had a decent, but not great, true shooting percentage (a measure that weighs 3-pointers, 2-pointers, and free throws appropriately) of 50.3% last season, good for 39th among Big Ten players playing in at least 23 games. His best value was as a floor general, as his 4.0 assists per game and 2.1 assist to turnover ratio were both 6th in the Big Ten. As the Northwestern offense changes this year, Sobo's role will obviously change as well. He will likely have more freedom and more room to create. It will be interesting to see how he reacts. 
Jershon Cobb, RS JR: Cobb figures to be the starting shooting guard this year, but Collins has discussed playing him at point guard as well, particularly when using a big lineup. Cobb was suspended for all of last year, allegedly due to poor grades but, before that, he was one of NU's most promising players. On the defensive front, this is one area where the advanced statistics and the eye test disagree. His career defensive rating is a poor 107.6, but he always looked good on the defensive end, particularly at the top of the 1-3-1, using his length to disrupt passing lanes, and his very impressive 4.3% steal percentage in 2011-2012 is a testament to that. On the offensive end, he was inconsistent, but was certainly capable of big games, including a stunning 24 point, 8 rebound game against Minneosta in the Big Ten tournament. One would like to see his 51.0% true shooting percentage improve, but I think it will as Cobb was improving dramatically at the end of the 2011-2012 season. On top of this, Cobb's biggest issue always seemed to be that he was a poor fit for the Princeton offense, as he was easily at his best creating his own shot off the dribble. Collins's offense, which should allow Cobb more iso opportunities, should be ideal for him. 
Tre Demps, RS SO: Demps figures to split time at point guard and shooting guard this year. After suffering an injury in his true freshman year, he played 31 games last season. To put it bluntly, there was very little to like statistically about Demps last year. Like Cobb, Demps was a somewhat poor fit for the Princeton offense. As a guy who likes creating his own shot, he often went against the grain of the offense, chucking up ill-advised shots. His 48.0% TS% was poor, and his 1.1 assist/TO ratio is not what you want to see from a guy who is expected to play some point guard. When he got hot, there's no doubt he could score in bunches, but the 'Cats need much better consistency from him. There wasn't much to like on the defensive end either, with a 109.3 defensive rating and only 0.4 steals per game. Demps has promise, and he certainly may benefit from a new offense, but he must improve this year, as the 'Cats are lacking guard options off the bench. 
James Montgomery III, SR: Despite having used only two years of elligibility, Montgomery is listed as a senior, so I'm assuming this is his last year. Previously a walk-on, Montgomery earned a full scholarship this season. He has not provided a nearly large enough sample size to make a good judgment of his past performance, but he is purportedly an extremely hard-working guy and a talented perimeter defender. His minutes will likely go up significantly this year, as the 'Cats have such little depth, but I still expect him to be little more than a role player.


Drew Crawford, RS SR: Crawford is undeniably the star of this team. While he is more a prototypical small forward, he will likely have to start at power forward. Crawford got injured last year, in what was supposed to be his senior year, took a medical redshirt, and is ready to go again this year. Like everyone else on this team, Crawford has a poor defensive rating, but he's always looked at least competent in man defense. He also recorded a solid 1.2 steals per game in the 2011-2012 season.being one of Northwestern's best rebounders, recording 4.7 rebounds per game in 2011-2012. He primarily excels on the offensive end, however. His 58.1% TS% was 14th in the Big Ten in 2011-2012, and he was sixth in the Big Ten in scoring per game, even while his teammate, John Shurna, led the conference. He also looked excellent behind the arc, hitting 41.2% of his 3's. It will be interesting to see how he fits into this new offense. He at times certainly benefited from the looks he got in the Princeton offense, but he may also also benefit from having more freedom in this new system.
Sanjay Lumpkin, RS FR: Lumpkin only appeared in four games before taking a redshirt last year, but he is still widely projected to be the starting small forward this year. Honestly, I know very little about the guy. He was a 3-star recruit with decent size and length, and he figures to be a pretty solid defender. Other than this, I haven't seen nearly enough of him to make any form of judgment. 
Kale Abrahamson, SO: I have also heard some predict that Abrahamson will get the start at the 3. He certainly has more experience than does Lumpkin, but his body of work is not a strong endorsement. Abrahamson often looked lost on the court and did not have nearly enough size or strength to match up against his counterparts. His 49.6% TS% needs to improve, and he was too prone to throw up off-balance shots. Certainly, he has the potential to become a great outside shooter, if nothing else, but he is not there yet.
Nikola Cerina, RS SR: Cerina is kind of an odd case. After spending two years at TCU, he played his first year at Northwestern last season. However, he only saw time in 14 games, despite fans' pleas to see more of him. I expect to see significantly more of him this year, as he'll split time at power forward and center. He's a strong, athletic guy who can match up well at both positions and provide a lot of rebounds. However, you definitely want to see better offense from him. All things considered, I hope he can show enough promise to play good minutes at the 4, so Crawford can play the 3. 
Nate Taphorn, FR: Taphorn is Northwestern's only new player this season. He was a well-regarded recruit, but was extremely undersized for either forward position. Regardless, it seems he has bulked up somewhat and has held up in practices better than his size would suggest. Purportedly, he is a very good shooter, and a good ball handler and passer, with excellent upside. As of right now, it is very difficult to project how much time he'll see this season, but based on the practice notes I have seen, he may see significant minutes this year.
EDIT: Based on recent comments by Coach Collins, it appears Taphorn will see major minutes, and may even get a chance to start. 


Alex Olah, SO: Olah was the starting center last year as a freshman. He saw 22.2 minutes per game, a number that is likely to increase, given the lack of depth at the position. His performance of last year was much-maligned, and it is true that, statistically speaking, there is not a great deal to like. His .415 shooting percentage is well below what you'd like to see from a center, and his 4.1 rebounds per game could stand to improve. That being said, given the difficult situation in which he was placed, I was relatively happy with what I saw from him. Olah spent a part of the offseason playing for the Romanian U-20 team, in which he tore up the FIBA European Championships, putting up 16.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 1.6 blocked shots per game. Evidently, he is gaining confidence and has the potential to be the best big man the 'Cats have seen in a while. Carmody was always notoriously bad at developing big men, and Olah will very likely benefit from a new staff.
Chier Ajou, RS FR: At 7-2, Ajou is TALL. Unfortunately, that's about all he seems to have going for him at this point. He is extremely raw, particularly on the offensive end, and must be described as a project. There's a chance he may contribute for the 'Cats this year, and it would be good if we could get some minutes for him to take some of the burden off Olah, but most of the production we'll ever see from Ajou is most likely at least a couple years into the future. 
Aaron Liberman, RS FR: I also know very little about Liberman, but I don't think we should expect huge production from him, as he still needs to bulk up to play the center position. If he does play, he may record a few blocks and a few points around the rim, but, like Ajou, he is a project. There is certainly some cause for concern about depth at the center position. 

Bottom Line

The 'Cats do not have a great chance of finally making the tournament this year and will more likely than not be in the bottom four in the Big Ten. That being said, there is still plenty of reason to pay attention this season. This year is effectively a preview of the future of Northwestern basketball. We should get a good look at what Collins will do here, and with very exciting recruiting taking place, there is a lot to like moving forward. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Northwestern @ Nebraska Preview

Who is Nebraska

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a state university located in Lincoln, Nebraska (that was probably obvious), with an undergraduate population of around 19,300 (i.e. about 2.25 Northwesterns). Academically, US News & World Report has them at 101st among national universities. 

How Did They Do Last Year?

They had a very respectable 10-2 regular season before getting crushed by Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship and losing to Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. 

How About This Year?

5-2 with losses to UCLA and Minnesota.

Recent History Against Northwestern

The teams have only matched up twice since Nebraska joined the Big Ten. In 2011, the 'Cats picked an upset 28-25 victory in Lincoln. In 2012, Northwestern lost 29-28 as Budzien missed a potential game winning field goal. 


Head coach Bo Pelini is in his 6th year as head coach of the Cornhuskers. Tim Beck is in his 6th year at Nebraska, and 3rd yeard as offensive coordinator. John Papuchis is also in his 6th year at Nebraska, but only his 2nd year as defensive coordinator. 

Nebraska Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense

With Taylor Martinez suffering from an injury, it appears freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. will get the start. He has been very unimpressive in his three games played, as he has completed only 56.5% of his passes for 365 yards, 3 TDs and 3 INTs. This includes a dreadful 6-18, 3 pick game against Purdue. I would not be at all surprised to see Nebraska switch to senior Ron Kellogg III, who has completed over 75% of his passes without throwing a pick. Why he is not tabbed to start this game is beyond me. Fortunately for Armstrong, he does have talented receivers, particularly senior Quincy Enuwa, who already has 7 touchdowns, and junior Kenny Bell. Also expect running back Ameer Abdullah to get involved in the receiving game. 
The Wildcat pass defense, on the other hand, has quietly been quite good since the beginning of Big Ten play. Northwestern has allowed a measly 184 yards per game against their four conference opponents, while recording 4 interceptions. The safety play has been great and Matt Harris is excelling in his new role as a starter. 
Advantage: Northwestern 

Nebraska Rush Offense vs. NU Rush Offense
The Cornhuskers have a scary group of running backs. Ameer Abdullah is unquestionably the feature back, as he has over twice as many carries as anyone else, and he has excelled in this role, picking up 981 yards and 6 TDs. His 140 yards per game and 7.38 yards per carry are definite causes for concern for the 'Cats. Imani Cross is also scary. His 334 yards are not nearly as impressive as Abdullah's, but he actually leads the team in rushing touchdowns, with 9. Terrell Newby has been impressive as well, running for 290 yards and 2 TDs, but he likely will not see that many carries in this game. Tommy Armstrong Jr. is also a running threat, but his 84 yards on 22 attempts are not terribly frightening. 
The Northwestern run defense has looked weak at times this year, but they found their stride late against both Minnesota and Iowa. Both teams have solid run games, but the 'Cats held them to an average of 156 yards per game and 3.47 yards per attempt. 
Advantage: Nebraska

Nebraska Rush Defense vs. NU Rush Offense

The Northwestern run game has been heavily affected by injury as Mark, Trumpy, and Long are all out, while Green seems to be somewhat beaten up. This figures to be Stephen Buckley's time to shine. Fortunately, Buckley has performed well as of late, including a 17 carry, 99 yard performance against Iowa. Colter figures to provide most of the rest of the carries for the 'Cats. 
The Nebraska run defense has been hit or miss, allowing only 62 yards to SMU and only 32 to Purdue. However, they got torched by Minnesota for 271 yards and even allowed 227 to South Dakota St. If Buckley finds his stride, and I think it will, UNL may struggle against the run. 
Advantage: Northwestern 

Nebraska Pass Defense vs. Northwestern Pass Offense

Northwestern's pass game has been highly lacking lately. Siemian performed poorly against both Wisconsin and Minnesta and did not attempt a pass against Iowa. Colter is rarely given opportunities to throw. What kind of passing game we'll see from NU, therefore, depends on two factors: If Siemain sees the field much and how he'll look if he does. 
Nebraska has been pretty solid against the pass, even in their loss against Minnesota, where they allowed only a 47.1% completion rate. They are yet to see an even average pass offense in Big Ten play, however. Unfortunately for Northwestern, they have been solid at intercepting passes, picking off 11. 
Advantage: Nebraska

Iowa Special Teams vs. Northwestern Special Teams

Kickoffs: Nebraska has averaged 62.3 yards per kickoff, while NU has averaged only 61.5. Nebraska also has more touchbacks (64.7% touchback percentage) than do the 'Cats (40.4%). The two are covering kickoffs approximately equally at 18.6 yards per return to Nebraska's 18.4.
Punts: Brandon Williams has still been awful, punting an average of only 36.7. Nebraska has been much better at 42.6. The 'Cats have been better at covering, allowing only 4.6 yards per return. Nebraska is allowing 7.0. 
Place Kicking: Budzien is 13 of 15 on field goals and is still perfect on PATs. Nebraksa is a perfect 7 of 7 on field goals. They have however, missed 3 PATs. 
Kick Returns: Northwestern has averaged 22.6 yards per return to Nebraska's 23.6.
Punt Returns: The 'Cats have only three returns at an average of 7.3 yards per return. Nebraska, however, has averaged only 4.0 yards per return.
Advantage: Nebraska

Bottom Line

I hope you like run plays because you'll be seeing a lot of them. Nebraska's offensive identity is almost entirely in the run game, and they're not going to break from that. Northwestern's pass game has been virtually non-existent. While that could change, due to the 'Cats' shortage of backs, I kinda doubt it will.
Honestly, I could easily see Northwestern winning this game. On the other hand, I could easily see Nebraska winning this game. And I've learned by now that picking Northwestern is usually the wrong pick. So I'm predicting Nebraska to win tomorrow in a 27-20 game that will see fewer than 300 combined pass yards. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

NU @ Iowa Preview: Getting to know the Hawkeyes

Who is Iowa? 

The University of Iowa is a state university located in Iowa City, Iowa, with an undergraduate population of around 22,000 (i.e. about 2.5 Northwesterns). Academically, US News & World Report has them at 73rd among national universities. 

How Did They Do Last Year?

Not well. Iowa went 4-8 and lost their last six games.

How About This Year?

They have already matched last year's win total, sitting at 4-3. 

Recent History Against Northwestern

Over the last 10 years, Northwestern owns this matchup, going 6-2, including a victory against then-#4 Iowa in 2009. 


Head coach Kirk Ferentz is the longest tenured head coach in the Big Ten. He has been around since 1999. Greg Davis, who last served at Texas, is in his second year as the Hawkeyes' offensive coordinator. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker is serving his 15th year as a coach of the Hawkeyes, but only his second year as a coordinator.

Iowa Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense

Iowa's passing game has been mediocre this year. Sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock has not been bad, per se, but nothing about his performance this year has been terribly noteworthy. Iowa is sitting at 82nd nationally in pass yards per game with 214.4, but are slightly better when looking at yards per attempt (7.1 yrds/att, 65th nationally). The Hawkeyes' premier wide receiver is easily Kevonte Martin-Manley, who has almost twice as many receptions as anyone else on the team, with 27. Iowa also likes to use tight ends in their passing game. Expect C.J. Fiedorowicz and Jake Duzey to get multiple targets. Running back Damon Bullock is also likely to get involved. Finally  wideout Damon Powell is an interesting target, as he has only 8 catches on the year, but he leads the team in yardage with 241, averaging 30.1 yards per catch. 
As for Northwestern, lost in the dialogue of the last three weeks (understandably) is that the Northwestern pass defense has actually really stepped up their game. The 'Cats are allowing only 156.3 yards per game through the air over the last three contests. On top of this, the 'Cats are still among the best in the nation at intercepting passes, recording 13 (as many as they had all of last year, for the record). Only Missouri and Oregon State have more. Overall, I like this matchup for Northwestern, particularly since they are not that is frequently dominated by tight ends. If NU can limit Kevonte Martin-Manley, Rudock may struggle.
Advantage: Northwestern

Iowa Rush Offense vs. NU Rush Offense
Iowa has run the ball reasonably well this year, putting up 192.4 yards per game, good for 40th in the country. Most of the credit here goes to Mark Weisman, a bulldozing, transfer, former walk-on, former-fullback workhorse. He has put up 676 yards on 136 carries, while taking the ball into the endzone 3 times. Backup tailback Damon Bullock will see most of the rest of the carries. He has been slightly less effective than Weisman but still has 312 yards. Rudock is no slouch on the ground himself, either. He has run the ball for 147 yards and leads the team with 5 rushing touchdowns. 
Overall, the 'Cats do not match up favorably to the Hawkeye run game. Northwestern has been bullied by power running attacks, particularly in the absence of McEvilly, who may or may not be available for this game. That being said, NU did a reasonably good job against the Gophers' running game last week. Regardless, I think Iowa has the upper hand, but I don't think this will be a catastrophic disadvantage for Northwestern.
Advantage: Iowa

Iowa Rush Defense vs. NU Rush Offense

Overall, Iowa has been very good against the run. They are allowing only 115 yards per game, 16th best in the country. However, they showed some weakness against OSU last weak, as both Hyde and Miller broke the century mark. Northwestern, unfortunately, has been struggling to find an identity on the ground in the absence of Venric Mark, and the run game has been largely stagnant. However, the return of Colter should bring an explosive element to the running game that has been sorely missed. Furthermore, Iowa has a history of struggling against quarterbacks similar to Colter. The problem is, however, without an explosive back in the backfield, much of Colter's value is lost. That being said, last week, Stephen Buckley showed flashes of brilliance. I expect a big game from Buckley here and Northwestern to move the ball successfully on the ground.
Advantage: Northwestern 

Iowa Pass Defense vs. Northwestern Pass Offense

Iowa has only allowed 204 yards per game through the air, 26th best in the country. On top of that, they have intercepted a solid 9 passes. These statistics are somewhat misleading, however, as the Hawkeyes are yet to face a prolific passing team. The fact is, they are likely to be vulnerable. How the 'Cats perform is dependent on a couple things: first, which Siemian shows up. We have seen Trevor perform both like an NFL-caliber QB and like a total scrub this year. Fortunately, Colter's back, which should remove some pressure from him. I expect him to settle back into his groove, at least to an extent. And second, will the 'Cats be willing to follow through with the dink-and-dunk gameplan. I have watched enough NU-Iowa games to know that the dink-and-dunk will always work against the Hawkeyes. The reason for this is simple: the Iowa corners give a huge cushion against the receivers and virtually never press. For this reason, Colter may actually have a career day through the air. I do worry a bit about Siemian though, as he often is hesitant to check down to short receivers. If this becomes true, however, I imagine it just means more play time for Colter.
Advantage: Northwestern

Iowa Special Teams vs. Northwestern Special Teams

Kickoffs: Wisconsin has averaged 63.07 yards per kickoff, while NU has averaged only 61.86. Iowa also has more touchbacks (48.8% touchback percentage) than do the 'Cats (40.9%). Northwestern is covering much better, however, allowing only 19.0 yards per return to Iowa's 25.8.
Punts: Brandon Williams, quite frankly, has been awful, punting an average of only 37.0. Iowa has not been great either, however, with an average of 39.7. The 'Cats have been better at covering, allowing only 4.0 yards per return. Iowa is allowing 6.0. 
Place Kicking: Budzien is 12 of 14 is still perfect on PATs. Iowa is 9 of 12 and also perfect on extra points. 
Kick Returns: Northwestern has returned kicks better, averaging 22.3 yards per return to Iowa's 19.5.
Punt Returns: The 'Cats have only three returns at an average of 7.3 yards per return. Iowa has returned kicks extremely well, averaging 21.8 yards on 11 returns.
Advantage: Iowa

Bottom Line

There's one x-factor that went unmentioned elsewhere in this post: Fitz hates Iowa. Truly loathes them. There's a visible fire in the 'Cats every time they step out on the field against the Hawks, a fire that has been lacking the last couple games. Perhaps I'm being naive, but I expect this to be a game where the Wildcats step out and show similar passion, explosiveness, and overall talent to what we saw them put up against the Buckeyes. With Colter back, the weapons are there; the 'Cats simply need to execute. I think they will. Heck, I'm feeling good right now, so I'll be even bolder: This is the game that kicks off an impressive 5-game win streak to end the season. Now, I'll admit, there's a chance the 'Cats come out flat and get beat up for 60 minutes. If that happens, I'll be about ready to give up on this year. But I honestly just don't see it. NU comes out hungry for a win, moves the ball effectively, and limits the Hawkeye offense.
Prediction: NU 31 - Iowa 17

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

NU @ Wisconsin Recap

I want to begin this post with a humble plea to my fellow Wildcat fans: Stop freaking out. I have to say, the sort of pessimistic, reactionary attitude I see from so many fellow fans is somewhat confusing to me. Why is it that when we play like a top-10 team one week and then like garbage the next, everyone assumes the bad week is the true showing of who we are while the good week is an aberration? I would like to remind everyone that we saw a similar trend last year; it just happened to be against much-inferior teams. We came out and crushed Indiana in week one of conference play and then struggled horribly against PSU the next week. Nonetheless, we ended with a pretty solid year. So fear not, this season is far from over. After this paragraph, I'm going to take a much more negative tone, but keep in mind my feelings about the game are in no way reflective of my feelings about the season, and I remain fairly optimistic.
With that PSA out of the way, I can't lie, that game was utter garbage. It has been quite a while since I've watched a game where everything was out of sync to quite the extent it was in this game. Last was, coincidentally, probably 2011 against Wisconsin. The offense was out of rhythm, the defense looked lost, the energy was not there, Fitz was at a total loss for answers,... It was bad. Let's get into a point-by-point look and see what went wrong.
Trevor Siemian: Trevor is a bit of a conundrum, and his lack of consistency is a bit worrying. One game he can look like a solid pro prospect and the next he looks like he should not be starting at a D1 program. Many people seem to forget that he's had these types of games before, as he completed only 1 of 7 passes against Minnesota last year and 15 of 35 against Nebraska. Then those who do remember he's done this before often seem to forget that he's still perfectly capable of having great games. Let's be clear, we're not going to win many games where our QB goes 13 of 34, as he did this week. But I think he'll recover. He simply looked out of rhythm this week, and while I can make no pretension he will never have another game like this, I do not believe these weeks will become the norm.
Kain Colter: Colter got very limited time at quarterback before injuring his ankle, but he did lead the first drive, during which he threw a very bad interception. Oddly, while the ankle injury took him out of the quarterback role, he still saw time at wide receiver. Here, however, he did not look nearly as sharp as usual, which I can only assume is due to the injury. At this point, his status for the Minnesota game is unclear.
Venric Mark: Venric, too, suffered an ankle injury, and he only got 3 carries before leaving the game. Unlike Colter, he saw no play time after leaving the field. His status is also up in the air.
Other running backs: No one successfully stepped up in Mark's absence, as other backs accounted for only 42 rush yards.
Wide Receivers and Superbacks: Siemian receives a lot of blame for the passing game, but this receiving crew deserves a great deal as well. I gave them high praise before the game, and they did not live up to it. They had difficulty getting separation, and even when they did, they dropped a number of passes. Before this game, they were dropping almost nothing. I'm not sure what happened, but it was an absolute mess.
Offensive Line: The offensive line's pass protection in this game was terrible. They had trouble picking up blitzes, and even when they could properly matchup with the rush, they got overpowered. Northwestern quarterbacks got sacked an absurd 7 times. That simply cannot happen.
Run Defense: This is likely to sound ridiculous, as the 'Cats gave up 286 yards on the ground, but I wasn't that unhappy with the run defense. Early in the game, Northwestern defended the run quite successfully. The defense only began to break down after they were starting to have to see the field far too much, due to the offense's anemic performances. There actually may be some room for encouragement here.
Pass Defense: First, kudos to the secondary for their two interceptions, but the 241 yards and 3 touchdowns should not have happened. The Badgers were missing Jared Abbrederis for most of the game, but still managed to find success throwing to some less-than-impressive receivers. The secondary should have been able to do more.
Brandon Williams: Williams saw the most action he will probably ever see, punting 11 times, but he did not look good in that action. With the exception of a 49 yard boot, his punts, quite frankly, were terrible.
Jeff Budzien: The brightest point of this game, responsible for all 6 of our points (ugh) on 2 of 2 kicking, including a 43-yarder.

Bottom Line
This was a terrible, awful, horrible game, but assuming it has much predictive value is a mistake. Simple as that.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Northwestern @ Wisconsin Preview

Who is Wisconsin? 

The University of Wisconsin is a state university located in Madison, with an undergraduate population of around 29,000 (i.e. about 3.5 Northwesterns). Academically, US News & World Report has them at 41st among national universities. 

How Did They Do Last Year?

They had a relatively unimpressive 7-5 regular season but nonetheless won the Big Ten championship in stunning fashion, crushing Nebraska 70-31. They lost to Stanford 20-14 in the Rose Bowl.

How About This Year?

They are only 3-2 with losses to Ohio State and Arizona State, but they may be the best 2-loss team in the country.

Recent History Against Northwestern

In our last matchup in 2010, the 'Cats lost a horrendous game 70-23. However, the year before was a 33-31 upset Northwestern victory. The matchup before that was a 41-9 Wisconsin win in 2006. 2005 was a 51-48 shootout NU win. Moral of the story: these games are either Wisconsin blowouts or Northwestern squeakers. 


Gary Andersen is in his first year as head coach after Bret Bielema's departure to Arkansas. Previously, Andersen served at Utah State. His offensive coordinator is Andy Ludwig, in his first year after working at San Diego State.  Dave Aranda is in his first year as defensive coordinator after holding the same position under Andersen in Utah State.

Wisconsin Pass Offense vs. NU Pass Defense

One name immediately stands out in the Wisconsin passing game: Jared Abbrederis. The senior receiver is 12th in the country in receiving with 114 yards per game, and he put on a show against OSU, catching 10 passes for 207 yards. The issue for the Badgers is they don't have many receiving options behind Abbrederis. He is responsible for 40% of their catches and a ridiculous 53% of their receiving yards. Their second and third receivers are a running back (James White) and tight end (Jacob Pedersen). Their second-leading wide receiver, in terms of yardage, is Jeff Duckworth who has only 3 catches for 68 yards. The Badgers' quarterback is Joel Stave, who has been unspectacular, but decent. Long story short: Limit Abbrederis and this pass offense will struggle. The issue is that that is much easier said than done. Typically, you would want to bracket a receiver of his quality with a safety, but the safeties are needed for run coverage against Wisconsin. Fortunately, the 'Cats secondary showed a huge improvement last week and Harris and White looked more comfortable. I expect Abbrederis to have a solid game, but the 'Cats should record an interception or two and limit the rest of the receivers enough to win this matchup.  Advantage: Northwestern.

Wisconsin Rush Offense vs. NU Rush Offense

The Wisconsin running game is really, really good, as the Badgers lead the nation in yards per carry. On three occasions, Wisconsin has had two running backs rush for over 100 yards in a game. On two occasions, Wisconsin has had THREE running backs rush for over 100 yards in a game. Melvin Gordon has rushed for 10.26 yards per attempt, second nationally among players with at least 30 carries (he has 68 carries), while adding 7 TDs.  If these numbers don't scare you, I'm not sure what will. To make matters worse, the Wildcat run defense struggled badly against the OSU run attack, getting steamrolled by Carlos Hyde. Fortunately, Wisconsin has a slightly different running style. Expect their backs to run more outside the tackles than Hyde did. This brings the game more towards Northwestern's linebackers and defensive ends, rather than the 'Cats struggling defensive tackles. Still, I expect the Badgers to move the ball on the ground without too much difficulty. Advantage: Wisconsin

Wisconsin Rush Defense vs. NU Rush Offense

The Badgers' run defense is solid, allowing only 99.4 yards per game, but they showed weakness against Ohio State, as both Hyde and Miller exceeded 80 yards. Linebacker Chris Borland is an absolute terror, but Northwestern has plenty of weapons of their own. Venric Mark had a good game last week, and there's reason to think he should be healthier and have a bigger role this week. On top of this, Colter should offer a similar threat to what Miller offered. I like the 'Cats here. Advantage: Northwestern

Wisconsin Pass Defense vs. Northwestern Pass Offense

The 'Cats' biggest advantage may be through the air. The Badgers' pass defense do not have bad numbers, but Braxton Miller had success passing the ball against them, getting it into the endzone four times. Simply put, the 'Cats have too many weapons for the Badgers to stop. Siemian throwing to Jones, other Jones, Lawrence, Jensen, Dickerson, Prater, Vitale, Colter, and Mark has to be scary for just about anyone, and I expect Trevor to have a big game. Advantage: Northwestern.

Wisconsin Special Teams vs. Northwestern Special Teams

Kickoffs: Wisconsin has averaged 63.1 yards per kickoff, while NU has averaged only 61.4. However, the 'Cats have more touchbacks, with a 39.5% touchback rate, compared to the Badgers' 20.6%. NU is covering their kickoffs better, allowing only 17.5 yards per return, compared to the Badgers' 22.0.
Punts: Northwestern has not had great yardage in their punting, averaging only 37.0 yards per punt. Wisconsin has a good, but not great, 41.1 yards per punt. The 'Cats have been better at covering, however, allowing only 3.8 yards per return. Wisconsin is allowing 6.0. 
Place Kicking: The 'Cats have nailed 9 of 11 field goals and made every PAT. Wisconsin is only 5-8 and has missed a PAT.
Kick Returns: NU is averaging a solid 23.0 yards per return and may improve as Venric is likely to take over these duties. Wisconsin is averaging only 21.8.
Punt Returns: The 'Cats have only one return, which went for 6 yards, but this will almost definitely improve behind Venric. The Badgers have 13 returns at 7.1 yards per return.
Advantage: Northwestern

Bottom Line

Overall, I think Northwestern is the better team. However, the 'Cats have three things working against them. First, they put a great deal of effort and energy into last week's game. It can at times be challenging to recover enough to play a tough team the following week. Second, the Wisconsin run offense is much better than the Northwestern run defense. Can the 'Cats score enough to make up for this mismatch? Third, Camp Randall Stadium is a very challenging place to play. I see this game as virtually being a coin-flip matchup slightly in favor of Northwestern. Prediction: Northwestern 41 - Wisconsin 35. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Big Ten Week 6 Breakdown

This is my week 6 take on the Big 10 as a whole, ranking them by where I foresee them finishing the season, and for teams that play NU, giving our likelihood of beating them.

Leaders Division

  1. LW (1) Ohio State: Who else? OSU put up an impressive win against a very solid Northwestern team in a surprisingly hostile Ryan Field. While Braxton Miller was shaky, the Buckeye's run game, led by Carlos Hyde, was almost unstoppable. On top of this, OSU's schedule from here on is, comparatively, a cake walk. There is very little chance the Buckeye's do not end up in Indianapolis. 
  2. LW (2)Wisconsin: Wisconsin had a bye in which they had extra time to prepare for the second toughest team on their Big Ten schedule: Northwestern. Overall, Wisconsin has a very solid team led by a stellar run offense and a tough defense. I think it's safe to say they are the single best 2-loss team, and one of the best unranked teams, in the country. The upcoming game against the Wildcats should be interesting. NU should have a difficult time stopping the run, but the NU offense will be similarly difficult to stop. I still have this as a coin-flip game. 50% chance of Northwestern victory.
  3. LW (5) Indiana: The 3-5 ranking is tricky, but, as of now, I have the Hoosiers at 3. That being said, Indiana is still a tough team to judge. They put up a solid win against the Nittany Lions, but no part of their game truly stuck out as exceptional. Their pass offense was solid, as Sudfeld put up 321 yards, and they had a good, balanced run attack, but the defense is still questionable. Simply put, I think Indiana has the inside track to the best Big Ten record among Indiana, Illinois, and PSU, due in no small part to this victory. The Hoosiers do not play Northwestern.
  4. LW (3) Penn State: Despite the loss, I still think the Nittany Lions are a better team than the Illini. Christian Hackenberg is actually coming into his own, as he threw for 340 yards and 3 touchdowns, although he needed 55 attempts to do it. Zwinack, too, has been decent, as he ran for 72 yards on 17 carries. Their upcoming game against the Wolverines could be very interesting. Penn State does not play Northwestern. 
  5. LW (4) Illinois: Let's be clear: Yes, Illinois, is much, much better than last year. BUT they're still not very good. Scheelhaase struggled badly against a poor Cornhuskers defense, and the Illini defense simply was not good enough to slow the UNL offense. Illinois will probably finish 2-6 or 3-5 in Big Ten play, but it would not surprise me all that much if the Purdue game is the only game the Illini win (speaking of, anyone want a 48 cent ticket? Right now, I foresee the Northwestern offense moving the ball at will against the Illini. 90% chance of Northwestern victory.
  6. LW (6) Purdue: Mercifully, Purdue did not have to play this week, but they're still really, really bad. The Boilermakers do not play Northwestern. 

Legends Division

  1. LW (1) Northwestern: Despite losing to the Buckeyes, Northwestern solidified their place at the top of the Legends Division. The Wildcats' offense finally looked like the powerhouse we knew it could be, behind the return of Venric Mark and a greatly expanded playbook. The Northwestern run defense is a weakness, to be sure, but the 'Cats have the potential to outgun the best of them. The biggest obstacle to Northwestern finishing in this position is their schedule, the most difficult in the division, if not the conference. 
  2. LW (2) Nebraska: Whereas the Wildcats have the most difficult schedule in the division, Nebraska has the easiest. They should be the favorite in five or six of their seven remaining games, and, for this reason, I have them at number two. Certainly, the Cornhuskers have some strong points. Abdullah, for example, is a heck of a back. But I have not seen enough to suggest that Nebraska has the defense to win this division. I don't see any way this Husker defense stops the Wildcat offense. I give NU a 75% chance of winning. 
  3. LW (4) Michigan: The Wolverines' 42-13 victory over Minnesota is most likely their most impressive victory of the year, but it is by no means a win to hang your hat on. Nonetheless, I thought this game would be a potential upset, and that prediction now looks foolish. I must admit this team may be better than I had been beginning to think. In short, the Wolverines are a team with innumerable tools that are just having a difficult time figuring out how to use them. The Penn State game should be an interesting test. 65% chance of Northwestern victory. 
  4. LW (5) Michigan State: 6 weeks in and I have no idea what to make of the Spartans. Their defense is, without a doubt, exceptional, but can their offense be good? And, even if their offense is not good, is the defense good enough that it doesn't matter? These are the questions I do not have answers to yet. Connor Cook certainly seems to be a big step up from the other Spartan quarterbacks, but I still have trouble believing this offense is good enough to compete for the Legends Division lead. Right now, I will say 75% chance of Northwestern victory. 
  5.  LW (3) Iowa: I jumped on the "Iowa is good" bandwagon far too early. Injuries to Weisman and Martin-Manley demonstrated just how shallow the Hawkeye offense is, as they put up only 14 points and 23 run yards against the Spartans. Meanwhile, they let a poor MSU offense kill them through the air. Will they be better when their injured players recover? Of course. But an offense built on two players is not a stable one. 80% chance of Northwestern victory. 
  6. LW (6) Minnesota: Minnesota's season is falling apart before them. They lost badly to Iowa and Michigan, neither of whom I am convinced are great, while their head coach is going into a health-related leave of absence. Meanwhile, starting quarterback Philip Nelson is struggling with an injury. A Gopher victory over Northwestern at this point would be nothing short of shocking. 95% chance of Northwestern victory.


Despite Northwestern losing their shot at a perfect season, their projected record, based on my probabilities, takes only a small hit to 9.3-2.7.