The Alamo Bowl: Beyond the Box Score Preview

UPDATE, 12/29: Being that RMN's hits over Christmas were (predictably) down quite a bit, and this has already been bumped pretty far down by other posts, I thought I would bump it back up.  It's all after the jump.

Yep...it's about that time.  The last BTBS preview of the year.  Sniff.  Before I start getting verklempt, let's just get started.  For visiting NU fans, check out this piece at Football Outsiders for my descriptions of what you'll find in this piece.

NU

Opp.

Mizzou

Opp.

88.3% % Close 61.1%
47.8% 52.2% Field Position % 57.0% 43.0%
70.5% 66.3% Leverage % 74.6% 69.0%
Total
855 845 Plays 901 1000
263.46 243.29 EqPts 446.78 346.29
45.5% 41.1% Success Rate 54.8% 44.8%
0.31 0.29 PPP 0.50 0.35
0.763 0.699 S&P 1.044 0.794
Close Games
743 758 Plays 588 574
231.81 211.93 EqPts 292.46 193.39
45.6% 40.9% Success Rate 56.3% 45.3%
0.31 0.28 PPP 0.50 0.34
0.768 0.689 S&P 1.060 0.790
Rushing
121.54 110.45 EqPts 158.86 122.02
42.3% 41.9% Success Rate 49.9% 43.6%
0.29 0.29 PPP 0.43 0.28
0.708 0.704 S&P 0.929 0.717
2.88 2.80 Line Yds/carry 3.07 2.78
Passing
141.92 132.84 EqPts 287.92 224.27
48.7% 40.4% Success Rate 58.3% 45.8%
0.33 0.29 PPP 0.54 0.40
0.818 0.694 S&P 1.124 0.854
3.7% 7.2% Sack Rate 2.6% 4.8%
Non-Passing Downs
50.4% 47.5% Success Rate 58.9% 49.7%
0.30 0.32 PPP 0.52 0.35
0.800 0.795 S&P 1.112 0.846
2.9% 4.3% Sack Rate 2.0% 3.6%
54.4% 54.6% Run Rate 47.2% 52.3%
Passing Downs
33.7% 28.4% Success Rate 42.8% 33.9%
0.34 0.22 PPP 0.42 0.34
0.675 0.509 S&P 0.847 0.680
5.2% 10.8% Sack Rate 2.8% 6.3%
38.9% 28.4% Run Rate 22.7% 23.5%
Turnovers
26 23 Total 23 21
53.60 41.46 Points Lost 58.51 52.19
69.84 75.25 Points Given 50.45 75.69
123.44 116.71 Total T/O Pts 108.96 127.88
-6.73 +6.73 T/O Pts Margin/Gm +18.92 -18.92
  • One thing's for certain: when it comes to being 'battle tested' in close games, the Wildcats have the advantage here.  Only 12% of Northwestern's season was played outside of "close-game" situations.  (For visiting NU fans, "close" is defined as within 24 points in Q1, within 21 in Q1, and within 16 points or less--i.e. two possessions--in Q3 and Q4.)
  • Opponents have run more plays in NU field position than NU has run in opponents' field position.  Interesting.
  • One major advantage for Missouri: Points Per Play (PPP).  While Mizzou has allowed a higher PPP than Northwestern (0.35 to 0.29)--albeit in a far more explosive conference--the Tigers have trounced the Wildcats in big-play ability (0.50 to 0.31).  NU has a far efficient offense than an explosive one.  KU beat MU in part by dink-and-dunking Mizzou to death, and NU will have an opportunity to do the same, but that's a high-wire act.
  • S&P (Success Rates + PPP), the main figure used in these BTBS pieces, also shows an advantage for Missouri.  Mizzou is +0.250 in S&P (+0.270 in close-game S&P), while NU is just +0.064 (+0.079 in close-game S&P).  And in overall EqPts, Mizzou is +99.07 (+7.6 per game) in close games, Northwestern just +19.88 (+1.7 per game).
  • Moving to the rushing game, NU really has not been tremendously successful on the ground.  Granted, Tyrell Sutton has been injured a bit, but he's still taken 50.2% of NU's non-QB rushes, and his overall 0.768 S&P (45.8% success rate, 0.31 PPP) is nothing tremendous.  He's relatively efficient but not a huge big-play threat.  This makes me feel better about the matchup--especially since Mizzou's run defense is quite solid.
  • On the passing side, NU really does have a rather efficient passing game.  Again, the big play threat just isn't there, but dink-and-dunk could be an efficient option, especially if Mizzou can't get to C.J. Bacher...and NU's low sack rates allowed suggest Mizzou won't get to him all that much.
  • No offense in the country is better than Missouri on Non-Passing Downs.  They are both efficient and explosive.  If NU is going to win in San Antonio, they must figure out a way to leverage Mizzou into Passing Downs, and as you'll see later in the post, the Fightin' Fitzgeralds have one of the worst Non-Passing Downs defenses in the Big Ten.
  • On the other hand, their Passing Downs defense is quite solid.  NU gets sacks 10.8% of the time on Passing Downs pass attempts--a very good number.
  • Check out the Passing Downs run rates.  NU has a game-plan decision to make.  Mizzou is piss poor defending Passing Downs, and opponents know it--they run the ball a minuscule 23.5% of the time in those situations.  NU, however, plays things conservatively, running the ball 38.9% of the time.  Do they stick to their conservative tendencies, or do they open things up knowing that Mizzou has more breakdowns than a lot of other defenses?
  • Finally, turnovers favor Mizzou, but just slightly.  The turnover points margins suggest about a 2-point advantage for Mizzou in the turnovers game.

On to the situational stats...

NU

Opp.

Mizzou

Opp.

Q1
51.2% 41.0% Success Rate 54.2% 50.9%
0.28 0.32 PPP 0.49 0.29
0.789 0.726 S&P 1.032 0.799
Q2
43.6% 42.6% Success Rate 56.5% 43.3%
0.35 0.30 PPP 0.49 0.33
0.787 0.730 S&P 1.058 0.761
Q3
43.7% 42.8% Success Rate 53.3% 42.4%
0.32 0.29 PPP 0.54 0.35
0.761 0.717 S&P 1.072 0.769
Q4
43.5% 38.3% Success Rate 55.1% 43.3%
0.27 0.25 PPP 0.46 0.42
0.710 0.632 S&P 1.014 0.852
1st Downs
46.7% 44.3% Success Rate 55.2% 45.5%
0.33 0.36 PPP 0.59 0.43
0.794 0.798 S&P 1.141 0.884
2nd Downs
43.9% 40.7% Success Rate 54.5% 41.7%
0.31 0.25 PPP 0.44 0.32
0.752 0.653 S&P 0.989 0.741
3rd Downs
45.7% 34.6% Success Rate 56.2% 46.2%
0.36 0.27 PPP 0.59 0.34
0.814 0.615 S&P 1.154 0.803
  • The NU offense gets worse as the game wears on.  They gameplan well and see Q1 success because of it, but their S&P drops from 0.789 to 0.787 to 0.761 to 0.710 in progressive quarters.  That's not a huge drop, but it's something.  Meanwhile, NU is pretty consistent from Q1 to Q3, and very good in Q4.
  • MU's offense is at its worst in Q4, but it's still above 1.000 S&P at all times, which is quite solid.  Meanwhile, the MU defense is the anti-NU.  They are consistent from Q1 to Q3 and take a step backwards in Q4.
  • Catch the NU defense on first downs--they are thoroughly mediocre on first downs, but quite good on third downs.  Meanwhile the NU offense is pretty consistent from down to down.

The next set of numbers comes from my Varsity Numbers "Conference Breakdowns" column.  It involves "+" numbers, which attempt to put everything on an even playing field.  The below numbers are based solely on conference play.  When looking at "+" numbers, realize that 100 = dead average, <100 = below average, >100 = above average.

NU & MU '+' figures and respective conference rankings*
Category NU Off. NU Def. MU Off. MU Def.
Success Rates+ 106.6 (#4) 92.3 (#10) 115.6 (#2) 103.1 (#6)
PPP+ 89.2 (#9) 101.0 (#4) 115.1 (#4) 109.3 (#6)
S&P+ 98.8 (#6) 96.0 (#10) 115.4 (#3) 105.6 (#3)
Rushing S&P+ 89.3 (#8) 95.3 (#9) 115.6 (#1) 115.7 (#2)
Passing S&P+ 107.4 (#6) 96.5 (#7) 112.7 (#5) 99.4 (#8)
Close-Game S&P+ 98.3 (#6) 97.7 (#6) 107.7 (#4) 108.7 (#2)
Non-Passing Downs S&P+ 98.0 (#7) 90.3 (#10) 118.2 (#1) 109.0 (#2)
Passing Downs S&P+ 99.1 (#5) 118.8 (#4) 102.0 (#6) 95.7 (#9)
Redzone S&P+ 82.2 (#10) 96.2 (#6) 109.6 (#4) 107.7 (#5)

* Something you must keep in mind when looking at these figures: they are for conference play only.  So when Northwestern is above or below 100, it means they were above or below average among Big Ten teams only.  They are conference-specific rankings, so you can take these and apply your own opinions of each conference (Big Ten, Big 12) to determine what you think they mean.  One of these days, I'll get all the non-BCS games entered, and I will be able to come up with actual season-wide "+" numbers, but...well, that day is not today.

  • Most of NU's offensive numbers fit right into the middle of the Big Ten rankings--their best ranking, however, is in Success Rates (i.e. efficiency), while their worst come in PPP (i.e. explosiveness) and Redzone effectiveness.  You must get touchdowns in the redzone against Missouri when you get the opportunity, and NU is not equipped for that.
  • Defensively, NU is all over the map.  They are very good at limiting big plays (PPP) and TCB'ing when they force Passing Downs, but they have trouble forcing Passing Downs, and opposing offenses are able to move the ball relatively efficiently.
  • As for Mizzou...they are the best in the Big 12 at moving the ball on Non-Passing Downs and running the ball.  Yes, running the ball.  Honestly, they don't do it enough, but Derrick Washington is one of the better players in the country that nobody's heard too much about.  (Though yes, part of the reason Mizzou is effective at running the ball is because teams are trying not to get burned by the pass.)
  • Meanwhile, believe it or not, on a play-by-play basis, the Mizzou defense has actually been one of the better defenses in the Big 12.  When they're victimized, they're victimized by some damn good offenses. 
  • When Mizzou struggles defensively, it's because of one major deficiency: Passing Down breakdowns.  Mizzou blitzes a lot...but they haven't been very good at it this year.  Whether it's because of predictable blitzes, or blitzing the wrong guys, I'm not sure...but they suck at blitzing, and it's burned them from time to time.

What Has to Happen for Northwestern to Win

  1. Touchdowns, not field goals.  NU hasn't been too good in the red zone this season, but once you get down there, you must score touchdowns to keep up with Mizzou.  Field goals aren't going to cut it--the Wildcats must take chances if need be to get the ball in the endzone.

  2. Dink and dunk, dink and dunk.  Mizzou's defensive philosophy is to keep the play in front of them at all times, most of the time from a Cover 2.  This is good when it comes to preventing a lot of big plays, but it allows for a 4-6 yard completion most of the time.  I don't expect much from NU's running game--whether Tyrell Sutton is full-speed or not--but NU can move the ball via the short passing game, and they should do so.  Don't get impatient, and you can move the ball down the field against Mizzou...which gives the added benefit of keeping the Mizzou offense off the field.

  3. Confuse Chase Daniel.  When Chase Daniel is at his best, he's basically a computer.  Blitz, and Chase will do this.  Lay back, and Chase will do this.  Unless you have the defensive line of an Oklahoma or Texas, you can't get at Chase Daniel with a simple 4-man rush, so you have to confuse him.  Keep him guessing on where the blitzes are coming from.  OSU did this (playing their defense was like fighting a crazy guy) to great success, but it's easier said than done because Mizzou's offensive line is pretty solid.  Even if you're disguising your blitzes, you also have to be good at blitzing to get at him.

What Has to Happen for Mizzou to Win

  1. Bring it.  This isn't a statistical thing--if Mizzou brings its A-game, they won't lose Monday night.  But the bowl break always results in a few teams laying eggs.  If Mizzou is sharp and focused, they will send Chase Daniel, Chase Coffman, Ziggy Hood, William Moore, etc., out as winners.  Mizzou can put up double digits in wins for the second straight year, but if they only show up with their B-game, it all comes into question.

  2. Don't miss tackles.  Northwestern does not have a big-play offense, so they will likely have to rely on short passing to move the ball effectively.  If Mizzou tackles well, it puts a lot of pressure on the dink-and-dunk offense to not make a single mistake.  However, missed tackles can result in big plays at any times, and the more large chunks of yards Northwestern can eat up, the longer they stay in this game.  Speaking of which...

  3. Stomp the Throat.  Mizzou is well-favored in this game, and there are pretty clear reasons why, but the longer Northwestern stays in this game, the more confident they will get.  They're experienced in close games, and they know how to win them.  Mizzou is capable of putting this thing out of reach quickly, and they really need to do so.

Summary and Prediction

During conference season, I was able to make projections of Missouri games based on the conference "+" numbers.  It's only for conference play, so you can't perfectly compare Mizzou to Northwestern in this regard.  However, if we were to pretend that the Big 12 and Big Ten were exactly even, we could pretend that Mizzou's Big 12 numbers and Northwestern's Big Ten numbers were indeed comparable.  If we do that, my "+" projections say Mizzou 28.1, Northwestern 21.3.  In all likelihood, the Big 12 was a better conference this year by a decent margin, but we won't know how much until we see the two teams on the same field.

Bottom line: Northwestern is a very well-coached team with a patient offense and an opportunistic defense that is rock-solid up front.  But Missouri is bigger, stronger and faster.  This is quite possibly the best senior class in Mizzou history, and they want to go out as winners.  As huge a deal as it is for Northwestern to get its first bowl win since the 1949 Rose Bowl (when Michael Wilbon was a student...kidding), it's just as big a deal for this Mizzou senior class to go out on top.

If this great need results in Mizzou playing with fire and precision, they win easy (think 48-17).  But if they play tight and nervous, Northwestern is more than capable of making this a dogfight...and the Wildcats have proven more than Mizzou when it comes to winning close games.  I'm a homer, so I'm leaning toward the former, but let's not pretend the latter is impossible.  Baylor (a lesser team than NW'ern) gave Mizzou a run, and Kansas (probably better than NW'ern, but not by much) straight-up beat Mizzou.  Mizzou is not above losing this game...but no.  The seniors aren't going out like that.  Mizzou 41, Northwestern 20.

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