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Beyond the Box Score: Big Ten Edition (Part Two)

Continued from yesterday.

Purdue (3-5)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Pass Defense, Points Per Play
  • Overall Defense, close games
  • Offensive Line Yards
  • Pass Offense, close games

Top Ranks

#3: Offensive Q4 S&P+
#3: Offensive Q4 Rushing S&P+
#4: Offensive Q4 Passing S&P+
#8: Defensive Passing S&P+ (Close Games)

Bottom Ranks

#125: Defensive 3rd Down Line Yards+
#124: Offensive 3rd Down Line Yards+
#106: Offensive Q1 Line Yards+
#101: Defensive Q4 Rushing S&P+

Save me, Purdue, from a league full of either good-but-dull offenses or athletic-but-erratic offenses!!  I don't care if you only do well against bad defenses and completely disappear (4 yards rushing versus tOSU, 39 versus Michigan, 68 vs Penn State) versus living, breathing're not afraid to score 50 points!  You're my boy, Joe Tiller!


(And yes...I realize Tiller looks even more like Wilford Brimley...but that one was too easy...)

Anyhoo...Purdue was a unique team in '07, that's for sure.  Their offensive numbers were best in Q4, their defensive numbers were, for the most part, worst in Q4. Their rushing defense was decent...but terrible on 3rd downs.  Their pass defense was decent as well...but gave up big plays in key moments.  (They certainly don't fit any of the developing 'profiles' I've seen emerging throughout these previews.)  They scored 40+ points five times...and gave up 40+ three times.  Fun and excitement!  In the Big Ten!

Too bad Joe Tiller's last season coincides with Purdue losing 4 of its top 5 receivers and 5 of its top 6 tacklers.  Ouch.

Summary: The Purdue backfield is strong, with QB Curtis Painter and RB Kory Sheets, and the O-Line really should be pretty decent.  Greg Orton is a solid WR, and I'm sure other threats will emerge.  The O really will be okay, even though more reliance on the run will likely result in fewer points explosions.  It's not going to be better than last year's O, though, and...well...again, they did tend to grind to a halt against good defenses.  It's not going to get any easier this year (in fact, it actually gets harder with Oregon now on the non-con slate).  And outside of maybe LB Anthony Heygood, they don't seem to have enough star power on defense to make up the difference.

Verdict: In the 11 years before Joe Tiller arrived in West Lafayette, Purdue won 35 games.  In Tiller's 11 years, they've won 83.  Unfortunately, they seemed to have run into "Glen Mason Territory", where a coach has succeeded too much to fire him, but he's obviously maxed out his potential.  Tiller seems like a decent guy by all means, and it wouldn't make me unhappy to see him go out in a successful manner, but...if they were going to make some serious noise, it would have been last year.  The Fun Quotient should be lower for Purdue in '08, as should the quality of the team on the field.

(And yes, I realize Mason eventually did get fired--I called it Glen Mason Territory before his firing, and I'm being stubborn and holding onto the name.)

Indiana (3-5)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Overall Offense, close games
  • Defensive Line Yards
  • 1st Down Defense
  • Offensive Passing Success Rates

Top Ranks

#10: Offensive 3rd Down Line Yards+
#16: Defensive Q3 Rushing S&P+
#19: Defensive Q3 S&P+
#19: Offensive Q2 Passing S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#120: Offensive 1st Down Line Yards+
#120: Defensive Q4 S&P+
#119: Offensive Non-Passing Down Line Yards+
#119: Offensive Q3 Line Yards+

There's no questioning that Indiana was a great story last year.  They lost their head coach to cancer, pulled together, and clinched their first bowl game since 1929 (okay, 1993) by beating their biggest rival with their fallen coach's wife on hand.  It was a moving, heart-warming, successful season, especially considering...well...the team really wasn't very good.  They outscored opponents despite being outrushed and outpassed and giving up 32 more first downs on the season.  They couldn't fall back on a wonderful special teams unit (okay, their kicker was pretty damn good), and they were only +2 in turnovers.  But they knew how to hold onto a lead (only one of their seven wins was by a TD or less), and they knew how to take advantage of their opportunities (really poor in 1st down line yards, really good in 3rd down line yards).

Summary: That they overcame being ranked #100 or worse in 22 '+' categories is astounding, really.  And that leads to a question: will the pure effect of winning games make this team better in '08, or will the odds catch up to them?  No really, I want to know.  I don't know what to make of them.  A majority of key 2007 contributors (outside of stud WR James Hardy) returns, including QB Kellen Lewis, who tested the good vibes of '07 by getting himself suspended for the spring and having to win his job all over again now that he's back.  A happy, team-oriented Lewis is certainly key to Indiana's success--he passed for 3000 yards, ran for 700, and caught an 87-yard TD pass over the course of '07.  He is a true dual-threat, and they need a strong running game while they find their new go-to WR (#1 candidate: Andrew Means).

IF the Lewis situation resolves itself, and IF the offense returns to form, then the defense should be able to hold up its end of the bargain.  Led by stud DE Greg Middleton and a solid set of safeties in Austin Thomas and Nick Polk, the D should improve despite having to replace both CBs.

Verdict: I'll ask again--a year after a team overachieves like Indiana did in '07, do the odds catch up to them, or did the winning represent "taking a step up" without the stats to back up the step?  As a statistics nerd, I'd lean toward the former (everything evens out over time), but with none of the teams around them are going to light the world ablaze in '08, so they have at least an opportunity to establish themselves at the top of the Big Ten's second tier.

Michigan State (3-5)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Overall Offense, Passing Downs
  • Offensive Q2 Success Rates
  • 3rd Down Offense
  • Redzone Defense.

Top Ranks

#3: Defensive 3rd Down Rushing S&P+
#8: Defensive 3rd Down Line Yards+
#10: Defensive 1st Down Line Yards+
#10: Defensive Line Yards+

Bottom Ranks

#119: Offensive Q2 S&P+
#110: Offensive Q2 Passing S&P+
#83: Defensive Q4 Passing S&P+
#82: Defensive Q1 Line Yards+
#82: Offensive Q4 Rushing S&P+

Michigan State, as I'm sure you heard, lost six games by a TD or less after a 4-0 start.  It's easy to immediately predict "huge turnaround!!" for '08...but will that actually happen?  Signs don't necessarily point to yes.

State's strength last year was its defensive line, and that's the one area where they lost the most depth and play-making ability.  Jonal Saint-Dic, Ervin Baldwin and Ogemdi Nwagbuo are all gone, taking their 19.5 sacks and 18 other TFLs with them; a lot will be riding on the ability of Cincy transfer Trevor Anderson and possibly freshman Tyler Hoover to make some plays, and well...gambling on newcomers is an unsuccessful strategy more often than not.  The defense depended a lot on the DL's playmaking abilities, and while the LBs and DBs are solid, they're not spectacular.

Offensively, the Spartans should get a decent boost from another year of QB Brian Hoyer and RB Javon Ringer in the backfield, and the O-Line should be solid, but...their biggest 'game-changing stats' were third downs and passing downs, which suggests they struggled at times in that regard, and it cost them dearly.  And that was with Devin Thomas and Kellen Davis, who combined for almost 1800 yards receiving in '07.  Coming up with some tide-turning receptions could be left up to relatively unproven sophomore Mark Dell and REALLY unproven freshman Fred Smith.  Converting a few more 3rd downs could mean the difference between 5-6 wins and 9-10, so...yeah.  Get on that.

Summary: A good friend of mine is an MSU alum, and I tend to root for them to succeed over other Big Ten teams (in football, anyway), so I immediately jumped on the "six close losses!" thing and kind of assumed State was in for a big turnaround in '08.  But with a rebuilt D-Line and no go-to WRs, I'm a bit worried.

Verdict: Have you figured out that the Big Ten below tOSU is a giant clusterf----?  I have no idea what to do with this team, but I'm pretty sure they won't improve to the scale that I once thought.

Northwestern (3-5)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Passing Offense
  • Overall Defense, Passing Downs
  • Overall Offense, Non-Passing Downs
  • Offensive Line Yards

Top Ranks

#11: Defensive 3rd Down Rushing S&P+
#11: Offensive 3rd Down Line Yards+
#16: Offensive 3rd Down Rushing S&P+
#24: Offensive Q1 Rushing S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#126: Defensive 2nd Down Passing S&P+
#122: Defensive Q2 Line Yards+
#122: Defensive Passing S&P+ (close games)
#121: Defensive Passing Downs S&P+

If Purdue's no fun this year, then the hope turns to Northwestern.  These aren't Brett Basanez' Wildcats anymore, but they still managed to put up 40+ points a couple times (and give up 40+ points more than a couple times).  And after a slight first-year stumble while Pat Fitzgerald learned about being a head coach (unfortunately a bit earlier than originally intended), Northwestern was back in the 6-win range that they occupied previously (their last three years under the late Randy Walker, NW'ern won 6, 6, and 7 games).

Offensively, NW'ern was a Q1/Q3 team that came up big on third downs, but their passing game faltered at unfortunate times.  Northwestern is typically a team with good quickness but not necessarily good speed, and while that's still more-or-less the case, they've got quite a bit of size in the backfield now too.  RB Tyrell Sutton is a bowling ball at 5'9/200, while backup Omar Conteh is a solid 6'0/210.  The pair combined for 1,010 yards rushing (and 9 TDs) and 397 yards receiving (and 2 more TDs) in '07.   In '08, NW'ern will likely go as far as this pair can take them.  The passing game will be fine, I guess--CJ Bacher's a solid but slightly erratic QB (19-19 TD-INT ratio), and he's got some decent targets in Eric Peterman, Ross Lane and Rasheed Ward.  If attention has to be paid to the running game, NW'ern can average big numbers in passing once again (they had 308 ypg in '07).  One problem: they have to replace three starters on the O-Line, and they gave up over 30 sacks last year.  In a league full of solid D-Lines, that could slow everything down in a hurry.

So if the offense isn't any better (and is possibly a bit worse), the defense will have to pick up the slack.  The defensive line--which really wasn't terrible last year--returns a lot of experience and should make the job easier for a deep, relatively talented LB corps.  The pass defense was, shall we say, not good last year (#122 of 126 in close games...with quite a few passing down breakdowns splashed in), and it's not likely to be too much better this year losing two of four starters in the secondary.  Then again, both of those starters are obviously pretty replaceable, and at the very least the pass D isn't likey to be worse.

Summary: So Purdue may be less fun to watch in '08, and honestly NW'ern might too.  Is there no justice in the world??  The Wildcats are one of many Big Ten teams that could find a rhythm and ride it to 7-8 wins, but they don't have an overriding identity beyond maybe "tough on 3rd downs", and identity always helps.  They'll try to lean on Sutton and Conteh and take advantage of opponents' weaknesses, but there's not a lot of star power here.

Verdict: In any given year, the smart money is on Northwestern winning between 4 and 7 games.  I'm sure that will happen once again, but a lot will depend on their home-away conference schedule.  We'll get to that below.

Minnesota (0-8)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Overall Offense.
  • Redzone Offense.
  • Rushing Defense (particularly Q3)
  • 2nd Down Offense.

Top Ranks

#14: Offensive Redzone Passing S&P+
#15: Offensive Q4 Rushing S&P+
#23: Defensive Q3 Rushing S&P+
#32: Offensive Passing-Down Passing S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#126: Defensive Q2 S&P+
#124: Defensive 1st Down Passing S&P+
#123: Defensive Q2 Line Yards+
#123: Defensive 1st Down Rushing S&P+, Defensive 1st Down S&P+

Why were "overall offense" and "redzone offense" so 'game-changing' for Minnesota in 2007?  Because their defense was so unbelievably god-awful, that's why.  I mean, putrid.  I mean #100 or worse in 35 defensive '+' categories.  They were horrific on 1st downs, horrific on 2nd downs, and horrific in the "talent quarters" (Q2/Q4); they couldn't stop the run, couldn't stop the pass, and laid down on non-passing downs.  Oh yeah, and they averaged less than 1 sack per game.

You get the idea.

Offensively, they actually weren't too bad (26 PPG, 408 yards per game, 21 first downs per game), but they had such small margin for error with that defense that it would have taken Tim Tebow, Beanie Wells, and Michael Crabtree to lead Minnesota to a bowl game.

None of this, however, has even remotely dampened Tim Brewster's spirit.  Saying he's an optimist doesn't do him justice.  And with a solid first recruiting class and plenty of new blood on defense...

FOUR starters who were not a part of the program in 2007 (five if you count [Marcus] Sherels who moved from WR to CB) and five back ups who are new to Gopher football. The battles will be fun to watch from a distance and be sure to have your roster handy for week 1 vs. Northern Illinois.

...there's at least a good chance of moderate defensive improvement from Year One to Year Two.  Never mind that 'moderate improvement' would make them simply a bad defense...that's still what you want to hear after a rough first year on the job.

Summary: Sophomore QB Adam Weber, who predictably had an up-and-down first year as a starter, really might have some potential for good things--he did manage almost 2900 passing yards and 24 TDs (along with over 600 rushing yards) in his debut campaign, and while he'll be without RB Amir Pinnix and 13-year WR Ernie Wheelwright (seriously, that dude was there forever), the weapons around him will be decent, especially junior WR Eric Decker.  Plus, the spectre of incoming all-world freshman QB MarQueis Gray looms.  The offense has decent potential in 2008 and fantastic potential down the line.  But you have to figure that defense will continue to weight them down for the forseeable future.  They potentially have a decent LB corps with Deon Hightower and Steve Davis, but the secondary is littered with newcomers, and honestly the D-Line probably isn't littered enough with newcomers, if you catch my drift.

Verdict: More growing pains on the horizon for Minnesota, but there will be enough talent and athleticism on the field in '08 that Gopha fans can remain optimistic for the future.


As I did with the SEC, I'll take a look at the 'balance of power' and rank the Big Ten teams before taking a look at their schedules.

  1. Ohio State
  2. Wisconsin
  3. Penn State
  4. Illinois
  5. Michigan
  6. Indiana
  7. Iowa
  8. Michigan State
  9. Northwestern
  10. Purdue
  11. Minnesota

Numbers 2-4 and 5-10 are extremely interchangeable, and a lot will depend on scheduling.  So let's get to that, huh?


Ohio State

Likely Wins (9): Youngstown State, Ohio U., Troy, Minnesota, Purdue, @ Michigan State, Penn State, @ Northwestern, Michigan

Likely Losses (1): @ USC

Tossups (2): @ Wisconsin, @ Illinois

Prediction: I say they get their revenge on Illinois but trip up against Wisconsin.  10-2 (7-1).


Likely Wins (4): Akron, Marshall, Minnesota, Cal Poly

Likely Losses: none

Tossups (8): @ Fresno State, @ Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, @ Iowa, Illinois, @ Michigan State, @ Indiana

Prediction: What a weird schedule.  UW's 2008 success will depend on their success on the road.  Their five road games are all winnable and all quite losable (Allan Evridge Allan Evridge Allan Evridge).  I say they go undefeated at Camp Randall, beat Michigan and Indiana...and lose to Fresno, Iowa and Michigan State.  Yeah, that's the ticket.  9-3 (6-2).

Penn State

Likely Wins (7): Coastal Carolina, Oregon State, @ Syracuse, Temple, Michigan, Indiana, Michigan State

Likely Losses (1): @ Ohio State

Tossups (4): Illinois, @ Purdue, @ Wisconsin, @ Iowa

Prediction: Lose to UW and Iowa, beat Illinois and Purdue.  9-3 (5-3).


Likely Wins (6): Eastern Illinois, UL-Lafayette, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa, @ Western Michigan (??)

Likely Losses: none

Tossups (6): vs Missouri (ahem...I'm not jinxing anything here!), @ Penn State, @ Michigan, @ Wisconsin, Ohio State, @ Northwestern.

Prediction:  Bad schedule for UI, getting both Penn State and Wisconsin (and 5 of 6 tossups overall) on the road.  They've proven they can compete on the road (beating Ohio State), and they've proven they can lay a big fat egg (losing boringly to Iowa).  I say they lose those two (along with Mizzou and tOSU), and beat Michigan and Northwestern.  8-4 (5-3).


Likely Wins (5): Miami-OH, Toledo, Michigan State, @ Minnesota, Northwestern

Likely Losses (2): @ Penn State, @ Ohio State

Tossups (5): Utah, @ Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Illinois, @ Purdue,

Prediction: Utah is an extremely losable game, and if I hadn't already picked them to lose home games to Wiscy and Illinois, I'd pick Utah too...but that's a little much.  Beat Utah, win one of the two road tossups (we'll say Notre Dame...because screw Notre Dame).  7-5 (3-5).


Likely Wins (5): Western Kentucky, Murray State, Ball State, Northwestern, Central Michigan

Likely Losses (2): @ Penn State, @ Illinois

Tossups (5): Michigan State, @ Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, @ Purdue

Prediction: The good vibes will need to carry over for at least 2 wins in the 5 tossups if they want to make another bowl (and yes, two "likely wins"--Ball State, Central Michigan--are at least relatively losable, especially if Kellen Lewis ends up flaking out).  They should take down MSU and Iowa, but I say that's it--they lose to Minny, Purdue, and Iowa.  7-5 (3-5).  Without a 'with-it' Kellen Lewis, this could easily be 4-8.


Likely Wins (5): Maine, Florida International, Iowa State, Northwestern, Purdue

Likely Losses (2): @ Pittsburgh, @ Illinois

Tossups (5): @ Michigan State, @ Indiana, Wisconsin, Penn State, @ Minnesota

Prediction: I already have them taking down both Wisconsin and PSU (and I'm already having second thoughts on that) and losing to Indiana.  I say State and Minny both rise up and pull the (albeit slight) upset.  7-5 (4-4).

Michigan State

Likely Wins (3): Eastern Michigan, Florida Atlantic, Purdue

Likely Losses (4): @ California, Ohio State, @ Michigan, @ Penn State

Tossups (5): Notre Dame, @ Indiana, Iowa, @ Northwestern, Wisconsin,

Prediction: Beat UW and Iowa, lose to Indiana and NW'ern...then there's Notre Dame.  Hmm.  Eh, screw it.  Beat Notre Dame.  6-6 (3-5).


Likely Wins (3): Syracuse, Southern Illinois, Ohio

Likely Losses (4): @ Iowa, @ Indiana, Ohio State, @ Michigan,

Tossups (5): @ Duke, Michigan State, Purdue, @ Minnesota, Illinois.

Prediction: Duke's on the tossup list because...well, they lost to Duke at home last year.  Oof.  I say they get their revenge on the Devils (just because), beat State, Purdue and Minnesota, lose to Illinois.  7-5 (3-5).


Likely Wins (2): Northern Colorado, Minnesota

Likely Losses (5): Oregon, @ Notre Dame, @ Ohio State, @ Michigan State, @ Iowa

Tossups: Central Michigan (it's a rivalry now!), Penn State, @ Northwestern, Michigan, Indiana.

Prediction: Beat CMU, Indiana and Michigan, lose to PSU and NW'ern.  5-7 (3-5).


Likely Wins: Northern Illinois, Montana State

Likely Losses: @ Ohio State, @ Illinois, @ Purdue, Michigan, @ Wisconsin

Tossups: @ Bowling Green, Florida Atlantic, Indiana, Northwestern, Iowa

Prediction: Beat FAU, Iowa and Indiana.  Lose to BG and NW'ern.  5-7 (2-6).


Ohio State (7-1)
Wisconsin (6-2)
Penn State (5-3)
Illinois (5-3)
Iowa (4-4)
Michigan (3-5)
Indiana (3-5)
Northwestern (3-5)
Michigan State (3-5)
Purdue (3-5)
Minnesota (2-6)


Rose Bowl: Ohio State (10-2)
Capital One Bowl: Wisconsin (9-3)
Outback Bowl: Penn State (9-3)
Alamo Bowl: Illinois (8-4)
Champs Sports Bowl: Iowa (7-5)
Insight Bowl: Michigan (7-5)
Motor City Bowl: Indiana (7-5)

Other bowl-eligible teams

Northwestern (7-5)
Michigan State (6-6)