Friday, September 4, 2009

Big Ten: “Mark” My Words


Here is a team-by-team list of statistics that will indicate how well the conference performed by season’s end. Let’s re-visit these after November 21st to see how wrong I was.

Key Statistical Markers of Successful Season

Penn State: Pass defense must average less than 200 yards/game: This is obviously a nod to the depleted secondary, which must re-tool all four positions. The front seven will be solid against the run. Losing edge rushers will compromise the pass defense further. Since 2005, Penn State’s return to the top of the conference, they have given up an average of 203 yards/game through the air, including the 2006 season where they reloaded all four secondary positions. The pass defense can help solidify this team’s identity as a stifling, smash-mouth rush defense.

Iowa: Must finish in top four (Big Ten) in rush defense and at least top six in total offense: Nothing fancy here for the Hawkeyes, just good old Iowa City football–strong defense and solid offense. There’s no need to excel per se on either side of the ball for Iowa to win the prize, but there is a desperate need to reload the defensive interior. The pass defense will be there this year and, just like Penn State, if they can shore up the potential weakness (against the run) in their defense, Iowa will have a shot every week this season. Top half in total offense will indicate that the running game was established, despite the absence of the injured Jewel Hampton. If so, quarterback Ricky Stanzi’s job gets much easier, and the offense will click enough to put up solid, not sexy, offensive numbers.

Illinois: Must finish at least even in turnover margin and +10 in sacks: This will indicate to that the offense took care of the ball and more importantly, that Juice Williams continued to improve upon his touchdown to interception ratio. The +10 in sacks will show that 1) Williams’ blind side is protected well by Corey Lewis, a sophomore who emerged last year after dropping his red-shirt status and 2) that the Illini defense plays opportunistic enough to make plays. Altogether, this gives more opportunities for Illinois’ offense to be in better field position and eventually put up more points.

Ohio State: Rush defense must average less than 125 yards/game:
We all realize that Terrelle Pryor is a tremendously gifted athlete, but it sure would help if the defense steps up and relieves some pressure from the offense. We’ve seen this as a classic recipe for the Buckeyes’ success in the past; it’s no surprise that Ohio State has held opponents under 100 yards/game five of the last seven years and coincidently has been in conference title contention (or champions). If the Buckeyes put up this kind of rush defense, they will have a much better shot at making another title run.

Northwestern: Must finish in top five in passing offense: Northwestern insists they plan on passing the ball this season, despite the fact that starting quarterback Mike Kafka’s strongest showing last year was as a running quarterback and the team lost 80 percent of its receiving offense from last year. Northwestern’s defense is already slated to be very strong, so the offense needs to step it up. If Kafka leads Northwestern to a top-five passing offense, it will convince me that the Wildcats will be complete on both sides of the ball.

Minnesota: Total offense must be split close to even: 55 percent pass, 45 percent rush yardage: Simple statistic, nuanced reasoning. As Minnesota shifts away from the spread and into a physical rushing attack, the rushing yards MUST be there. If so, this statistic will indicate that the newly installed offensive game plan was well adopted and that the defense held up its end of the bargain (there potentially wouldn’t be a need to pass, pass, pass if they fell behind).

Michigan State: The Spartans running backs must average over four yards a carry:
Michigan State’s strength certainly lies on the defensive side of the ball. Led by Javon Ringer last year, the Spartans averaged only 3.3 yards/carry. A significantly higher rushing average will indicate that enough pressure was taken off the inexperienced quarterbacks, giving them more time to develop and then excel. This will also indicate more balance strategically, as the Spartans will be returning much experience at the receiver position, led by junior Mark Dell. This will force the opposition to come up with better game plans to stop Michigan State’s offense.

Indiana: Must lead the conference in sacks and win time of possession battle:
It’s tough to find ways to indicate a successful season when you’re positioned at the bottom of the conference. However, Indiana returns their top-three sack masters from last year (DEs Jammie Kilrew 10.5 and Greg Middleton 4.0, and LB Matt Mayberry 5.0). Kilrew and Middleton have combined for 35 sacks the last two seasons, and stand to be the two biggest playmakers for the Hoosiers this year. Without having standout talent on the offensive side of the ball and moving to the pistol offense and a downhill physical running style, the offense will slow to a more ball-control style–quite fitting for the qualities Ben Chappell possesses taking snaps. These statistics will indicate the playmakers made plays and that the offense was able to take control of the game.

Wisconsin: Must finish at least 5th in the conference in total defense: Wisconsin is very difficult to predict. Their offense carries so much firepower...but only if newly designated starting quarterback Scott Tolzien, gives them consistency. Running back John Clay is ready to have a monster year running, and Wisconsin returns tight end Garrett Graham, David Gilreath, and Nick Toon as their veteran receiving unit. The yards and points will be there, but can they stop anyone? Last year, their 26.5 points/game against were the worst the Badgers have put up in their last seven years. They return five starters on defense, but the front seven seems awfully inexperienced on paper. A top-five total defense indicates, well, that the defense gave the offense the chance to win games.

Michigan: Must finish season with a positive turnover ratio:
The Wolverines’ -10 turnover ratio was the only ratio in the red the last seven years, and was a difference of -24 versus their best turnover margin season, which came in 2006. A positive turnover ratio will indicate tons: the quarterback play will be improved, special teams won’t fork over the ball on every other attempted return, and the defense will be flying around the ball. Quite simply, losing the turnover battle loses games to begin with, and Michigan gave themselves no chance last year with the number of giveaways they committed.

Purdue: Must finish mid-conference in passing offense and rushing defense:
Purdue’s strength lies in their pass defense, which last year gave up a conference-leading 183 yards/game through the air. They look as strong or stronger in the defensive backfield this year. However, they were dead last against the rush, averaging 175 yards/game against. So it’s obvious where the improvement needs to be for them to have a successful overall defense. On offense, not much experience returns at quarterback with senior Joey Elliott. Furthermore, Purdue lost most of their receiving playmakers (Desmond Tardy, Greg Orton), so the stage is not set well for Purdue to make a splash passing the ball.

Photos Courtesy of Mike Dickbernd, IU Athletics & Iowa Sports Information