Northern Illinois Vs. Arkansas State, GoDaddy.com Bowl 2012: One Final Track Meet

With a ridiculously effective dual-threat quarterback leading the way, Northern Illinois played in some of the best, most MACtion-worthy games of 2011. Meanwhile, Arkansas State showed high upside on both sides of the ball in running away with the Sun Belt title. This could be one of the most entertaining games of an entertaining bowl season.

NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.

When the bowl pairings were announced, a few matchups immediately stood out. Obviously the matchups of top teams (Alabama-LSU, Oklahoma State-Stanford, Oregon-Wisconsin, Kansas State-Arkansas) were interesting, and games like Florida State-Notre Dame had obvious "big-name helmet" draws. But for pure, back-and-forth action and fireworks, Northern Illinois-Arkansas State had to be at or near the top of most MACtion nerds' lists. If ASU coach Hugh Freeze's departure for Ole Miss doesn't sully the proceedings, this one could be a whole lot of fun, even if Arkansas State plays a lot more defense than we think. Save the defense for Monday night, guys; let's have ourselves one last points explosion tonight.

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
Northern Illinois 10-3 NR 51 33 85 67
Arkansas State 10-2 NR 54 70 42 34
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
Northern Illinois 36 110 30 4
Arkansas State 7 41 56 64

Throughout the regular season, Northern Illinois was a bit of a wildcard. They proved capable of winning at Toledo, destroying Western Michigan, and unleashing a fierce comeback against Ohio to win the MAC title. But at the same time, they were capable of slipping up to Central Michigan, almost doing the same against Ball State at home, and (perhaps worst of all) losing to Kansas. Most of their iffy performances came early in the season, but a combination of bad defense, high Schizophrenia and a Covariance rate that suggests they show up quite a bit more for the better teams on the schedule, they are rather difficult to predict.

On the other hand, Arkansas State played a fast-paced (if mediocre) offense, played some of the better mid-major defense in the country at times, and ranked in the middle of three of the four "personality" measures above -- Covariance, MACtion and Schizophrenia. Freeze's offense-heavy resume made us think of the Red Wolves as a high-level MACtion team, and they did have their moments, but they were much more stable and, at times, boring than their counterparts from DeKalb.

When Northern Illinois Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Northern Illinois Offense 33 23 12 52 43 23 57
Arkansas State Defense 42 40 63 45 72 63 57
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Northern Illinois Offense 66.5% 41 41.3% 52
Arkansas State Defense 54.9% 45 29.8% 74
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

The NIU offense was almost always competent in 2011, but a mid-season burst gave them some of the better ratings of any mid-major offense in the country.

  • NIU Offense (First Five Games): 31.5 Adj. PPG (37.2 Real PPG)
  • NIU Offense (Next Five Games): 38.8 Adj. PPG (46.0 Real PPG)
  • NIU Offense (Final Three Games): 27.0 Adj. PPG (27.3 Real PPG)

The Huskies trailed off in the final three games, primarily because of a sudden decrease in the efficiency of the passing game. They were still able to pull off wins against Ball State, Eastern Michigan and Ohio, but only by an average of four points. Arkansas State's defense is quite a bit better than any of NIU's last three opponents (or just about anybody else they face in the MAC), so it would behoove the Huskies to rediscover their passing game.

When it's on, NIU's passing game is both explosive and diverse. Three players were targeted between 46 and 64 times during the regular season, and quarterback Chandler Harnish is accurate enough to consistently find them. No. 1 target Nathan Palmer (683 yards, 71-percent catch rate, 10.7 yards per target) had one of the better per-target averages in the country for a No. 1, while Martel Moore (528, 64 percent, 8.4) and Perez Ashford (450, 75 percent, 8.7) are rather proficient themselves. The Huskies are unique in the way they throw to almost nobody but wideouts -- tight ends are rarely utilized, and running backs are only targeted about three times per game. As a whole, NIU is relatively conservative on passing downs, mostly utilizing a combination of Harnish's legs and some "run to the sticks and turn around" quick passing.

Even with a downturn in the passing game, NIU was able to keep winning games because of a wonderfully efficient ground game. Jasmin Hopkins and Harnish combine to carry the ball 35 times per game, and with great effect. Hopkins (939 yards, plus-12.0 Adj. POE) was occasionally hit-or-miss (he averaged 5.5 yards per carry or greater six times in 2011, 3.7 or fewer five times), but for the season he was a nice complement to Harnish, who consistently carved up defenses with zone reads and scrambles. Over the final six games of the regular season, Harnish was other-worldly: he rushed 104 times for 909 yards and completed 93 of 160 passes for 1,348 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. Over the course of a 14-game schedule, that is a 2,100/3,100 pace. Insane.

Arkansas State's defense could -- could -- provide an interesting challenge for the Huskies, however. They gameplan well and, as a whole, are adept in taking away a team's strengths. Illinois and Virginia Tech averaged a combined 3.7 yards per carry against ASU, and despite a high overall pace, not a single team gained more than 375 yards against them after September. They do allow the occasional big play, but they are wonderfully efficient, especially on standard downs.

Thanks primarily to end Brandon Joiner (15.5 tackles for loss, 12 sacks), they generate a decent pass rush without blitzing (no linebacker or defensive back had more than two sacks, but ASU still ranked 22nd in Adj. Sack Rate), and that allows the Red Wolves to be active in the passing lanes. They intercepted 18 passes and broke up 51 more in 2011; cornerback Darryl Feemster led the way with five picks, and safety Kelcie McCray threw in four. Fellow corners Darron Edwards and Chaz Scales, meanwhile, contributed another three picks and 13 passes broken up. They seem to have a deep enough secondary to account for NIU's receivers; the key will be whether or not they can prevent Harnish from gashing them with the zone read.

When Arkansas State Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Arkansas State Offense 70 57 86 40 71 63 61
Northern Illinois Defense 85 69 97 51 76 73 66
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Arkansas State Offense 58.2% 61 30.5% 55
Northern Illinois Defense 62.3% 76 36.5% 73
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

From an overall quality perspective, the matchup when ASU has the ball isn't quite as interesting, but it will obviously be just as instrumental in determining the winner. At their best, the Red Wolves are a mini-NIU on offense -- Ryan Aplin (769 pre-sack rushing yards, plus-16.0 Adj. POE) will keep the ball quite a bit himself on reads, and when he throws, he has three interesting targets. Despite high upside, however, they haven't been nearly as consistent as NIU in this regard. Aplin isn't quite Harnish, running back Derek Lawson (459 rushing yards, minus-8.0 Adj. POE) isn't Jasmin Hopkins, and the trio of Dwayne Frampton (1,125 yards, 78-percent catch rate, 9.8 yards per target), Josh Jarboe (707, 67 percent, 9.1) and Taylor Stockemer (571, 59 percent, 9.1) isn't quite as explosive as NIU's receiving corps (though that last point might be debatable).

That's okay, though, because NIU's defense isn't Arkansas State's, either. Theirs certainly wasn't the worst defense the MAC had to offer in 2011, but while they aren't awful in any one area, they also aren't particularly good at anything. They are rather efficient, but they tend to make up for any good plays they make by allowing big plays in return.

The Huskies do have some potential, however. They racked up 85 tackles for loss on the season and defended almost as many passes as ASU. And they have a ferocious leader in senior middle linebacker Pat Schiller. The 235-pounder took part in 108 tackles (40 solo, 68 assists) in 2011, made 10.0 behind the line of scrimmage, and broke up six passes. End Alan Baxter (10.5 tackles for loss, four sacks) is a nice weapon as well, but it bears mentioning that while NIU had four players with at least 10 tackles for loss this season, two aren't playing -- Sean Progar (11.0 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks) is suspended because of a DUI, and Ron Newcombe (12.5 tackels for loss, 4.5 sacks) is out with injury. NIU was already going to struggle against a solid ASU offensive line (27th in Adj. Line Yards, 57th in Adj. Sack Rate); missing these two linemen will certainly not help the cause.

If Northern Illinois can at least neutralize ASU's advantages up front, and if they can not only force some passing downs but make Aplin uncomfortable on those passing downs, they do have some playmakers in the secondary who could make things happen. Corner Rashaan Melvin picked off two passes and broke up eight others, and redshirt freshman safety Dechane Durante is utilized in quite a few different ways (4.0 tackles for loss, six passes defended). The NIU defense improved quite a bit after a dreadful September (35.3 Adj. PPG allowed in their first five games, 21.2 over their final eight), though it remains to be seen how costly the absence of Progar and Newcombe will be up front.

The Verdict

Northern Illinois by 0.1.

By the numbers, this is yet another complete tossup. In pure MACtion fashion, however, just about any result won't be too much of a surprise. If one team derives a consistent advantage, the game should be fast-paced enough for them to build a relatively large lead. With the BCS championship game on the horizon, you owe it to yourself to check on one final, unpredictable game with a high ceiling for points, yards and general silliness. Chandler Harnish alone is worth the price of admission, but Arkansas State's upside was awfully high this season as well.

--------------------

A Quick Glossary

Covariance: This tells us whether a team tends to play up or down to their level of competition. A higher ranking means a team was more likely to play well against bad teams while struggling (relatively speaking) against good ones. (So in a way, lower rankings are better.) For more, go here.

F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

MACtion: This is a look at how closely teams are associated with big-play football (like those high-scoring, mid-week MAC games). Teams that rank high on the MACtion scale play games with a ton of both big plays (gained and allowed) and passing downs. For more, go here.

Pace: This is calculated by going beyond simply who runs the most plays. Teams that pass more are naturally inclined to run more plays (since there are more clock stoppages involved), so what we do here is project how many plays a team would typically be expected to run given their run-pass ratio, then compare their actual plays to expectations. Teams, then, are ranked in order from the most plays above the expected pace, to the least.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.

S&P+: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

Schizophrenia: This measures how steady a team's performances are throughout the course of a full season. Teams with a higher ranking tend to be extremely unpredictable from week to week. For more, go here.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

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