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Playoff Preview: Up Next, Colgate

In my first blog I wrote about "When Equal Stats Aren't Equal." I specifically mentioned Colgate in this post as an example of exaggerated stats (click here to read) . The hype in the FCS world then was their holding five of six opponents to no points and the sixth to a single field goal. This was record setting defense, but how concerned should we be if we had to play them in the playoffs. Well that day has come.

So who is Colgate? They come out of the Patriot League whose member roster includes Bucknell, Fordham, Georgetown, Holy Cross, Lafayette, and Lehigh. Not exactly a murderer's row of FCS Football powerhouses. They are a one-bid automatic qualifier. In 2011 we opened the season by beating Lafayette 42-6 and dispatched Lehigh in the quarterfinals 24-0 on our way to Frisco. We haven't played anybody else from this league until we meet Colgate this week.

The Patriot League ranks 11th out the 13 FCS conferences in Sagarin's power rankings. It is a scholarship league. They can fill 60 scholarship slots and don't allow for red shirting except for medical hardship (this is a big handicap vs. the Bison, most of our starting defensive and offensive lineman are 4th and 5th year players). They have a very good head coach and staff. They play smart, disciplined football evidenced by minimal penalties, turnovers and they use complex schemes both offensively and defensively. Looking at their posted football roster, they mention majors such as philosophy, geology, economics and molecular biology (many FCS rosters are heavily sprinkled with Phy. Ed. majors). They rarely beat themselves.

What can the Bison expect come Saturday? Sports commentators have blown the defensive prowess of this team out of proportion. However, there are some mitigating factors that make them a team not to be overlooked.

What's the hype? The "other worldly" defensive statistics they have amassed, have come against very weak FCS teams with terrible offenses. Against their conference brethren of Lafayette, Bucknell, Cornell, Georgetown, Fordham and Lehigh they gave up a combined total of 9 points in six games. They allowed an average of 32.8 YPG (yards per game) in rushing, while holding both Fordham and Georgetown to minus 50 and minus 12 yards. They held these six teams to an average of 153.5 yards of total offense. That is beyond impressive.

Now lets look under the hood to see the horsepower of these victims. First, according to Sagarin, these teams were ranked 239, 240, 212, 226, 229 and 225. This average rating of 228.5 means these six teams are in the bottom 10% of all 255 Division I teams. They had a combined 14-41 win/loss record, which is even made worse considering many of the 14 victories were in conference against each other. These six teams ranked 92nd, 106th, 118th, 119th, 121st and 124th in total offense in all of FCS football (124 teams). Their FCS scoring ranks are 106th, 114th, 116th, 117th, 123rd and 124th, which translates into an average 15.6 PPG. Their team rushing credentials aren't any better. Cornell ran for 136 yards against Colgate which was close to their 156.1 YPG for all games. The other five conference members only averaged a gain of 79 YPG. So much of this hype is like pounding your chest and proclaiming you are the world boxing champion, when in reality most of your sparring partners were confined to a wheel chair.

I heard some of the local Bison Sports broadcasters giving credit to Colgate's considering that two of their foes were from the CAA (JMU's conference). They faced William & Mary in addition to New Hampshire in the second game of the season, just after the Wildcats lost their star quarterback. Both of these teams have bad offenses. They rank 104th and 123rd in rushing, 112th and 121st in scoring offense (only 17.8 and 13.6 PPG, ugh!!) and 113th and 122nd in total offense.

So 8 out of 10 of their regular season opponents were beyond inept when it came to running an effective high-scoring offense.

Next, let's look at the other two foes. Colgate's first game came against conference rival Holy Cross. This was a closely contested game won by Colgate 24-17. Total yardage was neck and neck - 285 to 282 and Holy Cross actually out-rushed them 169 to 91. Holy Cross was the highest ranked Patriot conference foe at 194 in Sagarin.

Colgate's last regular season game was against Army. Army runs a wishbone triple option offense. They beat Colgate 28-14 (Colgate returned a fumble for a touchdown). Army rushed for 261 yards (a little under their average).

So what are the "mitigating factors" that should give pause to Thundering Herd fans from taking Colgate too lightly? The Raiders did what they should against these bad offenses. Speaking bluntly, they ripped them a new one. Many FCS teams lack character and play down to their opponent (think Sam Houston State). Colgate can only play the schedule in front of them and they did with focus and pride. They obliterated these lowly teams. That is the sign of a championship team, they take down a crippled dear like a blood thirsty lion.

Next, they held their own against a good Army team. Army is 9-2 going into this weekends classic with Navy (where they are a 7 point favorite). Not a lot can be garnered from this game schematically on what they can do against a varied run/pass offense like NDSU's. One thing is sure, they weren't intimidated by playing a good FBS opponent on the road.

How do we look at their home win versus James Madison? First, they need to be respected for staying toe to toe with JMU. Again, they weren't intimidated.

Two things stand out to me from this game. First off, this JMU team is in no way to be confused with the team of the last two years that won 26 games in a row until the Bison wrestled the championship back from them in Frisco last year. Eight of the starters on that defensive unit are gone. Schor, the best QB in school history graduated. They lost key members from the offensive line, including the left tackle who went onto the NFL. This was a good JMU team, not a great one (a 9-4 record and no conference championship precludes the term great). They had five games where they displayed significant trouble running the ball. They averaged 2.6 YPC (yards per carry) in the loss to Elon, 3.4 YPC versus Villanova, 2.5 YPC in the Stony Brook game, 1.7 YPC in the loss to New Hampshire and finally 2.0 YPC versus Delaware in round one of the playoffs. If you get under 4 YPC, you're not having a good day running the ball.

Secondly, in the JMU/Colgate game, the Dukes gave them the game via turnovers and untimely penalties. JMU's QB threw five interceptions (that is how many Stick has for the year). Colgate only had one turnover. One of the picks was inconsequential, a last minute heave into the end zone before the half. The other four were costly - stopping drives that most likely would have lead to points. In one series the Dukes were driving to take a two touchdown lead and Colgate turned it into a field goal. The worst penalty came after JMU stopped the Raiders on third down, who were given new life after a late hit on Colgate's quarterback. These interceptions weren't caused by great pressure on the QB or great moves by the defensive backs. DeNucci was just errant on the throws. JMU moved the ball (392 total yards of offense). They were also winning in the trenches (200 rushing yards at a 5.1 YPC).

Colgate, to it's credit, played a clean game with just one turnover and half the penalty yards compared to JMU (32 versus 62). They rushed for 140 yards with a 3.1 YPC. That isn't a dominant run game. They had 330 total yards on offense. This is a very modest game. They only generated 1 sack for a loss of 6 yards compared to 4 by the Dukes that set Colgate back 30 yards. Purely by the Stats, JMU should have won.

Here are the Stats that matter:

* Colgate has a very average offense that gets more mileage out of it because of the great defense they play. This generates better field position with more opportunities because of its plus 16 turnover ratio (same as the Bison). Also, since the offense is run first oriented, it runs the clock out better. They rank 79th in total offense in the FCS with 361.4 YPG. This is the lowest total offensive team the Bison will have faced this year. They are 33rd in rushing offense at 199.8 YPG. and 47th in scoring at 29.5 PPG. In many ways they are similar to Montana State in offensive statistics. Montana gets the meat of their run game with the QB and the side menu is a scrappy little running back. Colgate gets the bulk of its running yardage thru a bell-cow running back with the caveat carries through read options by the QB. Colgate is better in the passing game than Montana, but still they only rank 104th in the FCS at 161.5 YPG.

* Colgate is #1 in total defense at 219 YPG. NDSU is 6th at 289 YPG (really we are 3rd when you throw out the one Ivy League and two HBCU's that don't compete in the FCS playoff system). They are 4th in rushing defense (88.3 YPG) compared to 13th by the Herd (108.1 YPG). They are first in scoring defense at 7 PPG and we are second at 12 PPG. I have laid out how Colgate's stats are padded by playing some of the worst offensive teams in the country. On the other hand NDSU plays in the toughest conference according to Sagarin. We have played 7 teams that average over 400 YPG in total offense. These 400 plus yard teams also score on average 31.2 PPG, while rushing 204.9 YPG. Code Green has held these top offenses to 303.3 total yards per game, 105.9 rushing YPG and 11.3 PPG. Colgate has only played two good offensive teams, Army and JMU. Against these two opponents they give up 339 YPG, 24 PPG and 230.5 rushing YPG. As you can see, Code Green does much better, more often versus top offenses than Colgate. Don't forget that Colgate's offense is very middle of the road and ours is the best balanced offense in the country.

* Sagarin has the Bison a 23 point favorite with an 83% chance of winning. Vegas has the Herd as a 22.5 point favorite. Sagarin also favors SDSU by 3 points over Kennesaw State with 58% probability of victory. Vegas has SDSU as a 7 point winner.

* Lastly, Colgate's left tackle is a true freshman (6'5'' and 305 lbs). JMU registered four sacks and multiple hurries. This guy can't block Greg Menard. Look for Menard to get at least two sacks. Colgate couldn't contain JMU's QB run game, so look for Stick to carry the ball over 5 times with huge success.

Where does all this lead come Saturday? I really don't see much difference in the quality of Colgate versus last week's playoff opponent, Montana State. Yes - Colgate's defensive stats are better, but against much worse opponents than what the Bobcats faced in the Big Sky or non-conference league (MSU played SDSU and Western Illinois). The Raiders are pretty much a one-dimensional offense. We know what Code Green can accomplish defensively. They also have not played an offense as good and diverse as NDSU's. Nor have they seen an offensive line as big and athletic as ours. Their defensive line is smaller than last weeks. They should be worn out midway thru the third quarter. This should be a comfortable victory for the Bison. I feel this could be the best Bison team of all time. They are playing like it.

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