Playoff time! It’s an environment the kids from the plains of Fargo thrive on. NO ONE has done it better ever. The last eleven years we have gone 37-3. This has gained us eight Natty’s, one semi-final bow out (only Dome loss) and two quarter final losses. The one with E Wash was shrouded in controversy by a goal line call. The other last spring was the culmination of the wrath that Covid brought to the Bison program. None of these losses were blow outs. The three teams we lost to all won the National Championship those years. No other team in college football has had a streak like this. As fans we need to applaud and enjoy it. Yes, these young men are our heroes!
As we are set to host the Southern Illinois Salukis to kick off our twelfth straight playoff, what do we see when we look under the hood for both of these MVFC teams? I want to start out by underscoring where I left off in the first paragraph. To date we have only lost to the eventual champion. As I look at the Salukis, THEY ARE NO CHAMPIONS!
Am I discounting this MVFC team? Am I saying they can’t beat the Herd? No. I am just, as always, giving you my most honest evaluation of them as a team. By this time of year, we know the strengths and blemishes of these teams as well as our own. We also can see progressions and trending (both positive and negative). A loss to the Salukis would be our earliest exit ever and to a non-championship club. They don’t have the talent to run the table as YSU did under Pelini in 2016 or SDSU could pull off this year.
Here is why I am so emphatic on this proclamation.
Let’s start with defense, the most important building block. Coach Hill in 2019 brought in a new Defensive Coordinator. It saved his job. His first three years were in a downward trend on defense. The first two the Salukis gave up as many points as they scored. In 2016 it was 30/30 and 2017 it was 27/27. We didn’t play them because of the unbalanced MVFC schedule those two years. They were not pound and ground, they were dink and dunk. They only rushed for 137 and 164 yards out of their total offense of 470 and 400 yards. On defense they gave up 166 and 161 rushing yards. The net result was 4-7 records in 2016 & 17 and only 2-6 in conference. In 2018 they sunk to 2-9 and 1-7 in the MVFC. We pounded them 65-17 in our tune up for the playoffs and finishing off an unbeaten season. The final autopsy on that Saluki defense was it gave up 40.7 PPG, 483 YPG and 223 rushing YPG. Ugh!
2019 saw the defense stiffen to only giving up 23 PPG, 154 yards rushing and 354.6 yards in total defense. Jason Petrino (Bobby’s Cousin) was a miracle worker. My feeling is that SIU should have made the field that year in the playoffs. Jason was USD’s DC when they upset the Bison in Fargo in 2015. Wentz’s broken hand in the first half was the determining factor in that game, but he had the Yotes playing better D, plus this gives him added experience in scheming for the Herd.
The truth is, playing good D will open up the chances of entering the win column more consistently than high octane offenses with bad D. My taping the breaks on the Salukis is I am seeing some regression on defense and it started last spring. SIU’s defensive stats dipped into and past the danger points of average to downright bad D. Total D jumped to 389 YPG and rushing D in melt down at 204 YPG with scoring at 29 PPG. E Washington might be comfortable with that in their good years, but it is not championship quality D.
The results on the field showed. They were blown out by UND and the Jacks, giving up 44 points in each loss. Then they went on a four game schizophrenic tour with four straight bad D shoot outs. They beat Mo. St 30-27, Beat JMU’s next opponent, SE LA, 55-48 as a playoff selection sealing win. They followed this with a 34-31 win on the road against Weber. Their season ended at SDSU with another shoot out in a 31-26 loss to the Jacks. The pundits love these types of games. As a former MLB, I would be hanging my head in shame if any of my teams gave up an average of 34.3 PPG in a four game stretch. Enough said.
I know your thinking, but Dober that was last spring. I thought you were throwing that out? For the most part I am. I am just high lighting this to get to where the Salukis are at now. The Bison and SIU have faced eight common opponents from the MVFC. I am throwing out Ind. State for two reasons. First they aren’t a playoff caliber team with a Sagarin rating of 178. Second, the five MVFC playoff teams that played the Sycamores all slaughtered them (took care of business). The remaining seven common opponents rank 145 and under in Sagarin and have multiple wins over current playoff teams. Under 150 Sagarin is a rough cutoff for playoff teams not coming from the weak conferences with automatic qualifier status (that was true this year except for FL A&M, an HBUC team granted an in with a 174 Sagarin. No surprise they were humiliated 38-14. SE LA was up 38-0 going into 4th QTR and took their foot off FL’s throat).
The common opponents are IL ST, SDSU, UND, UNI, MO. ST, YSU and USD. The last two SIU played a week after we faced the Penguins and Coyotes, so they are as fresh as you can get for comparisons. Let’s dig in. Get a cup of coffee. I am going deep.
It goes without saying I don’t care about the fluff teams on a team’s schedule. I want to know what they do against playoff caliber teams; against teams that average more than 400 yards in total offense and teams that give up under 325 total yards on defense (those levels of offense and defense put you into the top 20-25 in the FCS).
SIU struggles when you put on these filters. Defensively the Salukis didn’t slow any of these teams’ offenses down. In fact they did better than all other opponents they faced. Against all other comers, these teams averaged 361.3 YPG in offense, with 157.4 coming from rushing and garnering them 26.8 PPG. Against the Salukis the best of the MVFC gained 403.1 YPG, 188.7 YPG rushing and 27.4 PPG. Only two teams got under their yearly offensive totals (UNI & USD). The most troubling is the ease with which Valley teams ran on SIU. When you are a blink away from giving up 200 yards per game in rushing you are in trouble. They also lost the YPC (yards per carry) battle by a margin of 4.6 to 4.1.
How did Code Green do against these same teams? We slowed everyone down from their yearly averages, but UNI (go figure). These combined offenses versus all others went for 372.8 YPG, rushing for 166.1 YPG and scoring 27.5 PPG. Code Green performed again at a championship level, slowing TO to 288.6 YPG (well below my standard of 325 YPG), grinding these running games to 101.7 YPG and being stingy on scoring, allowing only 16.9 PPG (both of these under my championship standards of 125 YPG rushing D and under 20 PPG in scoring D). By the way Code Green held these teams to 3.2 Yards Per Carry (YPC), SIU gave up 4.7 YPC.
Code Green is vastly superior to the Salukis D going into this game. What else do you call giving up 115 YPG less in TO, 87 YPG less in rushing and 10.5 PPG less in scoring?
Is SIU better on offense than the Herd? No. The Salukis have averaged 403 YPG in TO, 155.9 YPG rushing while scoring 27.43 PPG (interesting highlight, the defense gave up exactly 27.43 PPG to these teams. Remember the 2016 & 17 teams gave up 30/30 & 27/27 and were 4-7 each year). When you gain 403 YPG and score 27 PPG, but your defense gives up 403 YPG and 27 PPG (BUT also gives up more than 33 YPG rushing), you are really a bubble playoff team.
The Ram led Herd offense also averaged 403 YPG TO, but rushed for 236.1 YPG (81 YPG more than the Salukis) and scored 31 PPG. SIU is upside down when it comes to Time of Possession (TOP), controlling the ball 27:15 to 32:45. If the Rams control the ball like that come Saturday, put the Herd in the win column.
The important difference in this seven common opponent comparison is in the spreads. There are none for the Salukis, other than they let their opponents out rush them and they couldn’t slow any of them down from what they normally produced. The Herd on the other hand slowed offenses down over 80 YPG, slapped these opponents run games in the chops to the tune of dropping output from 166.1 YPG to 101.7 YPG (our margin YPC was 5.4 to 3.2).
Combined with our offensive output that’s why we have the plus 115 YPG in TO, 135 YPG rushing advantage and 14.5 PPG scoring spread over these seven quality opponents.
This is more than enough to show why I think the Herd is heavily favored in this game, but it’s the playoffs, so let’s dig deeper still. How did Code Green and the Salukis do against the best offenses (+400 YPG in TO)?
SIU let the three good offenses (SDSU, UND & Mo. State) they faced run wild. Production went up from a combined 410.3 YPG Total Offense (TO), 163 YPG rushing and 30.5 PPG scoring by these clubs to 504.3 YPG TO, 202.7 YPG rushing and 35.7 PPG scoring. That is E Washington bad D!!
Code Green against these same three clubs dropped them from 428.7 YPG TO versus other teams not the Bison to 319.7 YPG TO, 124.3 YPG rushing and 19 PPG scoring. Let’s juxtapose this to what the Salukis did. TO 504.3 YPG to CG’s 319.7, rushing 202.7 to 124.3 and scoring 35.7 to 19. They aren’t even in the same universe when it comes to playing championship defense!
The final in-depth analysis, how did these two playoff teams do moving the ball against championship caliber defenses? Again, UNI, SDSU and USD hit the standards of under 325 YPG in Total D, 125 YPG rushing D and under 20 PPG in scoring D.
The Salukis showed best in this statistical category than any others we have looked at. They amassed 454.3 YPG, but their undoing is this only produced 26.7 PPG. I think this is tied to their pedestrian running attack (153.7 YPG, which would rank 49th in FCS). SIU has a propensity to move the ball between the 20’s, but can’t punch it in. They also are poor in 3rd down efficiency, coming in at 87/123 nationally with a conversion rate of .345 (just over a third).
How did the Rams and company do? Less yardage than SIU (416.7 to 454.3), but more juice! We scored 35 PPG against these defenses that only averaged giving up 18.3. The key stat is rushing. These three D’s only gave up an average of 96.7 YPG, we ran it down their throats to the tune of 210.3 YPG. We convert 3rd downs at 45.7% (7/123 in FCS). Did I mention with Cam at the helm we are getting better in the red zone?
Any late season trends? I think so. Taking the last four games from these seven Valley teams (throwing out Ind. St for both of us), SIU’s scoring is down to 21 PPG while giving up 26.5 PPG. They also have allowed UNI to run for 181 yards, Mo. St for 237 and YSU for 268. Against Code Green they got 124, 79 and 59. That’s 686 rushing yards versus SIU to 262 yards via Code Green (228.7 YPG to 87.3). That’s the difference from being dominated in the run game to dominating the opponent.
Last but not least, how do these two teams match up on special team’s performance? Led by J D Price, the Herd is 5th in FCS at 14.5 Yards Per Return (YPR). SIU is 54th at 8.2 YPR. In kickoff returns we are 26th in the nation versus 55th for the Salukis. Here I don’t think they have anybody to match Watson’s scare factor.
Enough, you make the choice. Who has the better portfolio of performance? Early Vegas has the Herd an 11 point favorite. The Herd has to come out fast against these guys. They are scrappy and believe they can beat us after last spring. I think the talent difference is greater than this spread and I feel we are just starting to hit our stride on offense (49 and 52 points last two weeks). We have yet to play our best game. It’s playoff time, so Herd let’s shine. Go Bison!