In 2010 the hopes of Bison Nation were elevated to where we knew we could compete at the highest levels of the FCS, having lost a heart breaker to Eastern Washington in OT (they went on to win it all). Nobody fantasized, back then, that over the next eight years we would win seven out of eight National Titles and now are competing to win the eighth.
For the faint of heart this article is going to be too long and detailed. If I give you something new, something overlooked by others and above all, if I make you think and that expands your football knowledge, then I have done what I wanted. Strap in and enjoy the ride. 2019 isn’t finished yet!
First, JMU will be the best balanced team we have faced this year. As a whole, they are the most talented also. This is not to denigrate our big three in the MVFC (SDSU, IL State & UNI). I think elements of these three teams are more talented than JMU’s. None of JMU’s RB’s compare to James Robinson (faced twice), or a healthy Pierre Strong. I think both of these backs have a future in the NFL. I don’t see any of JMU’s top three at that level. I also believe the Jack’s OL is on an equal level with JMU’s (also bigger) and the Redbird’s is not more than a step behind. Also, Cade Johnson (when he had someone to throw him the ball) is one of the better WR in the FCS as was Weston from UNI (who missed JMU because of injury).
If you have done any reading leading up to this game, you know the soup de jure of the FCS sports writing community is how similar these two teams are when looking at the stats and if possible the game will be decided by ½ point or less. Overall this is true with both teams being balanced offensively. Both are top 10 in rushing stats. NDSU is #4 at 288 YPG (only three option teams ahead of them) and JMU is #10 at 248.3 YPG. JMU has more passing yards than the Herd (224.1 YPG to 189.3 YPG), but neither squad is in the top 50 for passing yards. The most significant passing stat is completion percentage and passing efficiency. Both Dinucci & Lance excel in these areas. SU is #1 in passing efficiency at 179.65 & JMU #3 at 172.75. Dinucci led the nation in completion percentage (.715) and Trey was fourth at .671. Some of this difference is negated on jet sweeps. NDSU hands the ball off to the WR, making it a running play. JMU flips the ball forward to the WR making it a pass. NDSU ran at least 18 such plays (that would be like adding 18 of 18 to Trey’s passing stats). Not trying to split hairs here, just saying both were very successful and efficient in the passing game.
Both offenses were high scoring machines, JMU #2 in FCS, coming in at 41.3 PPG and the Bison at #7 (37.9 PPG). It is a fact that NDSU played a tougher schedule when it comes to quality defenses. The Rams & company played the 4th ranked scoring defense twice (IL state, 16 PPG), the Jacks 6th ranked defense (16.7 PPG) and UNI’s 7th ranked unit at 17.7 PPG. JMU only faced ONE top 10 defense, UNI and we will talk about that later.
Another thing both offenses did was take care of the ball in regards to throwing interceptions. NDSU only gave up 1 (#1 in FCS) and JMU yielded 5 (tied with 9 other teams at #4). They ranked 2nd (JMU) and 4th in converting 3rd downs. They are 1st (JMU) and 6th in converting 4th downs. Similar penalty yards per game (NDSU 54.3 YPG & JMU 51.2). They are neck and neck on kickoff returns (JMU #2 with 25 yards per return & SU at #8 with 23.9). Punt returns are close as well with JMU at 12.7 per return and the Bison at 11.7. There also isn’t any big variation in time of possession.
By now your eyes are probably glazing over and you’re ready to settle for “it’s going to be a tossup decided by a key play or two”. Take a break; we haven’t looked at the defensive similarities yet.
Code Green (CG) is #1 in scoring defense (11.8 PPG) and JMU #3 (14.9 PPG). JMU is #1 in total defense (264.7 YPG) and CG #2 (269.9 YPG). JMU is #2 in stopping 3rd downs (.290) and CG #14 (.329). CG is #7 in stopping 4th downs (8 of 24, only 8 made) and JMU is #32 (11 of 26). They are virtually tied on kickoff return defense (51st & 53rd) and the same for punt return defense (25th & 28th). Red zone defense comes in at .719 for JMU and .724 for CG (14th & 19th in FCS). The Bison were #1 in passing defense efficiency and JMU was #6. We have 42 sacks and they have 46. With all this parity, why don’t we just give Entz and Cignetti two revolvers to settle this by dueling at the fifty yard line in Frisco?
This is why I make the big money (that’s a joke), to bring you to where most mere mortal fans can’t get, to the depth of meaningful insight into the stats behind the stats. For some of you first timers, I need to do a little house cleaning here. During the three playoff games leading up to Frisco, the ESPN announcers would bedazzle us with small glimpses of overall team stats. While these stats give us an overview of a team’s strength, they don’t tell us the most important things we need to know.
I run my stats through three major grids. First how did the team I am evaluating fare against the top 25 FCS teams. I use the Sagarin Ratings (you can go on my website and get the latest list). In establishing this list, I throw out teams that are from the Ivy League (unless the team plays them during the season) and then the SWAC & MEAC conferences. I am not casting dispersion on these teams or conferences, but merely recognizing they don’t participate in the FCS playoff format. By looking at teams that are 149 or under in Sagarin, this roughly fits you in the top 25 and if you played an FBS program that is considered a top 25 opponent or you made the FCS playoffs. The Herd played 10 such opponents in 2019 with Youngstown just missing the cutoff at 152. Some automatic conference playoff teams are above 149 Sagarin, but I still count them as a top 25 team, since they made the playoffs.
Next I want to see how any team does against top defenses. My definition there is a team that gives up under 340 total yards per game and fulfills the Sagarin/FBS/playoff team requirement. This total, year in and year out, will rank you as a top 20 defense. Next I want to know how the team being analyzed played against good offensive teams. Here I use the same team ranking criteria and look at teams that averaged over 400 YPG in total offense.
Doing this often sets apart the playoff teams in a whole new light. Take our next opponent, JMU, last year they finished the year as the 6th ranked defense at 289.5 YPG. Code Green was 5th at 289.3 YPG. That’s only two tenths of a yard separation. In scoring defense we were 3rd (12.6 PPG) and they were 6th with 14.6 PPG. They were well over 430 YPG in total offense while scoring 35.3 PPG. If they would have beat Colgate with next stop Fargo, this is what would have been expounded. “Can this juggernaut out of Virginia slay the beast again as in 2016?” I was prepped to point out the real stats showed something totally different.
Last year against average and bad teams (average Sagarin rating of 187.4), JMU blew them away by an average score of 54.4 to 9.6 PPG (I threw out a rain shortened game that lasted a quarter because of a hurricane, JMU lead 17-0). Against top 25 teams, JMU was 3-4. The point spreads dropped to 21.7 to 20.3 PPG. They gave up 362.9 YPG to these better teams. That’s not good offense or defense. They also only played two good offenses all year (+400 yards of TO) and gave up 20.5 PPG and 451 YPG. Even if they would have made it to Fargo, they weren’t going any further. The team we play Saturday is the same as last year’s only with the addition of the good WR from Penn State.
What about this year’s Dukes team? In my pre-season review I said they needed to improve their running game and they did from 4.7 Yards per Carry to 5.1 YPC and total rushing per game from 189.8 YPG to 248.1. But how did they run against the good defenses? Last year they faced five top 25 teams with good defenses. This year only three with two of those coming in the last two games (UNI & Weber) and they didn’t do well. As I examine JMU’s body of work (and you can only play those teams on the schedule), it really is underwhelming. This year the CAA was a mass of mediocrity and this after an atrocious showing in last year’s playoffs.
JMU hung with a bad West Virginia squad. But some in the FCS community have a mantra “they were FBS”. NDSU beats bad FBS teams, hell we beat good FBS squads. The Herd goes for FBS wins, not moral victories. WVU was pathetic on offense finishing the season 116th in scoring (20.6 PPG), 119th in Total Offenses (321.9 YPG) and 128th in rushing (73.3 YPG) and they scored 20 on the Dukes. WVU gave up over 400 YPG on defense and 30 PPG to all other opponents and JMU got only 13 points. Teams that give up 10 PPG more than they score usually are 2-10 or 3-9, not 5-7.
What was a signature non-conference win? The other three non-conference teams averaged 211.3 at Sagarin (bad teams).
In conference they squeaked by Stony Brook (SB) in OT after SB WR dropped the tying TD pass. In regulation SB let JMU block a 27 yd FG or it wouldn’t have made it to OT. This was a 5-7 team ranked about where Indiana State finished and yet they scored 38 points.
Villanova was a game I was looking forward to because they seemed to have balance. Nova had a semi-mobile QB, a stud running back (3rd in FCS at the time with 121 YPG & 8.5 YPC). The defensive numbers were under what Nova usually brings to the table, but they are an in-conference rival. Then the week before they play, the stud running back for Nova goes down to a season ending injury. Still the game was tied 24-24 early in the 4th qtr, before JMU forced 3 turnovers.
Towson & New Hampshire were very average one dimensional teams that didn’t make the playoffs. They also didn’t have a single big win, but did have some bad losses (UNH to Holy Cross & Towson to Elon the last game of the season).
In the playoffs they got three single dimensional teams. Monmouth was a good offensive team from a week conference. Why do you think they weren’t seeded? They were killed by an average FBS squad 48-13. Beat Albany in a shootout 38-35 (showing the weakness from top to bottom in the CAA, except JMU). Monmouth lost to Montana 47-27, with a bad defensive Montana team holding them to 81 yards of rushing (yes, the Griz were bad on defense. Going into playoffs, giving up 415 YPG is not good). Yet after the first quarter Monmouth was tied 21-21 with JMU. All I hear is how IL State held us to 9 points and we need to be worried that JMU will do the same. I haven’t seen one pundit say what would happen if NDSU scored 21 in the first quarter. But of course there is no chance of that happening because Monmouth has a better offense than the Herd, right?
JMU faced one great defense (UNI was ranked 9th in FCS in Total Defense, 7th in scoring and 11th in rush defense). In this playoff game the Panthers were without their only offensive gem (Isaiah Weston) who tallied 1053 receiving yards for the year. In a tight game against Weber he had 4 catches for 84 yards and a TD. Against Code Green he had 5 catches and a TD. To say he was missed versus JMU is an understatement. Plus their 2nd leading and most effective RB (Tyler Hoosman, 4.2 YPC and 388 yards) only had one carry for 8 yards (he was injured & hobbled).
UNI had no offensive weapons going into JMU, yet their defense was able to hold the Dukes to 10 points earned (getting the ball with 2 minutes left on downs on the one yard line wasn’t earned. It was bush league on JMU for scoring style points. They should have just gone to victory formation).
Isn’t anybody curious why JMU didn’t wear UNI’s defense down when they had the ball for 42 minutes? They also had great field position all game and benefited by several bad calls (first series Dukes fumbled and it was overturned, later UNI was ruled down, but got overturned to a fumble). Have you read any of the national pundits asking what is wrong with JMU’s offense since they only got 10 points? Oh, by the way, Code Green is a better defense than UNI’s.
Quickly on Weber. Their top running back (Josh Davis, 1136 yards for season) was hobbled coming into the game. He was limited in his normal explosiveness but still managed 61 yards on 13 carries. Coming into the playoffs, Weber wasn’t a top 25 defense or under my 340 yards of total defense, but after beating Montana and Kennesaw State they made the cut by falling under 340. There is a big difference between good defense and Code Green defense. Weber’s defensive prowess gets a little tarnish when UNI out gained Weber on the road 384 to 285 in total offense and rushed for 165 when they had Weston and Hoosman healthy. UNI only lost because of costly turnovers. Another fact I want to bring up is UND also scored 27 points on Weber or how about that great defensive team, Montana, holding the Wildcats to 113 (yes, that’s 113) total yards of offense the week before the Dukes allowed 256? The Griz only gave up 43 rushing yards. What this shows is that JMU got a much depleted Weber offense.
What’s my point? JMU only earned 23 points versus a good defense (I don’t have words for Hill’s stupidity on icing a missed 51 yard field goal and then compounding it by his defensive call on the hail Mary). Very mundane offenses by UNI and UND moved the ball on Weber. Weber’s defense isn’t in the same league as UNI’s, SDSU’s or Illinois State.
Summary of UNI & Weber: Dukes earned 33 points (16.5 PPG) in last two playoff wins. Code Green is better than either of these defenses. Plus the most diverse and talented offense JMU will face this year provides a totally different dynamic than the bedraggled offenses of the Panthers and Wildcats.
Our last two playoff games we played defenses on par with both UNI & Weber. IL State was actually stronger than UNI (4th in scoring versus 7th). They actually had their one horse on offense up and running. James Robinson in the first two playoff games had amassed 507 yards on the ground. He got 94 against Code Green. We only scored 9, but first meeting we scored 37. Montana State was on a roll, crushing Albany 47-7 midway thru the 4th quarter before giving up two scrum TD’s by reserves. Then they stifled Austin Peay’s high octane offense to under 200 total yards and 10 points. How did the Herd fare: we averaged 25.5 PPG. That’s nine more than JMU.
Let’s look at some more things where there are important distinctions. We have played 10 top 25 teams using my qualifying matrix, JMU has played 7 (43% more). The total offense and scoring stats were close (448 YPG for SU & 447.7 for JMU. 35 PPG JMU & 33.9 for SU). We were significantly more dominant in the run game by 28.4% (281.2 YPG to 219). We played 4 top 10 defenses, they played 1 (+400%) and we scored 28.8 PPG versus 17 (really 10). We faced 7 top 25 offenses and held them to 12.4 PPG and 295 YPG. The Dukes faced 3 top 25 offenses and held them to 18.3 PPG and 319 YPG (that’s 47.6% more points). Clearly the numbers show that NDSU faced a more challenging schedule in volume of teams played and quality. The Herd faced 21 “teams” in the quality parameters we looked at, JMU faced 11.
This quality differential can especially be seen in the run game. The Dukes haven’t faced a dominant/power run game all year. We faced 8 top 50 rushers from top 25 teams, with five of those being top 25 rushers. James Robinson twice (in both games we held him 33 YPG under his average), Pierre Strong from the Jacks, Javon Williams & D J Davis from So. IL,, Gilliam from U C Davis, Gumms from Nicholls and Jones from MSU. The Dukes got Pete Guerriero, who did break a 93 yard TD against them. Josh Davis from Weber was hobbled by injury and still got 61 yards. So we got 8 top backs from top teams and they got 1.5.
Before I write a book, where does this lead to in this game? Almost any team can beat another on any given day, but that is not the purpose of pregame analysis. Here you are trying to use all the pertinent data to figure out who is in the best position to win. I feel the differentiating stats we just reviewed tip strongly in favor of the Bison. I don’t share Vegas view of a tossup (Vegas sets odds to entice betting).
Let me start with what I think is the most important. I think the Rams are bigger and better than their offensive line. I know they don’t meet on the field, but they set the tone for the game. In 2017, the Dukes couldn’t run the ball at all (QB & RB’s 69 yards). Taking out Sticks end of game play to win the game (minus 27 yards), our QB & RB’s totaled 161 yards. This is why we controlled the ball for 37.5 minutes to 22.5. Poor punt coverage and the fact our top two corner backs went down in the semi-finals to Sam Houston by cheap shots, this made it the close game it was.
I think this year’s Rams, as a unit is the biggest and best we have ever had. We average 310 lbs/man, we averaged 288 YPG rushing, we did it at a 6.4 YPC clip. They only gave up 12 sacks for 51 yards all year (we did this against teams that totaled 440 sacks versus all their other opponents). Also we gave up only 52 TFL’s for a net loss of 135 yards. JMU’s line averages 292 lbs, 248 YPG (Herd by 16.1%), at a rate of 5.1 YPC (Herd by 25%), allowed 25 sacks (better than double the Herd’s total). Tallying sacks and TFL’s, JMU had 98 for 388 yards lost. The Rams had 64 plays for loss and 186 yards. So if you believe JMU’s OL is better by rushing for less yards, less per carry, while giving up 50% more plays for loss against worse defenses, then you have a different grasp of things than I do.
Next, I feel our defense can stay fresher because we rotate 8-10 quality defensive lineman. We truly are like a hockey team changing lines. If we maintain ball control like in 2017, their starting four don’t rotate. Also, they better hope one of them doesn’t go down like Steidl did in first quarter in 2016 semi game in Fargo.
Last, even though it is only a one game comparison, we had a common opponent in UNI. The UNI we faced had all their weapons. We still dominated them, winning 46-14. We ran the ball down a very good front seven to the tune of 352 yards and 6.8 YPC. JMU got 189 and 3.2 yards per carry (YPC). Sorry, if JMU played in MVFC they would have another loss.
I guess the best way to share my perceptions (which is swimming downstream to Vegas and most pundits), is that I feel this game is like the 2015 Title Game versus Jacksonville State. Back then they were the #1 seed with their only loss to Auburn (which they could easily have won). We were the 3rd seed with two losses. Wentz had been down for 8 weeks with injury. JSU was on a roll (averaging over 600 yards on offense, 400 yards rushing and 54 PPG in their three playoff victories. They had a lightening quick dual threat QB, a 1700 yard back, two 1000 yard receivers and a defensive roster loaded with big SEC transfers. Even our local sports writers didn’t know how we were going to stay on the field with these guys.
I had been formulating for the last two years before this game a lot of statistical research on what made the Bison, the Bison. I saw cracks in Goliath’s armor. Even though their overall defensive stats were good, they didn’t do well against the better teams (often giving up 30 points and winning shootouts). The conference they played in was weak, so comparative scores with other MVFC crossover games took off some of the luster. By game time I was telling my brother Sam (my original sounding board, his wife deserves sainthood for all the hours I consumed with him on the phone), that I felt the Bison were at least two touchdown better team. I feel the same going into this game.
I told my brother I needed to see in the first quarter and who was pushing who around. On our first possession (a 75 yard TD march), the OL was pushing these big SEC transfers around. By mid-field, after being manhandled by Joe Haeg, one of their stalwarts tapped out. After the first quarter of watching the offensive and defensive line play, I called my brother and said, we are winning in the trenches. That spells victory.
Come Saturday what should you be looking for?
1) Who wins the Radunz/Volson vs Carter/Daka battle?
2) Do we get push from our two guards and center on their DT’s?
3) Do we stop first and second down runs and force them into 3rd and longs and does their defense do the same with us?
4) Code Green has to stop swing passes & QB run gm
5) They have been burnt in passing game this year, so we need to get some deep passes, while stopping theirs
I texted out this earlier this week and it sums my feelings to a tee: “I hear lots of noise on how JMU will be the toughest team the Herd plays this year. Guess what? The Bison will be the toughest opponent JMU faces by a very large amount. Belly up to the bar boys and girls, its head knocking time in Frisco!” Go Bison! Bring home another one!