The casual fan looks at wins and losses and is mesmerized by gaudy offensive statistics. I hold to the old adage "offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships." Many rabid FCS football fans are better students of the game and try to dig deeper as to why their favorite team is superior. Here are some tools to dig even deeper.
Let's start out by discussing a team's strength of schedule. How do you determine that, other than acting like two fifth grade boys arguing about who's dad is tougher? If you have not familiarized yourself with Jeff Sagarin Football ratings I suggest you start there (I have a link to this site on my home page). Jeff's computer rating system for all 255 Division I football teams is recognized as the gold standard.
When NDSU started its current run of National titles after the 2011 season in January of 2012 in Frisco Texas, I had no way of accurately knowing how to compare Sam Houston State to the Bison. I live in Dallas Texas and knew how big high school football is and how many quality Division I football recruits they develop, but how good was this team the Bison were going to face?
My brother, Sam, is as big of a Bison fan as I am and is a life-long Fargo resident, so after a break out season in 2010 and a painful loss in the quarter finals to Eastern Washington, we had enjoyed the march to Frisco together. But we both felt blind during the playoffs. Who was James Madison? How good was Lehigh? Could we even stay on the field with Georgia Southern, a six time winner of the whole ball of wax?
I got a hold of SHSU's season statistics during the three-week break from the semi's to Frisco. The Bearcat's were solid on defense. In fact they were slightly better than the Bison. They only allowed 72.9 yards/game rushing at a 2.7 yards/carry clip. They were also stingy in passing, only giving up 207 YPG (Yards Per Game). Total Defense was a miserly 279.9 YPG and only allowing 14.9 points per game. The Bison were 118.7 YPG in rushing defense and a 3.5 yards/carry, 197.2 in passing defense and 315.9 yards in total defense while allowing 12.7 points per game. Both had salty defenses, but who played a tougher schedule? I didn't know.
Enough history, lets fast forward to today. As of games played thru October 27th, Colgate (who is 7-0) leads the nation in total defense (218.4 YPG), 3rd in passing yards allowed (145.3), 3rd in rushing defense (73.1) and leads in total points given up (3.3 per game). NDSU is 6th in points allowed at 12.9, 13th in total defense at 298.5 YPG, 14th in run defense at 103.9 YPG and 36th in pass defense, giving up 194.6 YPG. In the FCS STATS current poll, Colgate is ranked 16th and most likely will become the automatic playoff bid from the Patriot League.
So if we met them in the playoffs are these statistics enough to strike legitimate fear into our Bison hearts that Stick and Co. would have a great chance of being shut down by Colgates' strong defense? Lets look at strength of schedule. Colgate has played one of the weakest schedules in all of FCS football with 5 of their opponents ranked in the bottom 10% of all 255 teams according to Sagarin. NDSU, on the other hand, has the fifth toughest schedule of all FCS teams. UNI, South Dakota and Western Illinois rank higher in strength of schedule because they play the Bison. Factoring out the Bison from there schedules, has the Bison facing the second toughest schedule in the FCS.
Add into this mix that Colgate plays 8 of the bottom 10% of FCS scoring teams, including two that are dead last in scoring (William & Mary and Lehigh), and you can see how they have managed four shutouts. NDSU has played the all time leading total offense quarterback in the MVFC (Taryn Christion). They have also played against the all time leading passer for Western Illinois (Sean McGuire), and also the potent tandem of James Robinson and Markel Smith of Illinois State. We also held Cal-Poly's dominant veer-option run machine to 82 yards (they have averaged 358 yards for their other 7 opponents). You get the point. NDSU's defensive statistics aren't as gaudy as Colgate's, but we have actually played some offenses that can move the ball, not the powder-puff schedule that Colgate has seen. Let's see how Colgate handles Army's strong run game on Nov. 17th. If they shut them down, then I will take notice. Until then I will give them credit for what they have done - shut down bad offenses.
Be careful not to be completely enamored by total offense as well. It can be very misleading. Last year two of the top teams in total offense were Sam Houston State and the USD Coyotes. SHSU averaged 552.4 total yards against all their opponents (excluding the Bison). USD averaged 513.5. NDSU averaged, in all 15 games, 448.9. Shouldn't both SHSU and USD have a statistical advantage in head-to-head combat with the Bison? The bulk of SHSU and USD's total offense is from passing (368.4 and 314.7) versus the bulk of NDSU's (which is from running) 272.2 YPG. When meeting head to head, SHSU and USD could move the ball between the 20's a little more effectively against the Bison than other opponents, but once in the red zone they couldn't punch it in. On the other hand, the Bison's dominating run game has decimated these two teams. We ran for 340 yards against USD and for 471 against SHSU. When we get in the red zone, NDSU plays big boy football. You can't stop us!!
Another statistic you have to dig for is turnover ratios. Thru games of October 27th, the Bison are plus 13 in turnovers (We have fumbled 3 times and Stick has thrown 2 interceptions. Our opponents have fumbled 5 times and thrown 13 interceptions). This +13 in turnovers is a product of our dominant defense. They excel at putting pressure on quarterbacks and pummel running backs and receivers alike. It's as if we get to have the ball 13 more times. Or it's like being in the middle of the game, and the opponent has to kickoff to you before they are done with their offensive series. The Bison have scored 87 points off of these turnovers (we have scored a total of 323 points to date, so this is over 25% of our total points come after turnovers). Our opponents have scored only 10 points off their "freebies" from us (out of a 103 points given up, that's about 10%).
Another key point on turnovers is the psychological impact it has on the momentum of the game. The Bison got a quick score on Delaware to go up 7-0. The first pass in the next series Jabril Cox pick-sixes it and in a blink of an eye the Bison are up 14-0. The Blue Hens never recovered. The Bison were down 7-0 to the Jack Rabbits with them driving deep into our territory. Soon it could be 10-0 or 14-0. Jalen Allison picks one-off in the end zone and runs it out 31 yards This is another sudden game change. Last year we ended the year with a plus 19 turnover rate. This led the Bison to scoring a 140 points off these "gifts" to only 40 points by their opponents. That's about a touchdown per game differential. So a team with equal offensive or defensive yardage, but a greater degree of turnovers isn't going to be as good as the team with the better turnover ratio.
Lastly, dare we overlook the significance of penalties. As a former Bison player I understand the bang, bang nature of the game. A defensive back covering a great receiver touches them a nano second to soon and here comes the little yellow flag for pass interference. The only penalty I remember committing in my career at NDSU happened while scrapping down the line on a run sweep. As I was reaching my arm out to start my arm rap, he tripped forward and my hand inadvertently ended up in his face mask. To quote a great philosopher (Forest Gump), "sh** happens". Good teams minimize penalties, especially mental errors.
Among playoff contending teams, NDSU is right at the top in playing smart, penalty free football. So far in 2018, the Bison are averaging about 4 penalties per game (33 total) for 40.6 YPG. They rank 5th lowest in penalties per game and 16th in penalty yards per game in the FCS. How many times have you seen the touchdown called back because of holding or worse yet, for illegal procedure because an offensive line man jumped the count?
Lets put this principle to the upcoming playoffs. North Carolina A&T is a candidate to make the playoffs if they win out (they would be 9-2 with a win over perennial OVC champion Jacksonville State and an FBS win). My brother watched the FCS Kickoff Classic between N C A&T and Jacksonville State and was appalled by the sloppy, undisciplined play. What else would you call 14 penalties for 149 yards by Jacksonville and 10 penalties for 91 yards by N C A&T? Coupled with a minus 3 turnover ratio (4 to 1), Jacksonville State allowed a 403 total offensive yards to 148 total yards by N C A&T advantage to turn into a 20-17 loss. Folks, that is inexcusably bad football!
Back to N C A&T, if they make the 24-team playoff field they will bring in some negative baggage. They rank 111th in the FCS in the amount of penalties per game at 8.88 (not much better than their opening win) and 104th in penalty yards per game (75.88). By this time in the season this is who they are as a team. Please come to the Dome!