Scuzz Model: Stuck in the Middle or The Gopher Bites

#B1GCats:

It was ultimately a frustrating three hours at “The Bank” last Saturday, leaving the Cats to ponder ‘what-if’ after another close loss. This was really just par for the course in the NU-MN series, dating back several years now. There is one game in this series during the Fitz era with a margin larger than one score – the Cats’ 28-13 victory in 2011. Consider also, that this 2014 version is easily the best Minnesota Gopher team of the last ten years. For these reasons, I am not very upset about this loss – NU went into this game with a plan: stop their run, don’t turn it over. You can see that plan in the way we aligned personnel with the situation on defense – rarely did we substitute the pass-rush in on 2nd or 3rd and medium type plays. We also didn’t throw a single pass to the middle of the field until after Minnesota’s big kick return. Reading much of the commentary post-game, however, made me feel like losing was some big aberration, as if we went against an inferior opponent and crapped the bed. Overall, this was a well played game – NU had a game plan, stuck to that plan, and almost pulled out a win on the road against a quality opponent. There were gaffes but the most egregious of which never ended any drives.

I wrote last week about our running success vs Wisconsin: “For me that is a concern going against the Gophers… in the past, this staff has been bullheaded about running, and I fear us opening the game against MN lowering our head and barreling into the line over and over again… part of the key against PSU and Wisc was using the passing game to open up the run – we must continue to throw to ball!”

Well, we didn’t go into as much of a shell as I feared from a run-pass perspective, but we re-tooled our passing game to be ultra conservative. Trevor is getting better at the nice back-shoulder throw to the sidelines, but his best work (in my opinion) this year has been down the seam…. And we didn’t throw a single seam-pass this game. Against UW, we used the WR screen to open that seam up, and when the safety shifts to cover it, it opens up the 8-10 yard up-and-in routes that our outside receivers run; instead, we ran a lot of shallow crosses against MN and threw a ton of balls in the flat – these plays can be successful, but they don’t attack the D and force play in the same way. I’ve been saying since last year, this offense is at its best when attacking the middle of the field – it’s what we did against Cal in the 2nd half and it’s what we did against Penn State. Looking at the passing breakdowns from my charting, the Minnesota game represented a big outlier in percentage of passes thrown over the middle – only 12%, when we have been above 30% in our other games. Not coincidentally, it was also our 2nd worst scoring output based on points-per-possession (the worst being NIU, where we all know we left multiple TDs on the field w bad drops… add 10 points to that score and it’s our best offensive performance to date). Bottom line, to be effective this offense has to get back to attacking the middle of the field, be it a coaching / scheme emphasis during the week, or a play-calling / QB focus during the game.

Pass vs Eff

All that being said, Trevor didn’t make any big mistakes (despite being a bit off in his accuracy again – that ankle continues to be a real issue for him), was again good about throwing the ball away, and the Cats almost won this game. I have some other concerns around the red-zone and our scripting coming out of halftime, but I believe the middle of the field is where we can make big inroads.

Win Proj

Game by Game

Not surprisingly, NU’s outlook has dropped a bit, due to the poor offensive showing this week. The model still sees NU in a 50:50 situation vs Nebraska this week. The simulation is honing in on 6-7 wins for the season for the Cats, with this Nebraska game being the real pivot point.

This Week’s Picks:

This year’s stats:

Straight up: 240-99 (70.8%)
ATS: 156-179 (46.6%)
Blog Picks: 11-23 (32.4%)

Here are this week’s picks:

Washington (+21) @ Oregon: The Ducks are at home and have always had Washington’s number, but 21 seems like a lot against a good D and a coach who has taken you down in the past (as opposed to Sark who can’t seem to beat Oregon). Model likes Nike U by 14.

Baylor (-9.5) @ WVU: Everything says that the Mountaineers should cover here and give Baylor a scare… after all, the Bears are coming off a huge comeback win, they haven’t looked great on the road, and WVU is a tough place to play. If this game were a 7pm kickoff, I’d be hesitant to go with the Scuzz Model, but for a ho-hum Noon game? Baylor all the way (model says by 4 TDs.)

Iowa (+3.5) @ Maryland: Will be very interesting to see what happens in this game… Iowa’s rugged grind vs Maryland’s big WRs. The model has been high on Iowa all year – this week will really answer some questions about how good they can be. Model likes Terrapins only by 1.

Kansas State (+10) @ Oklahoma Would feel a lot better about this if it were in Manhattan, but KState absolutely has what it takes to knock off this Oklahoma team, or at least keep it close. The Sooners got beat by TCU, looked marginal against TX, and may be feeling down about their Big 12 and Playoff hopes at this point. Have seen what KState did to Auburn, I really like their chances of keeping OU in check. Model has Sooners by 6.

Tennessee (+17) @ Mississippi: Ole Miss is on top of the world after two huge wins in a row. And now they host the lowly Volunteers. Can you say letdown? Tennessee has played a number of SEC teams tough, and will likely lose, but Ole Miss winning by 17 seems high. Model has Rebs by 15.

Other Notables:
Northwestern (+7) vs Nebraska
Rutgers (+22) vs Ohio State
Stanford (-3.5) @ ASU
Clemson (-7.5) @ BC
Florida State (-12.5) vs Notre Dame

Finally Obsolete BCS Championship Hunt – Thundering Toward an 8-Team Playoff?
More carnage and we are left with a scant six undefeated teams… shockingly two of which hail from the state of Mississippi. We’re guaranteed to have at least one 1-loss team in the playoff, as ND/FSU and the Egg Bowl will reduce our undefeated pool by two (and let’s face it – Marshall isn’t getting in over a 2-loss team.) I’m very excited for the prospect of two SEC teams and Notre Dame making the cut and upsetting the entire world all over again in the inaugural playoff.

Current Playoff Teams:

FSU, Baylor, Mississippi State & Mississippi

Playoff

Episode 192: Minnesota 24-Northwestern 17

Northwestern took to the road only to find a formidable foe waiting up in the Twin Cities.  We talk about the tough loss against Minnesota as we gear up for this weekend’s homecoming tilt against Nebraska. We are your premier Northwestern Sports Podcast! You can download the episode from iTunes, Stitcher Radio or directly from here.

Be sure to check out our Facebook page! Head over to Facebook and “Like” us there for all the latest updates. You can also follow us on Twitter and join the conversation!

We really want to hear from our listeners on what you would like to hear from us. Please email us or comment on the blog or call our voicemail line at 847-231-2287 (CATS) and let us know what you’d like to hear from us.

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Thanks so much for listening and Go Cats!

Scuzz Model: Badger, Badger, Badger…. Wildcat!

#B1GCats:

Pardon the ancient meme reference to open this post. In fact, I don’t think the word “meme” really existed in the badger-badger-badger-snake era, which is telling because the year 2000 is the last time the road team won in the NU-Wisconsin series. It’s surprising to consider this, mostly because the Ryan Field games have been close affairs while the Camp Randall games have generally been blowouts. Still, the fact remains that NU-Wisconsin is an underrated rivalry and I am thrilled we were able to hold up our end of the bargain this past weekend.

I don’t want to be negative, but it was a bit closer to disaster than I would prefer… the 4th quarter in particular brought back a lot of bad memories from a certain trio of games in 2012. Give credit to the Cats as they did just enough to finish of the Badgers – and benefited from an inexplicable pass-play when Wisconsin was on the NU 3 yard line with 8 minutes to play.

Luckily for NU, we were able to run the ball on Wisconsin, continuing to use the stretch / zone plays to the outside that started to emerge a couple weeks back. The coaches were smart to hit Wisconsin with the outside run over and over after Marcus Trotter went down with injury, leaving the Badgers thin at ILB. For me that is a bit of a concern going against the Gophers… in the past, this staff has been bullheaded about running, and I fear we overreact to the success against Wisconsin, and open against MN by lowering our head and barreling into the line over and over again… part of the key against PSU and UW was using the passing game to open up the run – we must continue to throw to ball!  I also think Minnesota has a better run-D (which is finally healthy albeit losing one key DL for the season) and a worse pass-D (which is missing a starting corner this week) than Wisconsin, so the passing attack will be critical;  A game plan similar to Penn State should be the most effective approach.

I mentioned on this week’s podcast I thought this was Trevor’s least accurate, but perhaps smartest, performance of the season. The receivers helped him out (unlike in the Cal & NIU games), the oline gave him time, and he got rid of the ball or scrambled to minimize lost yardage when the protection broke down. His ankle is a real concern going forward, as it limits the zip he can put on the ball and can result in a high release – you’ll recall last year against Minnesota, a back-breaking interception from their LB on a slower-than-ideal-pass. Still, Trevor was spectacular in several spots (final 3rd down play to Vitale & earlier when he checked off Vitale in the flat to find Prater on a cross – these were two of his best plays all year) and like I said had a very smart game decision-wise.  If he stays quick mentally and gets the protection he needs, I think the offense will be fine.

No pass chart this week, as I left it at work, but let me assure you it wasn’t much to look at. NU did not attack downfield nearly as much as in the three previous games – I suspect in part due to the success of the run game. Sweet spots continue to be short passes to Trevor’s left side, and the seam pass to the TE. I noticed that we had some nice crossing routes to Prater that were thrown in stride (not behind him), and utilized his size when covered by a CB and his speed against the LBs. NU will need to successfully exploit this mis-match when defenses concentrate on taking away Jones & Vitale on the opposite side. Would love to see us figure out how to find Prater in the EZ when the field is compressed, but that is easier said than done, it seems.

NU’s statistical profile rose again, though less dramatically, as the model already gave the Cats a 40%+ chance of beating UW. The simulation now gives NU a 78% chance of getting to 6 or more wins and becoming bowl eligible, and 46% of being above .500 on the season.

Game by Game

Win Proj

This Week’s Picks:
This year’s stats:
Straight up: 203-86 (70.2%)
ATS: 137-151 (47.6%)
Blog Picks: 10-20 (33.3%)

The model did alright last week – usually we struggle in some of the big matchup weekends, especially when there are a ton of upsets. The results were a little better than hoped for given all the drama. Here are this week’s picks:

Washington State (+17) @ Stanford: At this point, you have to expect Connor Holliday & Wazzou to lose every game in offensively-explosive and excruciatingly-painful ways. Stanford’s offense is rough around the edges and I expect this to be close. Model actually likes the Cardinal, but I’m going against it this week.

North Carolina (+17) @ Notre Dame: North Carolina has completely face-planted this season, and at this point this game is one of the few remaining things they have left to play for. The Irish, on the other hand, are coming off an emotional, physically-taxing game against Stanford, plus have to be thinking about next week’s matchup w FSU. Model likes ND by 9.

UCLA (+2.5) vs Oregon: This game pits two terrible offensive lines against one another, and pretty much leaves the winner in great shape to survive this conference. UCLA’s loss last week does not make anyone feel good, but I think Oregon has problems everywhere other than QB. The Bruins have the athletes to keep up (Ishmael Adams, anyone?) and I think were caught looking ahead last week. Model likes UCLA by 6.

Penn State (+1) @ Michigan I legitimately thought that Michigan would get it done last week versus Rutgers (however, I certainly hoped they wouldn’t). This week, I am confident that Penn State puts the final nail in the Hoke-experience in Ann Arbor. The Lions have had a week to prepare & get healthier on the Oline. They still will probably struggle to run the ball, but not as much as their opponent… this Michigan team has no punch left, and having lost their best running back to injury is now just waiting the inevitable. Model favors Michigan by 3, but I am picking PSU.

Auburn (-3) @ Mississippi State: I want nothing more than a Bulldog victory in this game. However, against a proven opponent, who will present a much greater challenge than they have yet faced, on gameday, after a big win…. It’s just hard to stay on the MSU bandwagon this week. Should they pull it out… whoa nelly, but I just don’t think it happens. Model has Tigers by 5.

Other Notables:
Ole Miss (+2) @ Texas A&M
Alabama (-10.5) @ Arkansas
USC (-2.5) @ Arizona
Baylor (-8.5) vs TCU
Cuse (+24.5) vs FSU

Finally Obsolete BCS Championship Hunt – Thundering Toward an 8-Team Playoff?

That’s what I call taking care of all the family business in one day. A massive day of upsets, awesome finishes, and college football drama leaves us with scant few remaining undefeated teams. Many of those remaining are in tough spots this week too… Baylor facing TCU, FSU at Cuse (don’t laugh), Ole Miss and MSU in big spots again as well. You may be thinking that Arizona is conspicuously missing… they are such underdogs in their remaining games (including @ASU, @UCLA) that the model gives them a 0% chance of going undefeated at this stage. Beat USC though and they should show up next week.

Current Playoff Teams:
FSU, Baylor, Auburn & Mississippi

Playoff

Episode 191: Northwestern 20-Wisconsin 14

As the Wildcats open their Big 10 conference home slate with a statement win against Wisconsin, we get excited about the complete 180 this team has taken since the opener. We are your premier Northwestern Sports Podcast! You can download the episode from iTunes, Stitcher Radio or directly from here.

Be sure to check out our Facebook page! Head over to Facebook and “Like” us there for all the latest updates. You can also follow us on Twitter and join the conversation!

We really want to hear from our listeners on what you would like to hear from us. Please email us or comment on the blog or call our voicemail line at 847-231-2287 (CATS) and let us know what you’d like to hear from us.

Check out all our contact info on the sidebar of the blog page. Call us, tweet us, leave a comment on the blog.

Thanks so much for listening and Go Cats!

Scuzz Model: The Best Day Since….

#B1GCats:

It’s hard for me to describe Saturday’s gargantuan win over Penn State. Joy, relief, redemption… all these words apply, but they do not really begin to describe the impact of that win. I contend that was this NU fan’s best day since Jan 1, 2013. We talked about it briefly on this week’s pod – while this was a great win and a desperately needed win, it was not necessarily an important win. We are all hopeful this will represent a turning point in the season and signal that NU is moving in the right direction again (even a loss this weekend to Wisconsin will not derail that, IMO)… but this was not a program defining win, like the Gator Bowl was, or like a victory against OSU last season would’ve been.

This is not meant to undercut the impact of winning that game, which I believe is different. The dominant way the Cats finished this game stood out in terms of outcomes that were not in doubt prior to the final whistle. Yes, we blew out Syracuse last year, and Illinois in ‘12, but the combination of the opponent, the location, and the way we finished make this performance one of the top three in the entire Fitz era, save the Gator bowl and perhaps 2009 at Iowa (the Wooten-Stanzi game.)

Ultimately, Penn State may prove to be a middling Big Ten team. We may end up 4-8. But to me, this game is step 3 in the process that began against Michigan State in 2012. After letting leads against PSU, Neb, & Michigan slip away that year (albeit leads were we closer and closer to maintaining), the Cats shut down a potential game-tying drive from the Spartans to finally finish a game against a tough opponent. Six weeks later, they improved on that effort against Mississippi State. This Penn State game was a natural extension of that “learning to win” process, which was derailed by last year’s brutal combo of injuries, OSU-induced malaise, and loss of confidence.

Do not lump me in with those who are describing this as Fitz finally winning the Fitz way – i.e. with defense. Frankly, he has been doing that since 2006 when he took over. Yes, CJ Bacher and Dan Persa were prolific in running the spread, but when this team has been at its best (’09, ’12) it has been because the defense was stout, and the offense could control the ball. The difference on Saturday, in the Gator Bowl, and in ‘12 against MSU is that the defense was excellent in critical situations. The other side of that coin is the offensive performance – to continue winning this season we will need that offense to keep progressing.

As has been discussed ad nauseum, the Cats must throw the ball to win this year. On Saturday, just as we predicted last week, the Cats opened up the offense through the air. Unlike the Cal game, the WRs  (Tony Jones in particular) flashed great hands. Unlike the NIU game, the O-line played well and kept Trevor protected, even when PSU brought extra pressure. Trevor continues, in my opinion, to play at a decent level – he is missing passes but is clearly more in sync with Shuler & Vitale, and is more comfortable with his security blanket (Jones) back on the field.

The seam pass to Trevor’s left is one of the best he throws, and the coaches are doing a good job scheming options to play seam passes, slants, bubble screens & flat passes off one another. All that activity has given Trev some real opportunities downfield as well. Generally, based on the last three game charts, Trev is much more comfortable throwing to the left side of the formation – be it that seam, or when he throws the deep ball 30+ yards downfield (those have almost all been to the left.) If his percentages on boundary throws improve, that will really elevate this offense – that was where he had a lot of success against NIU, but perhaps the bigger faster corners in the Big Ten will ultimately foil those passes; he hit two early against PSU, but was not able to connect after those first two drives. Here is the passing chart for the PSU game:

NIU-Pass Chart

NIU-Pass LIst

NU’s stats improved dramatically last week, buoyed in part by the utter collapse in Ann Arbor. The simulation now gives NU a 54% chance of getting to 6 or more wins and becoming bowl eligible.

Win Proj

Game by Game

This Week’s Picks:

This year’s stats:
Straight up: 167-65 (72.0%)
ATS: 111-120 (48.1%)
Blog Picks: 8-17 (32.0%)

Little by little the model finds its way, and I figure out which teams not to bank on. I really shouldn’t have bet against the model on Arkansas, but so it goes. Here are this week’s picks in a banner early season CFB week:

Mississippi State (-1.5) vs Texas A&M: A&M won a tough game against Arkansas last week in a neutral (though really tilted-in-their-favor) location. This week they travel to resurgent Starkville to face the surprising Bulldogs. If that LSU win had come last week, I would be wary of the post-win letdown, but MSU has had a week off to reset for this tough A&M team. The Bulldogs also have a much better defense that Arkansas. The model has MSU by 15.

Maryland (+7.5) vs Ohio State: Last week’s pick against the Buckeyes didn’t go well, but Maryland has a much better defense than Cincinnati, and I just don’t believe in Ohio State yet. Model likes Maryland to pull-off the upset.

Michigan State (-8.5) vs Nebraska: In the matchup of Big Ten powers (cause there aren’t any others) the model thinks MSU has the edge on the Huskers. I agree wholeheartedly for two reasons – 1, Nebraska is a one-dimensional team, and MSU has shown in the past it can shut down their run game… that was also before Neb turned over 4/5s of their oline. 2, I don’t think Nebraska has the horses on defense to keep MSU off the scoreboard – my only real evidence is that they gave up more points to Miami than Duke did. Model has Spartans by 13.

Michigan (+3.5) @ Rutgers: Much like my Iowa pick against Pitt a few weeks back, this is all about vengeful karma. The model thinks Michigan can win this game. Most everyone thinks they will lose. And as a result, I win either way. Truly, I expect Michigan to play better this week, and Rutgers’ QB is still Gary Nova (plus they no longer have their best player, RB Paul James). Model has Michigan by 4.

USC (-11) vs ASU: Who remembers what happened in this game last year? We pretty much all remember the aftermath on the tarmac in Phoenix, but I bet the USC players remember that 2nd half vividly. Given that QB Kelly is likely to miss this game (or will have limited mobility if he plays) I expect the Trojans to romp. Model has them by 25.

Other Notables:

Northwestern (+9.5) vs Wisconsin
TCU (+5) vs Oklahoma
Mississippi (+6) vs Alabama
South Carolina (-5) @ Kentucky
East Carolina (-39.5) vs SMU
Auburn (-8) vs LSU

Finally Obsolete BCS Championship Hunt – Thundering Toward an 8-Team Playoff?

Our first big elimination week has arrived! Marshall, Florida State, & BYU are probably safe… but everyone else has a huge match up this week. The Scuzz Model thinks the MSU-Alabama game is the closest, giving Bama slight edge to win (55%) – most others on the list are around 80% likely to win.

Current Playoff Teams:
FSU, UCLA, Baylor & Bama

Playoff

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