A listener (Thanks Sam!) reached out to ask us about local pandemic-related charities to support while enjoying the return of the #B1GCats. This got us thinking about what we can do to support our community: we’ve decided to donate meals through Soul & Smoke each game week this year. We’re really excited about supporting this local Evanston business with deep Chicago ties — since March they have provided over 100,000 meals to those in need in the Chicago area, and are serving a critical need in our communities. Please read below and join us if you are able to give, either to Soul & Smoke or another community organization of your choosing.
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:
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.
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.
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