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Northern Illinois Preview: Not Your Typical Mid-Major

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#MACtion is coming to Fayetteville. Can the Hogs stop it?

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Before the season, this was a game that many rightly questioned whether or not the Hogs would win, or even be favored. Northern Illinois hasn't disappointed, going 3-0 against lesser competition (sorry, Big Ten), but the Hogs have exceeded expectations to this point, and now this looks like a classic trap game.

The good news for the Hogs is that Bret Bielema, who is 35-0 in games his team is favored to win by double digits, isn't taking this team lightly. From his Big Ten days he knows all about what NIU is capable of.

Let's check out the Huskies.

They have a tradition of winning

Year Record Finish Coach
2008 6-7 (5-3) Jerry Kill
2009 7-6 (5-3) Jerry Kill
2010 11-3 (8-0) Jerry Kill
2011 11-3 (7-1) MAC champs Dave Doeren
2012 12-2 (8-0) MAC champs Dave Doeren
2013 12-2 (8-0) Rod Carey
2014 3-0 Rod Carey

Jerry Kill got things started for the Huskies before being hired at Minnesota, where he's done a nice job. The Huskies hired Bielema's then-defensive coordinator Dave Doeren, who won MAC titles in both of his seasons before being hired at NC State. The Huskies elected to promote Doeren's offensive coordinator, Rod Carey, to head coach, and were rewarded with their third undefeated MAC run in four years.

The Huskies, you may have heard, have won 17 consecutive road games. In fact, they've won 26 straight non-neutral site games. They boast a veteran, uber-talented offense and a capable defense. Razorback Stadium won't intimidate them nearly as much as it would your average MAC team.

NIU believes in many of the same things Bielema does

Husky football starts up front. They boast a talented, well-coached offensive line that enables them to do a myriad of things on offense. On defense, they preach stopping the run first. They rarely turn the football over, give up a sack, or commit a penalty (although penalties have been a bit of an issue so far this year). They have turned the football over just once this season, and have not thrown an interception. They are also run-heavy, ranking 8th in the NCAA with 325.3 rushing yards per game.

Their prime run of 2010-2013 came on the legs and arms of two quarterbacks: Chandler Harnish (2010-2011) and Jordan Lynch (2012-2013). Harnish was a record-breaker, throwing for 2,800 yards and rushing for 1,000 in 2011. The Huskies thought he could never be replaced, until Jordan Lynch exceeded his stats. Lynch threw for 2,800 yards and rushed for 1,980 last season, falling just 20 yards short of becoming the first player in modern D-I history to throw and rush for 2,000 yards in the same season. He was a Heisman finalist.

In the post-Lynch era, NIU relies more on defense (in a 23-15 win over Northwestern) and on its offensive skill players (in a 48-34 win over UNLV). They differ from Bielema-style philosophy in that they will use some HUNH (hurry-up, no-huddle), although they aren't as fast as Auburn, or even Texas Tech.

Their stats are impressive, but their opposition is questionable

Date Opponent Result
8/30/2014 Presbyterian W 55-3
9/6/2014 Northwestern W 23-15
9/13/2014 UNLV W 48-34

Presbyterian is a weak FCS school, not too much better than Nicholls State. UNLV is not expected to compete for a bowl in the Mountain West conference. NIU can hang its hat on the Northwestern win, but the reality is that Northwestern is a 2-10 or 3-9 team, at best, in an atrocious Big Ten.

The big question, though, is still unanswered: can NIU still be the class of the MAC without a dynamic quarterback? Matt Hare is the QB. The former two-star recruit isn't flashy, but he's been efficient: 63% completion, 6 TDs, 0 interceptions. He's rolled up 155 rushing yards, but Northwestern took away most of his rushing, holding him to just 31 yards in 11 carries. On film, he's used similarly to Terrance Broadway of Louisiana last season, and the Hog defensive line dispatched of Broadway's running just fine, holding him to a career-low -1 rushing yards. The running threat is probably minimal.

Hare was knocked out of part of the Northwestern game and two backups played, albeit not very well. The three quarterbacks combined to go 13 of 23 for 180 yards and two touchdowns. NIU's passing game is similar to Auburn's in that they complete most of their passes against defenses that are having to contend with the run and are thus understaffed against the pass.

In the running game, NIU uses a number of backs, and I have no idea who will start. Akeem Daniels leads the team in rushing and his 6.5 yards per carry average is impressive. He was the leading rusher back in 2012 and missed 2013 with an injury. This injury allowed Cameron Stingily to have a breakout year in 2013, as he rushed for 1,000 yards. Now both of them are together. Stingily was listed as the starter entering fall camp, but he did not play in the opener and has slowly been re-integrated into the offense, leading the team in rushing last week against UNLV. Daniels' numbers have slowly tapered off and he only had one carry against UNLV, so Stingily will probably get most of the carries on Saturday.

Wide receiver is pretty simple: Da'Ron Brown has almost 50 percent of NIU's passing yardage. He had six receptions for 128 yards and two touchdowns against Northwestern. He's averaging nearly 20 yards per reception.

The offensive line is undersized and under-recruited, but excellent. The Huskies will start three former two-star recruits and two former three-star recruits, all under 290 pounds. However, in 2013, this line ranked near the top of the NCAA in almost every kind of line metric: sack rate (percentage of drop-backs resulting in a sack), stuff rate (percentage of handoffs in which the back is hit in the backfield), and line yards (a complicated stat that measures how well the line opens up holes). Many of these numbers were helped out by an all-world quarterback like Lynch, but even still, this is not a line to take lightly. The Huskies rushed for 221 yards against Northwestern, and ability to run the ball is key for a small school trying to pull an upset. The offensive linemen have 118 career starts between them, so they will not be intimated coming into Fayetteville.

The defensive numbers may be misleading

You may have heard that NIU is 15th in the NCAA in rushing defense, and 11th in yards per rush allowed. But a closer look shows that they do have some issues up front. The defensive line is inexperienced and somewhat undersized, and while the linebackers have done an impressive job of cleaning up the run, it has come at the expense of the pass defense.

Teams that wanted to establish the run did in 2013, and the Huskies had some issues getting pushed around up front. Utah State ran for over 200 yards in the bowl game, and Bowling Green pounded them for 181 rush yards in the MAC title game. Remember in the Texas Tech run defense preview that Tech had only one tackle for loss against a running back all season? Well, NIU finished dead last in the FBS in stuff rate, hitting opposing backs in the backfield on just 12% of rushing attempts.

Now, all four starters are gone on the line. An alarming lack of depth up front may the reason the Huskies have actually used mostly 3-4 looks this season. Similar to Texas Tech's defense being built to stop Big XII offenses, I would guess the Huskies are trying to make their defense more versatile to stop the high-octane #MACtion offenses. I wrote that Texas Tech's defensive line was too undersized for a 3-4 defense, and here NIU's line is about 20 pounds per man lighter up front.

All of that said, NIU's defense held Northwestern to 72 rushing yards on 37 carries (1.9 yards per rush). Of course, the best explanation for that is that Northwestern is totally inept at running the football, since hapless California (1-11 in 2013) also shut down NU's running game.

NIU's linebackers, on the other hand, are pretty good. All three starters are back from last year's group. Senior strongside linebacker Jamaal Bass is a solid player, probably better than any of Texas Tech's linebackers. This group plays good fundamental football, maintaining solid gap integrity and missing few tackles. The problem is, of course, that the defensive line (at least in 2013) struggled to stop the run, leaving the linebackers to have to focus almost completely on assisting them, leaving the secondary out to dry. After a rough season in 2013, NIU's defense is once again near the bottom of the NCAA's pass defense rankings after getting bombed on by Northwestern (322 yards) and UNLV (397 yards). They have an ugly tendency to give up big passing plays, and are very susceptible to quality receiving tight ends, so Saturday might be a good opportunity to get Hunter Henry or AJ Derby involved in the passing game.

Sabermetrics

The movie Moneyball is one of my all-time favorites. I love advanced stats that quantify and qualify the sport. Obviously, the game isn't played based on advanced numbers, but these figures can be telling. Let's look at Arkansas compared to Northern Illinois.

The primary stat in college football to measure the quality of an offense is S&P+. This stat is similar to OPS (on-base plus slugging), the most famous baseball sabermetric of all. It consists of two figures: success rate and PPP. Success rate measures the ability of the offense to stay ahead of the down and distance. A play is considered "successful" if it gains the following: 50 percent of yards to go on first down, 70 percent of yards to go on second down, and 100 percent of yards to go on third and fourth down. PPP, or points per play, measures the big-play potential of the offense.

Here's an example. Imagine the following play sequence:

Down & Dist Play
1st & 10 Rush for 6
2nd & 4 Incomplete pass
3rd & 4 Pass for 7

Here, we see that based on our definition of success, the first and third plays were successful. That's a success rate of 67%.

To understand PPP, consider the following sequence:

Down & Dist Play
1st & 10 Rush for -1
2nd & 11 Incomplete pass
3rd & 11 Pass for 75, TD

Here, the success rate is only 33% (the third play was successful), but a 74-yard TD drive was completed in three plays, as opposed to the first sequence, where only 13 yards were gained in three plays. So the PPP is higher here, even though the success rate is lower.

While Petrino's offense wanted to balanced success rate and PPP, Bielema's offense is tilted more towards success rate. After three weeks, here are the figures (min. 2 games vs. FBS), courtesy of FootballOutsiders.com:

Team Success Rate
1. Arkansas 54.20%
2. Auburn 53.70%
3. Texas A&M 53.20%
4. TCU 52.20%
5. Kansas State 52.10%

Well, that's impressive. The Razorbacks were very average at success rate last season, ranking 46th in the country. The PPP was awful, ranking 94th. This year - thanks largely to the Nicholls State game - the Hogs are 27th. Overall, the Razorbacks are 6th in the NCAA in S&P+ after ranking 67th a season ago.

Plenty of other stats fall as you expect: Arkansas is 1st in the NCAA in Rushing S&P+ (success rate and PPP when measured only for rushing plays) and 5th in the NCAA in S&P+ on "standard downs" (all 1st down, 2nd down and short-to-medium, and 3rd-and-short).

There is one surprising stat: S&P+ on passing downs. Passing downs are 2nd-and-11+ and 3rd-and-4+. Obvious passing situations, one would think, would be the death of an offense like Arkansas', which supposedly has no passing game. And yet:

Team Passing Down S&P+
1. Baylor 1.52
2. Auburn 1.29
3. Nebraska 1.16
4. Cincinnati 1.15
5. Arkansas 1.07

Arkansas' success rate on passing downs was 100% against Texas Tech: a 3rd-and-9 and 3rd-and-11 were converted by Allen through the air, and a 3rd-and-goal at the 5 was converted by Allen via the ground.

If you're wondering about Nebraska, their opponents are a combined 0-7 against FBS teams this year. And for the Brandon Allen haters, Arkansas was a respectable 39th in this metric in 2013. Bielema called Arkansas' passing game "the best kept secret in Fayetteville," but the statistics show that it may not be a secret. Arkansas' first- and second-down passing game is still pretty weak, but most of those are deep balls and missing on most of them isn't really a problem, although it would be nice to hit one or two against NIU.

Here's a comparison of the advanced stats of Arkansas' offense against Northern Illinois' defense:

Stat ARK offense NIU defense
S&P+ 6th 58th
Success Rate 1st 23rd
PPP 27th 101st
Rushing S&P+ 1st 18th
Passing S&P+ 40th 66th
Pass Downs S&P+ 5th 82nd

As you can see, Arkansas is good at pretty much everything using these metrics, while NIU struggles with big plays in the passing game. What's worse, NIU's figures may be skewed by the fact that the two FBS offenses they've played are ranked 86th (Northwestern) and 96th (UNLV) in S&P+. The rush defense numbers look good, but again, UNLV is 96th in Rushing S&P+ while Northwestern is 124th (next-to-last in the FBS).

Here are the figures on the other side of the ball:

Stat ARK def NIU offense
S&P+ 103rd 72nd
Success Rate 107th 56th
PPP 58th 86th
Rushing S&P+ 87th 81st
Passing S&P+ 101st 16th
Pass Downs S&P+ 115th 16th

These are really skewed. The Arkansas defense's two FBS opponents are significantly better than what NIU's offense has been facing.

Here are the four FBS opponents both teams have faced, ranked by Defensive S&P+:

Opponent Defense S&P+ Team
1. Auburn 27th Arkansas
2. Northwestern 35th NIU
3. Texas Tech 87th Arkansas
4. UNLV 109th NIU

Slight advantage to the Hogs here. Now for the offenses each team has faced:

Opponent Offense S&P+ Team
1. Auburn 7th Arkansas
2. Texas Tech 27th Arkansas
3. Northwestern 86th NIU
4. UNLV 96th NIU

And that's why the Arkansas defense rankings are skewed. NIU hasn't faced a quality offense (or rushing attack) yet this season and is already showing some holes.

So there you go. We'll check up on Arkansas' S&P+ rankings as the season progresses. Based on this week's figures, the Hogs should beat NIU easily and cover the game's two touchdown spread. Of course, games aren't played on paper, and NIU is one of the ultimate trap games for a Big Five team.