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Thursday, December 5, 2013

MAC Championship Preview

9-3 Bowling Green vs. 12-0 Northern Illinois
Friday, 8:00, ESPN2

What they do well

Bowling Green makes good use of its possessions, netting 2.96 points per drive (16th nationally).  They are slow and methodical, but in an efficient manner: 6.51 plays per possession, 41 yards per possession, and 184 seconds per possession - all 3 are top 7 nationally.  When they get the ball, they keep it (3rd nationally in TO per possession), and they turn it into points.  

The 2012 Falcons had a great defense.  2013's edition isn't quite up to that level, but it has still been pretty solid.  They limit points per possession (1.22, 11th nationally), and due to good offense and special teams, they enjoy an average starting field position 74 yards away from the goal line (7th in the country).  When opponents get into the red zone, BGSU maintains good scoring D despite a relatively high TD rate; this is due to the 3rd best turnover-on-downs rate in the country, with 16% of red zone drives ending in that manner.

Northern Illinois also turns drives into points, with 3.07 points per possession, 39.4 yards per possession, and generally good starting position.  They do it differently than Bowling Green, hurrying along at just 126 seconds per drive.  Similarly, NIU limits turnovers, 7th nationally in TO per possession.  The Huskies drive into the red zone on 41% of possessions.  This is a scoring machine led by a legitimate Heisman contender.

Defensively, the Huskies do a passable job preventing points (1.67 per possession; 39th), but passable is all you need when they score like they do.  Like BGSU, they start drives in good defensive field position (73.1 yards; 17th).  NIU is good at flipping the field, with 16.3% of defensive drives ending in turnovers.  Only 20% of opponents' drives reach the red zone.

What They Don't Do Well

Bowling Green doesn't give itself many chances to make up for mistakes.  At just 11.4 possessions per game, BGSU's style of play doesn't lend itself to ample opportunities for comebacks.  NIU can stare at the clock, down by 10 with 10 minutes to play, and not panic.  Bowling Green, in the same situation, might feel that fire.  They can't fall behind in this ballgame and reasonably expect a quick comeback in the 4th.

NIU is occasionally has issues getting off the field.  As mentioned earlier, only 20% of opponents reach the red zone, but 65% of those teams score TDs.  Bowling Green can put together long, methodical drives, and NIU could struggle to end them.

EPA+ Matchup

BGSU Rush O (.10) vs. NIU Rush D (-.10)
BGSU Pass O (.08) vs. NIU Pass D (.05)
NIU Rush O (.16) vs. BGSU Rush D (.00)
NIU Pass O (.13) vs. BGSU Pass D (.05)

EPA+ suggests that while the Huskies' offense shouldn't be slowed down too much by an above-average Falcon defense, the biggest mismatch in the game will be when Bowling Green runs the ball against a suspect NIU defense.  This bodes well for the upset chances, as BGSU will try to control the clock and keep the ball away from likely Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch.  EPA suggests they should be able to.

Pick

I generally consider momentum an overrated aspect of football, but in this game it really might play a major role, as the game could go in two drastically different directions.  

Bowling Green is good enough to pull off the upset, but it needs to happen from the opening whistle.  I think BGSU will have success keeping the ball away from Jordan Lynch and the potent Husky offense.  Hopefully they've made enough defensive strides since Indiana whipped them 42-10 in September to at least keep the game interesting.  If the game is within a score heading into the 4th, the Falcons have a great chance at the MAC title.  They'll need to be their efficient, controlling selves, but they've been that most of the season.

NIU needs to build an early, multiple score lead to take BGSU out of its comfort zone.  If they get that early momentum, BGSU could struggle to keep up and the game could potentially get ugly.  NIU's key to this game is their 1st half defense.  The Husky offense will get its points, but if it gets the Falcon clock-control offense off the field quickly for a few drives in the first half while they build their lead, NIU should emerge with an easy win.

Pick: One of my above scenarios drastically favors NIU.  The other basically suggests a coin flip game in the 4th quarter.  The pick here is Northern Illinois.  Root for the close game.  Since it's the MAC, I imagine we'll get it.


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