By Kevin Besser
Every team in the Big Ten has something to improve on. Teams at the bottom of the division may have many things to improve on but they all need to start somewhere and make improvements one step at a time. Teams at the top just need to make improvements to minor aspects of their game in order to take the team to the next level. This article will examine a statistic that each team was ranked poorly in and will need to improve on in 2017 in order to be successful.
The Fighting Illini finished dead last in offensive first downs last season. They finished with only 180, 132 less than Ohio State, making them and Rutgers the only Big Ten teams to not get over 200 first downs. On top of that, about 9% of their first downs were caused by defensive penalties, the second highest percentage in the Big Ten. If not for their opponents’ defenses bailing out their offense with penalties, Illinois easily could have had even worse offensive success. Lovie Smith’s first year in Champaign was a disappointment, and if the offense can’t find a way to move the ball in 2017, he will be gone soon.
Indiana-Offensive Red Zone Efficiency
The Hoosiers ranked 13th in the Big Ten in Red Zone Offense last season. They scored a dismal 71.4% of the time in the red zone, a third of which were field goals. In 49 trips to the red zone, Indiana scored only 35 times. Only 24 of those scores were touchdowns while d 11 were field goals. The 14 missed opportunities included 3 missed field goals, 2 fumbles, 2 interceptions, and 6 turnover on downs. The rejuvenated defense under Tom Allen was the strength of the team last year, but the offense left a lot to be desired. If the Hoosiers want to make a 3rd bowl game in a row, the offense must finish drives in the red zone and put points on the board. New offensive coordinator Mike DeBord will look to the starting quarterback to improve in this area, whether it be Sr. Richard Lagow, Jr. Danny Cameron, So. Peyton Ramsey, or Fr. Nick Tronti.
Iowa-Third Down Conversions
One year removed from a 11-0 season before losing to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game, Iowa finished the 2016 season with a disappointing 8-5 record. One reason for the setback was the offense’s inability to convert 3rd downs, especially with veteran QB C.J. Beathard. The Hawkeyes finished 12th in the Big Ten on third downs, converting just 56 of 173 attempts or 32.4%. With only ⅓ of conversions succeeding, Iowa’s defense continually suffered due to the short rest.In 2017, Iowa needs to convert 3rd downs and sustain drives.
Maryland started off 2016 with a surprise 4-0 start but would later lose five in a row and end their season 6-7. Maryland had a strong rushing attack, averaging nearly 200 yards/game. However, the Terps setback was their inability to consistently protect the QB. Maryland gave up a Big Ten high 49 sacks in 2016, 10 more than 13th ranked Northwestern, and 34 more than Nebraska who gave up the least with 15. These sacks caused a loss of 333 total yards, 90 more yards than the next closest team. If Maryland wants to make another bowl game, they will need to protect the QB in order for their passing attack to be as strong as their rushing attack.
Last season’s Michigan team didn’t have major issues on offense or defense, which you would expect from a team that was in the Top-10 for almost the entire season. Surprisingly though, Michigan did rank last in the Big Ten in one category…Kick Returns. You would think that a team that boasts exciting playmakers like Jabrill Peppers and has had consistently strong recruiting classes would have electric special teams’ returners. The Wolverines, however, were very conservative, returning only 26 kickoffs, tied for least in the Big Ten. They also were last in average return yards with just 18.7 yards per return. If the Wolverines want to get passed Ohio State and Penn State in the Big Ten East, they will need to improve their kick return yards.
Michigan State-Red Zone Defense
The Spartans had a surprisingly poor year in 2016, going 3-9 just one year after appearing in the College Football Playoff. One of their shortcomings was their inability to stop opposing offenses in the red zone. The Spartans only allowed 41 trips into the red zone, which was above average in the Big Ten. However, all 41 trips were almost guaranteed to come away with points. Michigan St. allowed a score in the red zone 90.2% of the time, allowing 28 TDs and 9 FGs on 41 trips, ranking 13th in the Big Ten. The Spartans didn’t force any missed FGs and forced only 4 red zone turnovers, which was 12th in the Big Ten. If the Spartans want to get back to a New Years Bowl, much less any bowl, they will need to be stingier with their backs up against the goal line.
The Golden Gophers’ flaw last season was their inability to slow down opponents passing game. Minnesota ranked 13th in opponents passing yards and were one of three Big Ten teams to allow more than 3,000 yds passing. They gave up 22 passing TDs, tied most in the Big Ten and ranked 10th in INTs with only 9. Lastly, they allowed teams to complete over 56% of their pass attempts. Minnesota had a fairly strong 9-4 record, but Tracy Claeys was fired after supporting a team boycott. Former Western Michigan coach PJ Fleck will take over the Gophers in 2017 Under Fleck, Western Michigan ranked 3rd in the MAC in Pass Defense, allowing only 200 pass yards per game and allowing only 17 TDs while forcing 15 INTs.
The Cornhuskers finished the season 9-4 behind QB Tommy Armstrong and an explosive offense. The team, however, helped out opponents too often, committing 75 penalties for 695 yards, ranking 12th in the Big Ten. Penalties can make or break a team and often decide the winner and loser of close games. Nebraska started last season 7-0, but failed to win the Big Ten West due to their high rate of committing penalties.
Northwestern ended the season on a high note, defeating #23 Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl. Northwestern was powered by a strong defense and Big Ten leading rusher Justin Jackson. However, Northwestern was last in the Big Ten in FG attempts and 13th in FG%. The Wildcats attempted a mere 12 FGs, making just 8 for a lackluster 66.7%. Pat Fitzergerald went for it on 4th down twice in the Pinstripe Bowl rather than attempt field goals, showing little confidence in his kicker. A field goal kicker is a huge weapon in college football, and Northwestern needs to find one ASAP .
Ohio State-Punt Returns
Ohio State had a unique season in which they didn’t play in the Big Ten Championship game, but still made the College Football Playoff. They would eventually lose to Clemson 31-0 in the first CFP game. Ohio State was strong on both offense and defense, but had a special teams flaw: punt returns. The Buckeyes ranked 13th in average punt return yards with 5.1 yards, 9 average yards less than Big Ten leader Michigan. They also only returned 27 punts, which implies their cornerbacks didn’t do a good job blocking the opponent’s gunners, and as a result, they often called for a fair catch. Having a strong punt return is a momentum changer because it gives the offense better field position and boosts the team’s confidence. The Buckeyes will always be a dangerous team, but punt returning could keep them out of the Big Ten Championship again next season if they don’t improve.
Penn State- Third Down Conversions
Penn State is coming off their strongest year since the NCAA sanctions, winning the Big Ten Championship and making it to the Rose Bowl. Trace McSorley had the highest efficiency of any Big Ten QB, and Saquon Barkley was second in the Big Ten in rushing yards, making up arguably the best QB/RB duo in the Big Ten. The way to beat this offense, however, is to force them into 3rd down situations. The Nittany Lions ranked 12th in the Big Ten in 3rd Down Conversion, converting just 56 of 172 attempts, or 32.6%. If Penn State wants to repeat as Big Ten Champions, they will need to convert 3rd downs and sustain drives.
The Boilermakers had another bleak season last year, finishing 3-9 and losing their fourth straight Old Oaken Bucket game to Indiana. Purdue finished low in many categories, but the most important was turnover margin. The Boilermakers finished the year -17 in turnover margin, last in the Big Ten. With some teams, turnover margin is low because either the offense turns the ball over a lot or the defense cannot force turnovers. However, Purdue’s offense and defense are both at fault for their poor margin. The defense forced only 16 turnovers all season, ranked 12th in the Big Ten. The offense turned the ball over 33 times, 25 of which were interceptions, and the most in the Big Ten. Indiana wasn’t far behind with 29 offensive turnovers, but the next closest in the Big Ten committed only 20 turnovers.. New Head Coach Jeff Brohm is known for his offense prowess and may be able to turn things around.
Not many things went well for the Scarlet Knights last season. They went 2-10 overall, 0-9 in Big Ten play, and ranked in the bottom three in most statistical categories. The “worst of the worst” for them was pass offense. The Scarlet Knights ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards and second to last in passing touchdowns. They played two different QBs, each throwing for under 900 yds. Along with Iowa, Rutgers was the only Big Ten team to throw for under 2,000 yards. They also were the only team to complete under 50% of their passes, ending up at an absurd 47.9%. A Terribly low completion percentage, minimal last passing yards, and only 9 passing touchdowns is not going to get it done, not even close. The Scarlet Knights have a long list of areas to improve on, and passing should be at the top of the list.
Last season’s 11 win Badgers, who made it to the Big Ten Championship, didn’t have many flaws in their game. However, they ranked 13th in the Big Ten in punting. The Badgers averaged only 37.5 yards per punt and had a low Net Average of only 34.6 yards. This means that, including punt returns, Wisconsin only changed field position by 34.6 yards on punts. Short punts like this give the opposing team a huge advantage in the field position category. Paul Chryst must make this a point of emphasis in 2017.
Looking ahead to the Big Ten season next year, I see the East as once again competitive. Ohio State will finish on top with Michigan finishing second after another tough head to head loss to OSU. Penn State will finish third after Trace McSorley has decreased stats compared to 2016. Michigan State will bounce back with an above .500 record but will finish 4th. Rounding out the bottom will be Indiana fifth, Maryland sixth, and Rutgers seventh.
In the West I see Wisconsin finishing first in a much worse division than the East. An improved Minnesota team under PJ Fleck will finish a close second. Nebraska will finish third without Tommy Armstrong for the first time in 4 years. Pat Fitzgerald will continue to improve his Northwestern team with them finishing fourth with a 7-5 record. Iowa will finish fifth with a down year, and Kirk Ferentz will be on the hot seat. Rounding out the bottom will be Purdue 6th under first year coach Jeff Brohm and Illinois will finish seventh.
Stats Courtesy of: