The Northern Illinois Huskies and Bowling Green Falcons square off in the 19th annual Mid-American Conference championship this evening. This week, we've talked sMACk, previewed the game, made our picks and even told you what to do while in Detroit.
Now, it's time to take a brief look at what the statistical trends tell us, both from BGSU and NIU's seasons as well as from MAC Championship Game history. What happens when teams score first or when they lose the turnover battle? Are teams more successful when they run wild or are pass happy? Let's take a look.
When you examine NIU's previous five dynastic treks to Detroit, two things become clear: offensive production has been very important, while scoring first and winning the turnover battle has not always been. The winners of those five games have outgained the losers in total, passing and rushing yards in all five. The average yardage differential is 148.2 per game, and the last three winners (NIU twice, BGSU once) have each accrued over 500 yards of offense.
In particular, running the ball has been important. NIU rushed for over 300 yards in 2012 and 2014, as well as 155 in 2011. BGSU's victory in 2013 came on the back of 181 ground yards. In all, the last five MAC championship winners have averaged 216.2 rushing yards as opposed to 130.2 for the losers. If you want to win tonight, your ground attack better be ready.
How does that mesh with what the Huskies and Falcons accomplished this year? Quite well, actually. Combined, NIU and BGSU are 14-1 in 2015 when they outrush their opponent. The only loss came when the Huskies gave the ball away four times against Central Michigan. That was the only game all year in which NIU rushed for more than 110 yards and lost (8-1 in those situations). The Falcons were very similar. When they ran for at least 130 yards, they were 8-1. They were 1-3 otherwise.
The same held true defensively against the run. When the Falcons gave up less than 160 yards on the ground, they were 7-1 but only 2-2 in when giving up more. Using the same metric, NIU was 6-1 when allowing less and only 2-3 allowing more.
Obviously, it is clear that you should pay attention to which team is able to run the ball most effectively early in tonight's game, but what about the pass? Bowling Green has their starting quarterback going and averages 388 yards per game, while Northern Illinois is on a fourth-string guy and, even before he inherited the job, averaged just 227 yards through the air.
In general, NIU's worst passing days have all led to losses. They threw for a total of 266 yards in their three-game losing streak, and while they got to 255 in the loss to Ohio, that's because they couldn't run the ball. Here's something strange though -- their losses have also occurred when their opponents have been terrible at throwing the ball. They allowed fewer than 200 yards passing in six games in 2015 and are just 2-4 in those games. They're 6-0 when allowing more. So...the secret is allowing Matty J to go hog wild? WEIRD.
BGSU's passing game was remarkably consistent until they reached the middle of November, never posting less than 324 yards in any of their first nine games. However, in the last three, the Falcons have failed to throw for 300 yards in any of them. There's nothing much you can take from that. Against the pass, Bowling Green has been all over the place. In 1/3 of their games, they gave up fewer than 200. In another 1/3, they gave up 348 or more. In the other 1/3, they allowed between 200-300. All other things being equal, it's anyone's guess what to expect from the BGSU defense tonight.
Two other items to watch tonight are who scores first and who wins the turnover battle.
Bowling Green has been extraordinarily good at putting points on the board first in their games. They've done that in 10 of 12 tries this year, and they scored in the first 5:20 of the game in eight of their 12 contests. When scoring first, the Falcons are 8-2, and they are 9-1 when holding any lead beyond the first quarter.
Northern Illinois is not nearly as good at establishing early momentum. The Huskies scored first in only five of their 12 games so far. However, that seems to play into their hands; NIU is just 3-2 when scoring first but 5-2 when they have to come from behind early. That even works when you look at their MAC title game appearances. Two of their three titles have occurred when their opponent scored first (2011 vs Ohio, 2012 vs Kent State).
BGSU has also been exceptional at winning the turnover battle, particularly late in the season. The Falcons lead the MAC with a +11 turnover margin and are 8-0 when they force more turnovers. BGSU's offense has given the ball away two or more times just twice and have only 11 turnovers all season (five in one game). Their defense has created two ore more seven times, including six of the last seven games.
NIU is also very good at creating turnovers, as they are tied for the MAC lead with 25 takeaways. However, they're also more prone to giveaways. Their offense has 19 this season, and they have at least two in seven games. They're 4-3 in those contests, but that's not a recipe for success against a team like BGSU.
The bottom line?
BGSU's path to victory is to run the ball well and open up the game for Matt Johnson. They also need to win the turnover battle and get out in front before halftime.
NIU's path is to stop the run and let Johnson go wild if he wants. They also need to run the ball early and often. The Huskies must minimize their giveaways and not get panicked if the Falcons get ahead.
Just remember, numbers don't lie.