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September 25, 2013

By the Numbers: Strengths, weaknesses for each Legends team

The college football season is a month old, and the Big Ten Leaders Division could hardly be more wide open. No team has more than one loss, yet every squad seems to have a serious flaw - Nebraska can't stop anyone, Michigan State can't score, Michigan turns the ball over like crazy, Iowa can't capitalize in the red zone, Minnesota has no passing game and Northwestern can't stop anyone on third down.

Got all that?

Of course, every team has some strengths working in its favor as well, such as the Spartans' other-worldly defense or Minnesota's surprisingly strong rushing offense. The point is, the division is there for the taking. Every team is in the hunt, although Minnesota and Iowa are admittedly long shots. In this weeks' By the Numbers, we found three statistics that suggest each team could represent the Legends Division in Indianapolis and three that could submarine each squad's chances at a successful campaign (conference ranking listed in parentheses).

Nebraska

Positives

+4 turnover margin (1st in the Big Ten): This isn't an area the Huskers have typically had success under Bo Pelini, but nine interceptions (second in the league) have helped NU win the turnover battle so far. Also helping - Nebraska quarterbacks have tossed just one pick.

112 first downs (1): The Huskers' offense has seemed a bit clunky at times, but they have moved the ball. Nebraska is averaging 28 first downs per game and didn't miss much of a beat even with Taylor Martinez sidelined Saturday against South Dakota State.

5 receiving touchdowns for Quincy Enunwa (1): The senior has established himself as a legit NFL prospect so far this year. He's not going to put up massive numbers in an offense with so many options to spread the ball around to, but Enunwa has found the end zone on five of his 17 receptions and still refuses to go down on first contact.

Negatives

179.5 rushing yards against per game (11): Nebraska has really struggled to stop the run. Opponents are gaining 4.9 yards per carry, and South Dakota State's Zach Zenner gashed the Blackshirts for 202 yards in their last outing. Big Ten offenses have to be licking their lips in anticipation.

5 fumbles lost (12): Despite an emphasis put on ball security in the offseason, NU is lucky this number isn't higher. The Huskers have fumbled 11 times, including three by Martinez and two by Ameer Abdullah, the team's worst offenders last year.

63 percent opponent completion percentage (10): Where did the passing defense from 2012 go? Despite returning all major contributors at cornerback (the Huskers did replace both starting safeties), this number has jumped almost 16 percent since 2012, when NU allowed opponents to complete just 47.1 percent of their passes.

Iowa

Positives

1 touchdown allowed in 6 opponent red-zone trips (1st in the Big Ten): The Hawkeyes rank fifth in the conference in total defense, but they get especially tough when the opponent gets inside the 20-yard line. Opponents have been in the red zone just six times (tops in the league), and have scored only one touchdown and three field goals.

35:48 average time of possession (1): Iowa has done a good job of dictating games. Controlling the clock doesn't guarantee success, but it gives the defense rest and can frustrate the opponent, and the Hawkeyes do both with a mark this high.

468 rushing yards for Mark Weisman (2): A quick start to the 2012 season started a "Weisman for Heisman" campaign, which quickly fell apart once injuries and the full attention of defenses took their toll. But the junior has rebounded nicely and trails only Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon in this category.

Negatives

2 sacks (12): Sacks aren't necessarily the key to putting pressure on a passer, and Iowa does have 14 other quarterback hurries. But the Hawkeyes simply aren't getting to the opponent signal caller enough, a factor that could hurt them down the road.

14 points outscored in the 4th quarter: When the game gets close, the Hawkeyes get tight. Iowa has outscored its opponent just once in the fourth quarter this season, and that came against overmatched Western Michigan. Fourth-quarter struggles led to a loss against Northern Illinois and a near defeat to Iowa State.

14 scores in 19 red-zone trips (11): As good as Iowa has been at stymieing opponents once they get in the red zone, they've been equally poor themselves. The Hawkeyes have just 10 red-zone touchdowns and have three turnovers inside the 20-yard line.

Michigan

Positives

51.2 percent opponent completions (2nd in the Big Ten): The Wolverines have had their share of issues, but they have been stingy against the pass. Michigan allows 232.0 yards per game through the air, but it takes the opponent a lot of passes to get there.

6 interceptions (tied for 3): Blake Countess is pacing the defense with three picks. Given UM's propensity for turning the ball over, it's critical that the defense get the ball back.

3.1 opponent yards per carry (5): Opponents struggle to move the ball on the ground against the Wolverines, helping them to win the time-of-possession battle (32:42 per game).

Negatives

-5 turnover margin (12): It's hard to be successful when you're consistently giving the ball to the opposition, and Michigan has a combined eight turnovers in its past two games, in which it barely survived against major underdogs Akron and Connecticut.

10 turnovers for Devin Gardner: Denard Robinson's much-ballyhooed replacement leads the nation in giveaways with eight picks and a pair of lost fumbles. There is no doubting Gardner's talent, but his propensity to give the ball away is certainly troubling.

409.2 opponent yards per game (9): Simply put, the Wolverines are giving up a lot of yards. They do a better job once opponents get inside the red zone, allowing just five of 13 such drives to end in touchdowns. But this number shows why UM has struggled to put away some lesser teams.

Michigan State

Positives

21 percent opponent conversions on 3rd down (1st in the Big Ten): The Spartans' defense is easily the class of the Big Ten, and this is just one of the areas in which they excel. Allowing just 13 conversions in 62 attempts is worthy of some serious recognition.

2.0 opponent yards per carry (1): The number above is aided by a unit that essentially shuts the opponents' running game down. No MSU opponent has gained more than 89 yards on the ground or averaged more than 2.6 yards per carry.

48 total opponent first downs (1): Did we mention that Michigan State's defense is really good? While allowing just 12 first downs per game, this unit has scored four touchdowns itself while giving up just six.

Negatives

51.9 percent completions (12): This is where the Spartans' resume starts to fall apart - their offense can't get anything going. Connor Cook has injected a bit of life as the starter, but he's still completing just 53.1 percent of his throws. Incumbent Andrew Maxwell lost the job thanks to his 45.5 completion percentage.

4.7 yards per play (11): Purdue (4.0) and Michigan State are the only Big Ten teams that average fewer than 6.0 yards per play.

10 offensive touchdowns (11): As good as MSU's defense is, it's offense has been equally bad - only the Boilermakers average fewer yards per game than the Spartans (340.8) and have scored fewer offensive touchdowns.

Minnesota

Positives

282.2 rushing yards per game (3rd in the Big Ten): Despite missing lead back Donnell Kirkwood for much of the season, the Golden Gophers have excelled on the ground. David Cobb and Rodrick Williams have filled in capably at running back, while Mitch Leidner has provided a running option from under center.

10 total penalties (1): This is an incredible number through four games. Minnesota simply isn't shooting itself in the foot with costly mistakes, and that's helped the team to its 4-0 record.

19 scores in 20 red-zone trips: The Gophers are scoring on 95 percent of their red-zone drives, including 15 touchdowns on 20 attempts.

Negatives

105.2 passing yards per game (12): No Big Ten team struggles to pass the ball like Minnesota. Starting quarterback Philip Nelson has missed time with an injury, but the Gophers have been ineffective even with him in the lineup.

0 receivers with more than 100 yards on the season: Compounding on that last statistic is the fact that Minnesota's leading receiver is Max Williams with a whopping 99 yards. No Gophers' receiver has more than seven catches on the year.

13 first-quarter points: Minnesota's offense tends to get stronger as the game goes on, but it really labors out of the gate. The Gophers have trailed after the opening stanza in two of their four games despite not playing a BCS-conference opponent.

Northwestern

Positives

10 interceptions (1st in the Big Ten): The Wildcats give the ball away a bit themselves (seven miscues), so they need all the help they can get from their defense. Three NW players have at least two picks, led by Ibraheim Campbell with three.

51.7 percent conversion rate on third downs (2): Only Wisconsin (51.9 percent) converts third downs at a better clip and only Iowa (34) has converted more third-down opportunities.

41.2 points per game (5): The Wildcats are putting up big numbers on offense despite the occasional absence of Venric Mark and Kain Colter. With Mark back at practice this week, the offense should become even more explosive.

Negatives

44.1 percent opponent conversion rate on third down (11): As good as the Wildcats have been on third down, they've allowed the opposition to do nearly as well. This number has contributed to NW giving up 23.8 points per game (eighth in the Big Ten).

307.5 passing yards allowed per game (11): The Wildcats are allowing opponents to complete just 57.4 percent of their passes, but each completion averages 10.9 yards.

1 more first down gained than opponents: Northwestern owns a 100-99 edge in first downs over their first four opponents. That might work against the likes of Cal, Maine and Syracuse, but the disparity will have to be greater if the Wildcats hope to compete for the division crown.



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