Looking at the Big Ten Conference football stats after last week’s games, it’s not hard to see why some teams are winning…and others are losing. I will be the first to point out that statistics can be twisted and shaped in the way that best suits a particular cause. Also, in the case of these numbers, there isn’t a huge amount of commonality when you consider each team’s opponents.
That being said, when you look at the big picture after three non-conference games and four or five conference battles, the view from 10,000 feet still gives us a pretty clear picture.
The Big Ten has four ranked teams – Ohio State (2), Michigan (4), Penn State (13) and Illinois (17). Each of these teams has its own personality, offensive philosophy, defensive style and winning special teams plans. But, as long as football has been played, one of the main tenets of successful teams is to win the turnover battle. Take care of the ball and move it away from your opponent. All three units, offensive, defensive and special teams, contribute to winning the battle of turnovers.
These figures bear witness to this. Penn State leads the conference with a +7 in this extremely important category. They have 14 takeaways and just seven turnovers in seven games.
Illinois, thanks to a hawking defense, leads the conference in takeout points with 17 while giving it away 12 times. They’re tied for second with Ohio State and Wisconsin by a +5 margin.
Ohio State has taken the ball from opponents 12 times and given up just seven. Wisconsin is +16 and -11.
Interestingly, the nation’s fourth-ranked Wolverines are posting a solid +3, but their defense only has seven points to hold. Michigan’s offense does an incredible job of valuing football as they lead the pack with just four turnovers in seven games.
It’s probably no big surprise that Nebraska (-3), Indiana (-4) and the Northwest (-8) are the bottom three in the conference by turnover margin. Purdue is an outlier in this category by having a winning record but negative rotation numbers (-2) in their eight games.
There are many ways to win. The second-ranked Buckeyes light up the scoreboard at 49.6 points per game (ppg) to lead the conference. Their defense is holding its end of the bargain by allowing just 14.9 points per game, good for third in the league. Michigan is right there at number two on both offense and defense with 42.7 and 12.1 points per game. Penn State is fourth (Maryland is third) in scoring with 33.4 and sixth in defense with 18.9.
Illinois is scoring at a clip 26.0 ppg and averaging 416 yards, which ranks it tenth in both categories. The orange and blue defense is at the top of the conference averaging a miserly 8.9 points per game and yielding just 221 yards per game. There are other defensive stats contributing to Illini’s success that often come with a nod. The third down is a possession down; either the offense converts and keeps the player alive, or the defense holds and forces a punt. Illinois holds naysayers at a paltry 26.5% conversion rate. Get the kick return team ready! Even more impressive is the 22.3% on fourth attempts. It’s no surprise they’re first in defensive passing efficiency.
One final stat that serves as a punch for the Illini is red zone defense. If the opponents manage to reach the Illinois 20-yard line (which has been a big IF), the Illini have bowed the collective neck and allowed just three touchdowns on 11 possessions.
Football history teaches us that successful complementary football requires each of the team’s three units to do their job, which sets the other units up for success. A good example of this is Illini’s offense which leads the Big Ten in time of possession at 34:50 minutes per game.
This means opponents only have it for 25:10 minutes. Just because a team has the ball doesn’t guarantee success, but when you average 5.4 yards per play and score points or turn the field position after a punt, the defense is better prepared to do its job.
Remember that every successful team has its own unique personality, offensive philosophy, defensive style, and winning special teams programs. The key to successful teams is knowing who they are and staying true to who they are. They shouldn’t try to be what they are not.
Illinois understands that concept, and that’s why we’ve seen the type of football we’ve seen so far this season.
Nick Quartaro will provide college football news throughout the fall on the pages of The News-Gazette and on WDWS 1400-AM and 93.9 FM.