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Who Has the Edge? Dissecting Northwestern vs. South Dakota

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

With gameday just one day away, we’ve already given you a breakdown of what to watch out for, a statistics-based analysis, and posted predictions from NU’s media members and bloggers. Now, we go inside the matchup to give you our prediction of who comes out on top, examining which team has the edge in different phases of the game.

When Northwestern Has the Ball…

The biggest problem for South Dakota this season has been stopping the run – more  specifically, option formations, which is where Kain Colter and Venric Mark combine on a potent dual-pronged ground attack. When used in spurts, the option has worked to perfection for Colter and Mark, two dynamic playmakers. They should have no trouble exploiting the Coyotes’ inexperienced defensive line. But as we saw last week, Colter and Mark do not comprise the entirety of NU’s running game. There’s Mike Trumpy, whose 106-yard showing against Boston College more than made up for the loss of Mark, who left the game early with an injury but is expected to start this week. It’s also worth mentioning Treyvon Green, who has struggled this season but took positive steps in practice this week. If NU can establish the run game, the passing attack will open up as USD commits extra defenders to the line of scrimmage for run support. Colter and Siemian can dissect this secondary with a wealth of explosive playmakers.

This game, provided NU takes care of business, offers a prime opportunity to smooth off the rough edges before the conference season. Kyle Prater would welcome a few more touches. Colter can work on diversifying his throwing repertoire. Treyvon Green can regain the positive momentum he built last season. If the Wildcats can submit a clean performance, while finding ways to improve around every margin in time for league play, Saturday’s game will go down as an unmitigated success. Two players to watch for on USD’s defense are defensive end Tyler Starr and cornerback Chris Frierson. Both are FBS-caliber players with great physical tools.

The diversity of NU’s offense, the threat of a pro-style attack under Trevor Siemian, or a more run-focused playbook led by Colter, will overwhelm USD’s physically inferior defense.

Edge: Northwestern

When South Dakota Has the Ball…

In the past two weeks, NU has given up 26 points against two respectable offensive units. South Dakota doesn’t have the kind of dangerous skill players both Boston College and Vanderbilt has, which means NU should be able to put the clamps on USD’s offense with minimal difficulty. Quarterback Josh Vander Maten is an escape artist, and a superb athlete. What he lacks in pure throwing ability, he makes up for in the running game. The last time he faced a Big Ten defense, he went two-for-two with a touchdown against Wisconsin. I’m inclined to believe that was more a product of small sample size than a true appraisal of his quarterbacking skill set. Vander Maten is not skilled, nor experienced enough to exploit NU’s defense through the air. His damage, if any such damage is dished out from the first-year starter, will be done on the ground. One player worth keeping an eye on is Barrington, Illinois, native Terrance Terry, who through two games has amassed two touchdowns on 10 catches and 146 receiving yards.

While NU’s defensive line stepped up against Vanderbilt, it regressed last week. BC quarterback Chase Rettig was afforded ample time to go through his progression, locate receivers and fire away. It’s crucial that the Wildcats’ defensive ends – Tyler Scott, Deonte Gibson, Quentin Williams, Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo – apply pressure off the edge and prevent Vander Maten from breaking contain and taking off down field. The linebackers have been the defense’s strongest position group throughout the season and the secondary is much improved. Neither unit will be tested this weekend. The line, and its ability to dominate the line of scrimmage, is the main focus. Given the way the line, secondary and linebackers have acquitted themselves against formidable offensive units, particularly in response to the week one 41-point debacle, there should be no drop-off against the most limited and offensively-inept outfit the defense has faced all season.

Edge: Northwestern

Special teams

From field goal kicking to punting to the return game, NU’s special teams have been excellent, and the numbers plainly back it up. Kicker Jeff Budzien is eight-for-eight on field goal attempts and nine-for-nine on PATs; last season, he was six-for-10 on field goals. Brandon Williams, while only averaging 38.8 yards per punt (a falsely-interpreted, if incomplete statistic), has pinned opponents inside their own 20 six times. And Venric Mark has already returned a punt for a touchdown along with accumulating 149 total punt return yards. There’s no reason to expect the flawless execution to dip against the Coyotes, but I wouldn’t expect Budzien to attempt five field goals, as he did last week. The Wildcats have scored touchdowns on just five of 13 (38 percent) forays into opponents’ red zones. They should improve that mark Saturday.

The body of evidence is far too meager to make any statistically-sound judgments about USD’s special teams play. The Coyotes have converted both of their field goal attempts, punted 10 times at an average of 37.2 net yards per boot, returned just five kicks for 84 yards and recorded zero punt returns. Whatever the long-run implications, their early special teams performance has simply been OK, and nothing more. A big return or punt/kick block is almost mandatory if USD has designs on pulling the upset.

With NU’s massive improvements on special teams this season, it’s difficult to image the Coyotes can appreciably outmatch it in this phase of the game.

Edge: Northwestern


Northwestern 39, South Dakota 19 – Plenty of FCS teams have knocked off FBS opponents in recent years. Just two weeks ago, we saw Louisiana Monroe topple preseason top-10 Arkansas. These sorts of monumental upsets require a concurrence of favorable outcomes. You need a big special teams play, multiple turnovers, sloppy execution from the opponent, and a host of other factors that turn the run of play in your favor. The single most important ingredient of any FCS-FBS upset is a skilled quarterback, someone capable of breaking out for 300 + passing yards and at least three touchdowns. It also helps to have an experienced team that knows the system and isn’t afraid of superior competition. USD has neither, and I don’t expect it to win the turnover battle, or dominate the special teams game. This is Northwestern’s game to win. If it loses, the outcome will reflect its own undoing.