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State Street Stats: how will Wisconsin’s defense fare against Minnesota?

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Wisconsin may need some help from above to slow the Gopher passing attack

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 24 Minnesota at Wisconsin Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Some data in this article was supplied by Sports Source Analytics. Credit and gratitude to Zane Murfitt of CougCenter for creating the template for these interactive graphics through Tableau. Readers on a mobile device, Google AMP or Apple News may have difficulties reading the embedded interactive graphics.

I’ve seen it on twitter, and I’ve heard it in person: “If Wisconsin can’t stop _____’s receivers, it won’t stop Minnesota’s.” Frankly I think this fear is valid based on the eye test, and I empathize with this sentiment.

One of the reasons I love statistics is it cuts through the noise and bias our emotions hold. I am horrified that the Gophers are going to pick apart Wisconsin’s secondary, but I can’t tell if that fear is rational without either spending dozens of hours watching tape or looking at the data.

Long story short, the fears of Minnesota shredding the Badgers are founded, but I believe there are a few mitigating factors that should help Wisconsin out.

Last year’s game

I don’t blame you if you skip this short section, but I think it helps contextualize the data later on.

Last season, Minnesota beat Wisconsin 37-15, but it was a lot more competitive than I remember. Wisconsin out-gained Minnesota 359 yards to 325 and 5.6 yards per play (ypp) to 5.2 ypp.

So, why did Wisconsin lose so badly? There difference was:

  • Four Wisconsin turnovers (zero for Minnesota)
  • 54 Wisconsin penalty yards (20 for Minnesota)
  • 24:54 time of possession for Wisconsin

The key here was clearly the turnover differential which is difficult to predict. The turnovers lead to poor time of possession, and that lead to a worn down defense that just could not hold the line of scrimmage.

Minnesota’s offense this year

Minnesota’s offense is significantly better than it was last season, but it is primarily a passing threat. It’s rushing per play average is the same as 2018, but the passing offense has improved by an astounding 37% improvement from an already decent 2018 mark.

Minnesota’s offense: 2018 vs 2019

Year Yards per play Yards per rush Yards per pass attempt
Year Yards per play Yards per rush Yards per pass attempt
2018 5.5 4.3 7.8
2019 6.3 4.3 10.7

To put this in context, Minnesota’s rushing offense is slightly above the 4.1 yards per play average of all B1G foes Wisconsin has faced this season. In contrast, Minnesota’s 10.7 yards per pass attempt is off the chart, at least when compared to Wisconsin’s opponents this season.

10.7 yards per pass attempt is good for fourth in the country, and it is much better than any team Wisconsin has faced. The closest is Ohio State’s 9.1 yards per pass attempt average.

Buckle up.

Wisconsin’s defensive trend

Okay, so Minnesota has an excellent passing offense, but Wisconsin still has a top 5 passing defense, holding opponents to 5.8 yards per pass.

Well, it turns out that number is pretty misleading until you peel it back a bit.

Let’s start with what I am calling adjusted defense. This stat shows how well Wisconsin has held opponents’ offense compared to their respective season average. For example, Michigan’s -14.04% means Wisconsin held the Wolverines about 14% below their season per-play average.

The trend here is not good. Here are a few notes:

  • First three B1G games: held opponents 26% below their per-play average
  • Middle two B1G games: allowed 2% above opponents’ per-play average
  • Last three B1G games: allowed 22% above opponents’ per-play average
  • Last five B1G games: Wisconsin’s defense only held an opponent to a below-average performance once. That was against Ohio State. Please note that the weather was poor in that game. Also, note that Ohio State’s offense is so good week-to-week that it is easy to hold the Buckeyes below their season average since it starts so high.

There are a couple of ways to make sense of this chart. For one, Wisconsin’s recent defensive performance is worse than its season average; it is bound to return to the mean. On the other hand, Wisconsin’s opponents may have solved Wisconsin’s defense in the last five games, which indicates things will not get any better.

Frankly, I believe the former is an overly hopeful interpretation.

The matchup: Minnesota’s offense vs Wisconsin’s defense

If the table does not load properly, click here to view. Mobile viewers should view horizontally for the best experience.

The data in the interactive graphic does not include this past weekend, but it is still quite representative of the matchup. As we have discussed, Minnesota’s rushing offense is okay, but its passing offense is excellent. While Wisconsin’s passing defense still shows to be top-tier, it has not played at that level in the past five games.

One serious concern is Minnesota’s explosive offense vs. Wisconsin’s explosive defense. Not only is the season average in Minnesota’s favor, the recent history is in the Gophers’ favor.

Thesis

In a dome, the data indicates Minnesota would throw for at least ten yards per attempt against Wisconsin. However, unless you’ve been hibernating for over ten years, Minnesota does not play in a dome.

So let’s meander over to the weather forecast to see if Wisconsin’s defense can get any help...

weather.com

::good news everyone (dot) gif::

The data suggests that Wisconsin should be able to contain Minnesota’s rushing defense. It also suggests Minnesota will have a lot of success throwing the ball, barring any mitigating factors.

However, we know that with the help of weather, Wisconsin slowed down Ohio State’s passing attack a little. And, if the weather helps again, Wisconsin should be able to slow down Minnesota’s passing attack as well.

One last thought

Wisconsin’s offensive performance and its defensive performance are intertwined. If the Badgers turn the ball over four times and only control the ball for only 25 minutes, the defense is going to be in serious trouble. The weather should help the Badgers defense, but Jonathan Taylor and the Wisconsin Badgers’ offense could also provide a serious lift by providing long, sustained and turnover-free drives.