Did The Big Ten Get The Defensive POY Correct?
by Matt Natali
Dec 23, 2013 9:51 PM EST
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The college football bowl season is upon us and all the hardware for the season has been handed out. Each conference has recognized its top players and a new Heisman winner has forever etched his name as the top player in the sport for 2013. That doesn’t mean we still can’t debate the winners and those left empty-handed. Wisconsin senior linebacker Chris Borland was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year earlier this month; however, when the Associated Press All-American list became public last week, Borland was conspicuously named to the second team and Ohio State junior linebacker Ryan Shazier appeared on the first team. So, did the Big Ten get it right or wrong? Football.com Big Ten writers Marco Scola and Brandon Cavanaugh step up to the podium for the debate. The Case For Chris Borland By Marco Scola Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland took home this season’s Nagurski-Woodson Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Award, beating out presumed favorite Ryan Shazier of Ohio State. At first glance, Shazier beat Borland in every major defensive statistic in 2013 including total tackles (123 to 102), sacks (7 to 4), and solo tackles (85 to 64). But in order to build a case for Borland, one must first look deeper into the statistics. First, it should be noted Borland missed three quarters of the Oct. 19 game against Illinois and the entirety of the Nov. 2 game against Iowa. Even taking that into consideration, Shazier averaged more total tackles per game (10.3 to Borland’s 9.3), sacks per game (.583 to Borland’s .363), and solo tackles (7.1 to Borland’s 5.8). Statistically speaking, individually, Shazier should’ve run away with the defensive player of the year award. However, if you look at what each player contributed to his team, Borland has a stronger case. First, I point to overall defense. Wisconsin finished the season ranked second in the Big Ten in total defense, second in rush defense and third in pass defense. Ohio State finished fourth, third and ninth in those categories. Statistically speaking, Wisconsin clearly put out the better defense in 2013. But how much did Borland have to do with that? And subsequently, how much did Shazier have to do with Ohio State’s overall unit? Wisconsin’s defense faced 779 plays in 2013, by far the fewest in the Big Ten. Of those, 19 went for touchdowns, and Borland missed 119 plays in the Iowa and Illinois games. Subtract the plays he missed as well as the 19 touchdowns and the Badgers with a healthy Borland stopped the opposing offense a grand total of 641 times. For the purpose of this exercise, the defense can stop the ball only five different ways: a tackle, sack, pass deflection, interception or fumble. Borland notched 102 tackles, four sacks and two pass deflections. Borland stopped 108 of 641 plays, accounting for 16.8 percent of the team’s defense. Ohio State’s defense faced 924 plays, third-most in the Big Ten. Thirty-four went for touchdowns; therefore we’ll look at the 890 stops made. Shazier accounted for 123 tackles, seven sacks, two pass deflections and four fumbles for a total of 136 stops, accounting for 15.3 percent of Ohio State’s defense. Borland accounted for 1.5 percent more of his team's stops. That isn't the only slight advantage Borland claims. Statistics and metrics aren’t what won Borland the award. Rather, it’s the things you cannot measure such as switching from a 4-3 scheme last year under then-coach Bret Bielema to a 3-4 scheme under new coach Gary Andersen. The change paid dividends as the Badgers defense improved its Big Ten standing in several team categories, including scoring defense, total defense, rush defense and pass defense. Andersen attributes much of the Badgers’ defensive success this season to Borland, calling him “the best linebacker in America.” Borland also was one of the integral leaders on this year’s squad as a fifth-year senior, helping the Badgers to back-to-back-to-back Rose Bowl berths. The Big Ten Defensive Player Of The Year Award wasn’t the only one Borland stuck in his trophy case this season as he also took home the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award, the Butkus-Fitzgerald Big Ten Linebacker Of The Year Award, and earned first-team All-American by the Football Writers Association of America. He's the first Badgers defender to earn that distinction since Erasmus James in 2004. The evidence speaks for itself in the amount Borland contributed his team on top of the unquestionable trust Anderson bestowed on Borland. Factor the change of head coach and scheme, and Borland's nearly two-game absence, and he put out the more impressive season in 2013. The Case For Ryan Shazier By Brandon Cavanaugh There's no disputing that Wisconsin's Chris Borland was one of the most disruptive defensive forces in the Big Ten conference this season, but the league's declaration of him as its defensive player of the year sends mixed signals. Ohio State's Ryan Shazier offered everything Borland did in terms of production, and even added some garnish on the side with his signature demolitions. Borland will be a solid NFL draft pick, but Shazier gets to determine if any franchise has the opportunity to draft him at all next April. According to the man himself, he hasn't decided yet, but is leaning toward playing for Urban Meyer in 2014. Keep in mind that if he does declare, there are teams that could utilize his talents immediately. CBSSports.com's Robert Rang has Shazier working in enemy territory thanks to the No. 21 pick held by the Detroit Lions, while Dane Brugler places him in the desert thanks to the Arizona Cardinals' pick at No. 25. Football.com draft expert David Seigerman ranked Shazier at No. 17 on his mid-season big board, while he didn't list Borland among the top 64 prospects. Let's step away from NFL potential as the 2013 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Award isn't about contracts beyond college. At least it shouldn't be. Offensive coordinators had to game plan around both Borland and Shazier, but the former had the benefit of an excellent pass defense behind him. Shazier ended the regular season backed by a defense ranked No. 104 when it came to deterring aerial assaults. If you could plan around the Buckeyes' front seven, you bought yourself a significant window of opportunity thanks to a disappointing season by cornerback Bradley Roby and the Ohio State secondary. Shazier had to lead the charge every snap to protect the team's vulnerable back end. He ended the regular season ranked Nos. 2, 4, 8 and tied at 48 nationally in four categories: tackles for loss (23.5), tackles (135; 95 solo), forced fumbles (8) and sacks (7), respectively. Borland only shows up in the Top 100 of these categories once, tied for No. 59 in tackles. The big, bad Badger did sit out nearly two games due to injury, but that's no reason to penalize Shazier for having the opportunity to put up his gaudy numbers. Keep in mind that the Buckeyes 'backer garnered Big Ten player of the week honors three times to Borland's single tip of the hat. The Associated Press also disagrees with the Big Ten, naming Shazier a first-team All-American while Borland took second-team honors. Both players had excellent seasons and likely will earn a pretty penny in the pros. As for who's the best defender in the Big Ten, the game of football finds another new way to underscore that it's a game of inches. Shazier finds himself with a first down in this argument while Borland stares at fourth and short. The Verdict This is a tough decision. Asking any college team if it would rather have Borland or Shazier roaming the field for its defense is like asking someone to choose between the red Lamborghini or the black one. I think the edge goes to Borland because he was, in fact, in a new scheme in his senior season and missed nearly two games. While Shazier’s stats were better, Borland had more cards stacked against him and the Badgers this season than Shazier and the Buckeyes. He didn't skip a beat.