The numbers against the Badgers:
- 11 rushing attempts for 39 yards (3.4 yards/carry), 1 fumble.
- 14-22 on passing attempts for 251 yards (63.6% comp%, 11.4 yards/attempt), 1 INT, 2 TD.
OK, now take out the 4 drives that occurred after we fell down by 21 points in the 4th quarter:
- 10 rushing attempts for 34 yards (3.4 yards/carry), 1 fumble.
- 8-13 on passing attempts for 91 yards (61.5% comp%, 7.0 yards/attempt), 1 INT.
Stepping back and looking at the big picture, here are the totals now for MSU's first-down plays against FBS opponents during non-garbage time situations (i.e., excluding the Montana State game and the final 4 drives against Wisconsin). I've taken out first-and-goal plays, but there are some non-first-and-10 plays in there resulting from penalties one way or the other.
MSU has gained 4 or more yards on 3 of 4 first-down QB runs in the data set. Take those out, and the percentage of first-down runs that have gone for 4 or more yards drops to 41.9%. I haven't looked at enough college football stats to know exactly where that puts us on the grading curve, but I think it's safe to say it's not a percentage that's going to keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night.
These numbers, on the other hand, are likely to have defensive coordinators paying attention. I haven't been consistently tracking the Cousins/Nichol splits on first-down plays, but the vast majority of those pass attempts are by Cousins. And his accuracy comes shining through. You'll also note the only interception in the table was thrown by Nichol.
MSU has thrown the ball on first down more often than it's run the ball in all three games we're looking at (under the restrictions I've imposed on the data), so we're not working from a 70/30 run/pass ratio. But there still does seem to be some room to pass the ball more frequently on first down. When you've only got a 2 out of 5 shot at avoiding second-and-long when you run the ball, a short pass attempt by Kirk Cousins (or even a Keith Nichol scramble) looks fairly appealing.
With the emergence of Caper and Winston, there may still be some hope for the running game. But at 1-3 and playing our in-state rival, there's no time like the present to go for broke with what's actually worked to date. As I've previously advocated: Put the ball in Kirk Cousins' right arm and see if he can deliver.