Mining the Box Score: Northwestern Edition

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Here's to the linebackers.  (Photo credit: MSU FB page.)

MSU-NW box score is here.  Up-to-date MSU season statistics are here.  Up-to-date Big Ten statistical leaders are here.

Bullet-pointing through the numbers from Saturday:

  • How do you beat a team that gains 3 more first downs than you do (22-19) by 10 points?  One way is to give up the majority of those first downs on your opponent's side of the field.  Of Northwestern's 13 offensive possessions, 10 resulted in drives of at least 20 yards.  But 8 of those drives ended with 41 yards or less of yardage, meaning the Wildcats got into the redzone just twice (scoring touchdowns both times).  The bend-but-don't-break thing definitely worked Saturday.  The question is whether the success was a function of (a) the MSU defense buckling down once Northwestern crossed midfield, (b) the Northwestern spread offense stalling out when it had less room to work with downfield, or (c) good old-fashioned random good fortune.  (Option (b) seems unlikely to me, since Kafka threw downfield pretty infrequently.)
  • Continuing on that line of thought: A combined 39 tackles for the 3 starting linebackers (15 for Eric Gordon, 14 for Greg Jones, 10 for Brandon Denson).  Once again, Pat Narduzzi stuck with the base 4-3 defense for 90% of the defensive snaps, even against 4- and 5-WR sets.  It seemed like Northwestern was picking up 5-10 gains at will on passes toward the sidelines all game, but in the end the linebackers made enough plays to get those 8 Northwestern drives in the 20-to-41-yard range to stall out.  And, as Pete noted in the game recap, 4.5 of those 39 tackles went for a loss.  The result was cumulative losses of 22 yards for Mike Kafka, partially offsetting the 64 yards he picked up eluding Spartan tacklers all afternoon.  (He was particularly elusive against MSU defensive linemen, who recorded just 1.0 TFLs.)
  • 47 pass attempts and 18 rush attempts by Kafka (including the 3 sacks) for Northwestern vs. 6 rush attempts by running backs.  That's the definition of a one-man show.  Easy to see why Kafka seemed to run out of gas on the two final Wildcat drives.
  • Zero sacks allowed by the MSU O-line. This may sound repetitive, but Kirk Cousins had all day to throw the ball all day.
  • The result: 4 pass completions of 20 yards or more to Blair White.  3 of them in the 2nd half, when Don Treadwell seemed to stumble on the concept of the play-action pass.
  • Only one pass completion to a tight end this week (Charlie Gantt).  Can we bust the Ganthisimslek monster out against Iowa, please?
  • Total of 18 yards in negative results for the two running backs.  The telegraphing of the runs up the middle needs to stop.

First-down stats:

  • 15 rushing attempts for 83 yards (5.5 yards/carry).  Two of those attempts were a first-and-goal from the four and a Keshawn Martin end around.  Of the 13 first-and-10 carries by running backs, 8 went for 4 yards or more.  The run blocking was actually pretty darn good when the defense didn't necessarily know a run was coming.  Only one first down run went for a loss (of 3 yards); the other 15 negative RB rushing yards came in (presumably) shorter-yardage situations in which the Wildcats were expecting the run.
  • 9-13 on passing attempts for 119 yards (69.2% Comp%, 9.2 yards/attempt).  And one of the 4 incompletions was a dropped pass by Martin that would have gone for a healthy gain.  First-down play-action passes = YES, PLEASE.

In the full-season stats category:

  • Still the #1 passing offense in the league: total yardage (280.4/game), yards/attempt (8.5), TD-INT ratio (15-7), and pass efficiency (146.3).
  • We've crept up to #6 in rushing yardage per game but (1) we're over 20 yards/game behind the #5 team and (2) our numbers are skewed upward by the low number of sacks allowed.  (Nichol/Cousins rushing yards may also be a factor, although there are certainly other Big Ten teams with mobile QBs.)  For the season, MSU running backs are averaging just 3.85 yards/carry.  Take out the Montana State game and that number drops to 3.71.
  • Put it all together and we rank #3 in both total offense and total scoring.
  • Blair White now ranks 4th in the league in receiving yards per game (90.7) and 2nd in receiving TDs (6).
  • Somehow, the MSU defense now ranks 4th in the conference in scoring defense and 5th in total defense.  In both cases, I'd note we're there's a large gap between the top 3 defenses in the league (Penn State, Ohio State, Iowa) and the #4 team.
  • Third in the league in rush defense.  I think that ranking would hold even if you backed out lost yardage from sacks.
  • Ninth in the league in pass defense--although we're in the middle of a clump of 6 teams within 15 yards/game of each other.  (So we have an average below-average defense against the pass.)
  • Greg Jones leads the conference in tackles/game at 12.1.  Surprisingly, he ranks "just" 4th in solo tackles.
  • We're dead last in red zone defense: both scoring percentage (18/19=94.7%) and TD percentage (13/19=68.4%).  Let's hope those are regression-to-the-mean kind of numbers.
  • Ninth in the league in penalty yards/game (58.7), ahead of only Indiana and Illinois.  Not the kind of company to keep if you want to compete for a conference title.

In the looking-ahead-to-next-week category:

  • Reason for optimism vs. Iowa: MSU now ranks 1st in the conference in both sacks allowed (6) and sacks by the defense (21, tied with PSU).  Iowa, meanwhile, ranks 8th in both categories (15 and 13, respectively).
  • Reason for pessimism vs. Iowa: Despite the two forced fumbles on Saturday, MSU still ranks dead last in the conference in turnovers created (8).  Iowa, on the other very menacing hand, ranks 1st with 22 (15 interceptions, 7 forced fumbles).
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