Mining the Box Score: MSU-Illinois

Box score is here.  Somewhat less riveting than the last two.

Offense

  • 73 yards on 25 carries for MSU running backs: only 2.9 yards/carry.  In total, the team ran for only 93 yards (including sacks), by far the lowest output of the year.  The previous low had been 175 yards vs. Wisconsin.  On a positive note, MSU picked up 30 yards on 6 carries on its final drive, when Illinois knew the run was coming (and that's excluding a 13-yard run by Keith Nichol, on a play I don't remember, on that series).
  • Also: I like the use of the Keshawn Martin end-around (3 carries for 18 yards) to mix things up when the running game is getting stuffed up the middle.  Don Treadwell did the same thing against Michigan: handing the ball off to Martin early in the 4th quarter after two consecutive three-and-out drives by MSU, setting up a long field goal drive.
  • Kirk Cousins: 13-24 for 201 yards.  54.2% completion percentage, 8.4 yards/attempt.  Nothing to write home about, but good enough to get the job done.  After being more patient against Michigan, Cousins put up a couple ill-advised throws into traffic; he needs to stop tempting fate with those.
  • Illinois posted a disruption percentage of 20.0%, led by 3 TFLs and 3 QB hurries by guys whose numbers start with "9."  Only one of those TFLs was a sack, FWIW.  Cousins was hurried a lot on play action passes that didn't seem to fool the Illini defenders.  That's something to worry about against Iowa (NOT that we're looking ahead!).  At some point, Treadwell needs to abandon the play action when the run game isn't working.  Hopefully, those situations will be few and far between going forward, as they have been through the first 7 games.
  • On 9 drives, MSU put up 4 field goals and 2 TDs, punted twice, and turned the ball over on downs once (quick snap/fake fumble FAIL).  After moving the ball only 34 yards on its first 3 drives, the team put up 40+ yards on 5 of its last 6 drives (kicking a field goal off of an interception on the 6th).  A healthy third-down conversion percentage of 50.0% helped compensate for the poor rushing results.

The other side of the ball after the jump

Defense

  • Illinois ran for 128 yards on 35 non-Scheelhaase rushes.  That's a very acceptable 3.7 yards/carry (from MSU's point of view).  Mikel Leshoure averaged just 3.6 yards/carry; MSU is the first defense to hold him below 4.0 yards/carry this season.
  • Nathan Scheelhaase threw for just 141 yards on 15-27 passing (55.6%, 5.2 yards/attempt).  MSU continues to limit big plays on defense.  The only Illinois offensive play to go for 20+ yards was the pass to A.J. Jenkins that eventually resulted in a fumble recovery for MSU.
  • DISRUPTION!  MSU posted a disruption percentage of 29.0%, which is the highest figure of the year if you exclude the Northern Colorado game.  Tyler Hoover led the way with 4 disruptive plays.  In total, the defensive line had 5.0 TFLs, including the first (half-)sack of William Gholston's career.
  • The total of 4 sacks posted by the team were a season high; in fact, the team had only posted more than 1 sack in one previous game (2 against Florida Atlantic).  Hopefully, that's a sign the defensive line is maturing.
  • Three more interceptions for the MSU secondary.  The team is now tied for 3rd in the country in interceptions at 12, trailing only Alabama and Florida (by one).
  • Illinois' 9 non-half-ending drives (excluding the FG off the Martin punt muff) ended in 1 field goal, 4 turnovers, and 4 punts.  Only 3 of the drives went for 30+ yards (two of which ended in turnovers).  Going back to the Michigan game, MSU has now held the opposing offense without a touchdown (and only 3 points total) on the last 15 non-half-ending drives that started on the opponent's side of midfield.

For the game, MSU outgained Illinois by only 39 yards (76, if you don't count the garbage-time drive by Ilinois to end the game).  The 4 turnovers created by the MSU defense and the right leg of Dan Conroy carried the day.  (Kevin Muma's 4 touchbacks and a 60-yard punt by Aaron Bates that pinned Illinois at its own 1-yard line helped, too).  Thankfully, the 84 yards of penalties against MSU weren't too costly.

While the MSU offense struggled more than it had in any previous game, the second-half efficiency (outside the red zone, at least) is encouraging.  And, bigger picture, the team is showing a well-rounded level of success unseen in East Lansing since, well, I don't know when.  With the season now more than 50% complete, and most Big Ten teams having played at least four BCS-conference-level opponents, MSU ranks as follows among Big Ten teams:

Unlike last year, when the passing game was the only really quality aspect of MSU's game (with the rush defense being acceptable), this team can compensate for mistakes and weaknesses in a given game (turnovers vs. Wisconsin; lack of rushing gains vs. Illinois; penalties in most games) with other strengths.  Further, turnovers may not continue to be such a large advantage, but at least they shouldn't be the major disadvantage they were last year.  If the team can cut down on the mistakes (still last in the league in penalty yardage) and get a little more efficient (/lucky) on 3rd downs (also last place), the sky's the limit. 

(Minor concern, which was particularly acute this week: the slow starts.  MSU is averaging 4.2 rushing yards/carry in the first quarter, vs. 7.1 and 6.7 in the 2nd and 3rd quarters.  [That reverts back to 4.2 yards in the 4th quarter, when opponents are often expecting the rush.]  Similarly, the team is completing only 58.5% of its first-quarter pass attempts, vs. 64%+ in the remaining three quarters.  Slow starts are OK against unidimensional opponents; they may come back to haunt us against more complete teams [*cough* Iowa *cough*].)

The balance this team has demonstrated through 7 games is what makes me less reticent about thinking big about the rest of the season (at least Big-Ten-title big; I'm still decidedly reserved on the BCS-title-game front).  If this team collapses the way some MSU teams have collapsed in the past, it will require collapses in several areas, not just one.  Based on the numbers to date, this team looks to be the not-so-same old Sparty.

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