Mining the Box Score: MSU-Wisconsin

Box score is here.  It's a looker.

Offense

  • 190 yards on 37 carries for the three running backs.  That's a very solid 5.1 yards/carry.  Including QB and WR runs, the team put up exactly 200 yards.  MSU didn't hit that mark even once last season in Big Ten play (although they came very close against Michigan and Illinois).  By my count, the backs picked up at least 4 yards on 14 of 27 non-goal-to-go carries.  The very effective running game we saw in non-conference play was not a mirage.
  • That, in turn, set up some very effective play-action passing.  Kirk Cousins completed 69.0% of his pass attempts and averaged 9.3 yards per attempt.  Six receivers caught at least two passes (plus the Caper screen pass), led by Mark Dell with 6 catches for 91 yards.  Two interceptions--one that was Cousins' fault, one that wasn't.  Going into the Michigan game, Cousins will need to be just a tad more patient.  He should be able to throw for big gains against the depleted Wolverine secondary most of the day; no sense throwing the ball into traffic on the plays when things don't open up.
  • Great balance once again: 9 first downs on passes, 10 on rushes.
  • The 2 conversions on 3 fourth down attempts have, quite rightly, gotten a lot of attention, but the 9-18 performance on 3rd down was perhaps even bigger.  It was the first time MSU has converted 50% or more of its third-down plays since the opener versus Montana State last year.
  • Time of possession is often a misleading stat (aptly identified as football's #unicornstat by Brian Cook), but in this game it tells the story.  Wisconsin is a team that wants to put together long drives with a strong running game and short passes.  As several observers have noted, MSU beat Wisconsin at its own game, controlling the ball for more than 36 minutes.
  • Wisconsin posted a disruption percentage of 21.6, which is decent, but, outside of the 3 turnovers, it wasn't enough to knock MSU out of rhythm.  The pass blocking continues to be just so-so: 2 sacks and 3 QB hurries allowed.
  • MSU's 11 non-half-ending drives resulted in 4 touchdowns, 2 field goals, 1 failure to convert on 4th down, 3 turnovers, and just 1 punt.  The way things are going at the moment, the only thing that can stop the MSU offense is . . . the MSU offense.
  • On a stathead note, hopefully this game is another step forward in the going-for-it-on-4th-down movement.  It obviously paid off twice.  And the nonsuccessful attempt may actually be the most compelling evidence for why you should go for it: Failure results in giving the other team the ball in the most disadvantageous position possible.  In this case, Wisconsin played things very close to the vest, failed to pick up the first down from its own one, and punted it right back to MSU at midfield, leading to a Spartan touchdown.

The other side of the ball after the jump

Defense

  • The Wisconsin backs were plenty productive on the day, putting up 190 yards on 29 carries (6.6 yards/carry).  50 of those yards came on two James White TD runs.  MSU did, however, hold John Clay below 100 yards for the first time in 11 games, and, perhaps more impressively, held him below 20 carries (he carried it 17 times).  That only happened once in Big Ten play last season (against Indiana).
  • The major leap forward was, of course, on pass defense.  Scott Tolzien came into the game with a career completion percentage of 66.7%.  Saturday, he completed only 44% of his passes (11-25).  There were a few bad drops in there by Badger receivers, but there were also 5 pass break-ups by MSU defenders (3 by defensive backs, 2 by linebackers).  Further, MSU limited big plays, allowing only two pass completions of more than 17 yards.  (BTW, MSU is now tied--with Ohio State--for the Big Ten lead in defensive pass completion percentage, hard is that may be to believe.)
  • The pass rush was good enough.  Only 1 sack, but, as noted by LVS, MSU posted 3 QB hurries and forced two holding penalties that they then declined after nevertheless denying 3rd-down conversions.  That's an acceptable performance in light of the fact that the only upperclassmen starters on the defensive line (Colin Neely and Kevin Pickelman) were out with injuries (both are listed as starters on this week's depth chart, so hopefully they'll be available against Michigan).  Denzel Drone stepped up, posting the one sack, a QB hurry, and a forced fumble.
  • 25.0% disruption percentage for MSU.  That's a superb number.  Last season, Michigan and Illinois were the only opponents against which MSU got above even 17%.  Greg Jones led the way with 3 tackles for loss and a QB hurry.  Outside of Jones, 4 disruptive plays were made by defensive linemen, 3 were made by linebackers, and 3 were made by defensive backs--so pretty good balance.
  • Excluding the drive to end the first half and final drive, when MSU was in prevent mode, Wisconsin only put together drives of more than 25 yards 3 times in 10 tries.  An equal number of drives were three-and-outs.  The fact that the Badgers could only convert on 3 of 11 third-down attempts was key there.

Special Teams

  • Keshawn Martin is a game-changer. The punt return TD obviously helped MSU overcome the early turnovers.  It also pretty clearly caused the Wisconsin punter to shank his next punt attempt trying to put extra hang time on the ball.

Two-word summary: Complete performance.  Only four penalties, too (minor quibble: two of them came on kick returns; let's not blow any future Keshawn Martin TD returns with holds away from the ball, OK?).  It's still very early in terms of playing quality competition, but you couldn't ask for much more in a Big Ten opener against a top-25 opponent.

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