SMILE!- a statistical case for optimism on offense

Mike Carter-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Overturning (and sometimes confirming) popular narratives about the Spartan offense, one stat at a time.

An animated representation of me addressing the more frustrated elements of the fanbase.

Every piece of analysis here will be its most convincing if you keep three macro-level pieces of data in mind:

1. A team does not need to be elite, or even good, at everything to challenge for a Big Ten title

To prove this, I looked at efficiency measures for teams who either won, or finished runner up in, the Big Ten title race since 2007. I looked at offensive and defensive yards per carry, and offensive and defensive yards per attempt.

Teams in bold either did, or would have, made it to the BTCG. Teams in italics would've lost on a tiebreaker.

The four 'major ranks' of title winners and contenders
Team Pass O Rush O Offensive Ranks Pass D Run D Defensive Ranks Combined Ranks Average of all categories Wins
2007 Ohio State 1 3 4 1 1 2 6 1.5 11
2010 Ohio State 2 3 5 1 1 2 7 1.75 0*
2008 Penn State 1 1 2 4 1 5 7 1.75 11
2009 Penn State 3 2 5 3 1 4 9 2.25 11
2008 Ohio State 4 4 8 1 3 4 12 3 10
2011 Wisconsin 1 1 2 4 8 12 14 3.5 11
2009 Ohio State 4 6 10 2 2 4 14 3.5 11
2010 Wisconsin 2 1 3 6 6 12 15 3.75 11
2011 Michigan State 4 9 13 2 1 3 16 4 11
2007 Illinois 6 1 7 6 5 11 18 4.5 9
2010 Michigan State 5 5 10 5 4 9 19 4.75 11
2009 Iowa 4 9 13 5 1 6 19 4.75 11
2012 Michigan State 12 7 19 2 1 3 22 5.5 ?
2007 Michigan 9 6 15 2 8 10 25 6.25 9
*Yeah, technically 12, but LOL you bros cheated.

Yes, there are four teams who finished in the top four of each category or better, but there are also nine who either had at least one flaw, or were average across the board. If you can do 2-3 out of these four things well, you're in good shape. MSU is at about 2.3 right now.

2. MSU has played a tough schedule so far.

-36th hardest overall, 2nd out of 12 in the B1G, 17th out of 69 BCS conference teams according to Sagarin.

-By FEI, only two teams in the Big Ten have played two opponents in the top 25 (Michigan, Michigan State), and only three have played at least two opponents even in the top 50 (Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State).

-Eastern and Central are both bad, but not much worse than other team's cupcakes.

3. It's all about us and our conference mates right now.

We don't have to play Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, or Notre Dame. Just the rest of the Big Ten's chuckleheads. We don't have to outrun the bear, we just have to outrun our fellow portly, out of breath, friends.

So with those points in mind, let's get into it.

Quarterback play: short of the sticks, passing on short 3rd downs, and the refusal to 'go deep'

Short 3rd downs

Let's address one popular criticism that's pretty easy to explain: "Why does the offense keep going to these 5 wide shotgun formations or PA passes on 3rd and short? Why aren't they pounding Bell?" It's because it's more effective.

On 3rd down and 3 or less, the 10 running plays attempted have gained 6 yards per carry and converted 6 first downs (a conversion rate of 60%).

On 3rd and 3 or less, the 8 passing plays attempted have gained 6.75 yards per attempt and converted 5 first downs (a conversion rate of 62.5%).

So that's the cut and dry explanation. Not good enough, huh?

Alright well, we can maybe find a bigger difference by tossing out the two 'cupcakes' and just looking at BSU and ND.

In those two games, passing on 3rd and 3 or less picked up first downs on 66.7% of attempts, compared to running's 60% of attempts, and passing outgained running about 3-1, 4.5 YPA compared to 1.6 YPC.

These are both really small sample sizes and differences, but if we're willing to expand our definition of what a 'short 3rd down' is (and yes, this is a bit of a statistical stretch on my part), it becomes clearer still.

On 3rd and 6 or less, the 16 run plays attempted gained 4.8 yards per carry and converted 7 first downs (a conversion rate of 43.8%).

On 3rd and 6 or less, the 17 pass plays attempted gained 7.4 yards per attempt and converted 13 first downs (a conversion rate of 76.5%)

Short of the sticks

Another popular criticism is throwing short of the 1st down mark on third down.

I can't get too contrarian with this one, as it's just true.

On 3rd and 10 or more, MSU is averaging just 7.6 yards per completion which means, on the average completed pass, they're just not throwing far enough to get the first down.

And on passing plays of 3rd and 7+, MSU has converted just 3 1st downs on 27 passing attempts. At an awful 3rd down conversion percentage of 11.1%, MSU has actually been more successful running the ball on 3rd and 7 or longer (having converted 1 out of 7 attempts, or 14.3%).

So yeah, there probably needs to be some serious evaluation done of the 3rd and long play calling.

And uhhhh, does this mean we should run the ball more on 3rd and long too? Well... maybe giving Bell the ball in these situations a few more times and saying ' go do something brilliant' really is a better bet than relying on this whack ass 3rd and long passing game.

Unleash the dragon

Ok, one more QB note.

People want this passing attack to start going deep more. Even Dantonio mentioned it earlier today, saying:

The answer to that question is, yeah, we need to go deep some, do different things. We certainly have it in our game plan. But that’s a decision that has to be made by Coach (Dan) Roushar at that point in time. We have to have time to throw it.

I read that as, "We're trying, jerkfaces." Part of the issue is shaky pass protection, part of the issue is a lack of confidence on Maxwell's part (Two of the team's four turnovers vs Boise came on 'deep routes'), and part of the issue is Roushar is providing him with check downs routes. Could the team really force the issue by calling three verts or four verts more often until Maxwell makes the throws and receivers make the catches? Yeah. Do I necessarily want that to happen? Ehhh, no.

The thing is, the passing offense isn't as lacking in big plays as it seems, even when compared to some of MSU's past successful seasons. Even if the ball isn't traveling 30 or 40 yards through the air they've been alright at picking up chunks of yardage.

The easiest way to compare this is to simply break down the team's big passing plays on a per game basis:

Big Passing Plays- per game average
Year Team Games 10 yards+ 20 yards+ 30 yards+ 40 yards+ 50 yards+ 60 yards+ 70 yards+ 80 yards+ 90 yards+
2010 Michigan State 13 9.8 3.4 1.5 0.5 0.1 0 0 0 0
2011 Michigan State 14 9.7 3.2 1.6 0.9 0.5 0.2 0 0 0
2012 Michigan State 4 9.8 2.8 1.0 0.5 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0

MSU has lagged behind in 20+ and 30+ yarders. but has more or less held their own in the other categories.

But for a fairer look we can check just the first four games of these three seasons:

Big Passing Plays- 1st 4 games
Year Team Games 10 yards+ 20 yards+ 30 yards+ 40 yards+ 50 yards+ 60 yards+ 70 yards+ 80 yards+ 90 yards+
2010 Michigan State 4 37 16 7 2 1 0 0 0 0
2011 Michigan State 4 40 11 5 2 2 0 0 0 0
2012 Michigan State 4 39 11 4 2 0 0 0 0 0

And we see a very similar story. Almost exactly on par with last year through this time, and about a 20 to 30 yard catch a game behind 2010. If the receivers can figure out their dropsies (more on that later) even a little bit, you should see those numbers normalize.

Le'Veon Bell and the specter of Javon Ringer

In a ideal world for Spartan fans there would be a little ticker on the screen that counted up Le'Veon's total touches and once that number hit 30 or so, everyone could hit an app that would cause a klaxon and a flashing red light to go off in the coordinators booth.

We're all a little freaked out about his workload, and understandably so. After all, KJ provided the refresher on what happened to Ringer the last time Michigan State tried something like this.

But let's dig into this a little deeper. Bell's naturally been getting Ringer and Lorenzo White comparisons, but are those legit so far? A quick glance says, not really:

Javon Ringer 2008
Team Carries Yards YPC TDs
@ California 27 81 3 2
Eastern Mich. 34 135 3.97 5
Fla. Atlantic 43 282 6.56 2
Notre Dame 39 201 5.15 2
Total 143 699 4.9 11
Le'Veon Bell 2012
Team Carries Yards YPC TDs
24 Boise St. 44 210 4.77 2
Central Mich. 18 70 3.89 2
10 Notre Dame 19 77 4.05 0
Eastern Mich. 36 253 7.03 1
Total 117 610 5.2 5

Lorenzo White 1985
Team Carries Yards YPC TDs
Arizona State 39 174 4.5 1
Notre Dame 31 123 4.0 0
Western Mich 28 141 5.0 1
Iowa 39 226 5.8 2
Total 137 664 4.8 4

He's 20 carries (5 a game), behind where White was at this point, and 26 behind Ringer (6.5 a game). Their workloads so far just are not, to a decent extent, the same. I find it very unlikely that Bell will exceed Ringer's 390 carries, and I'm not even sure he'll come all that close.

But what if he does get up there, or stays around 25-30 carries a game? Then what happens? I'm pretty sure the answer is 'not much'.

I looked at the carries and yards for the twenty 'highest workload running backs' from 2008-2011 through their first 6 games and got this:

First Half
Running Back Carries per game Yards per game YPC
Javon Ringer 35 165 4.66
Donald Brown 30 178 5.95
Bobby Rainey 29 117 4.12
Bobby Rainey 2010 26 129 5.01
Branden Oliver 25 113 4.47
Jacquizz Rodgers 25 120 4.88
Ronnie Hillman 24 139 5.74
Daniel Thomas 24 130 5.39
Robbie Rouse 24 112 4.7
Jordan Toddman 24 140 5.96
Toby Gerhart 23 124 5.33
LeSean McCoy 23 115 5.1
LaMichael James 22 162 7.25
Rodney Stewart 22 103 4.6
Dion Lewis 22 123 5.63
Ryan Matthews 22 162 7.44
Shonn Greene 22 137 7.15
Anthony Dixon 21 112 5.24
John White IV 21 112 5.24
Montel Harris 18 82 4.6
Total 481 2575 5.35
Average 24.05 128.75 N/A
Le'Veon Bell (so far) 29 152 5.2

Through four games (the extra two games for other running backs on the list might end up helping or hurting Le'Veon's numbers, if I had to guess, I think his YPC and carries will both decline slightly after OSU and Indiana), Bell is putting up a close to average YPC, while being near the top of the list in carries per game. Worth noting that Ringer is in a category of his own over this time period.

But the question that I think we're really interested in is 'what happens to these high workload backs over the course of the season'? Is there a big dropoff in the second half of the season?

2nd Half
Running Back Carries per game Yards per game YPC
Bobby Rainey 33 165 5.01
Jordan Toddman 32 142 4.42
Bobby Rainey 2010 31 146 4.72
Toby Gerhart 29 161 5.54
Montel Harris 29 138 4.8
Dion Lewis 28 152 5.47
John White IV 27 121 4.52
Donald Brown 27 145 5.4
Lamichael James 27 127 4.75
Robbie Rouse 26 125 4.71
Rodney Stewart 26 117 4.49
Branden Oliver 26 119 4.7
Shonn Greene 26 147 5.78
Javon Ringer 25 93 3.65
Anthony Dixon 25 138 5.53
LeSean McCoy 25 114 4.62
Ryan Matthews 24 139 5.75
Ronnie Hillman 24 125 5.29
Jacquizz Rodgers 22 107 4.78
Daniel Thomas 22 115 5.25
Total 533 2636 4.95
Average 26.65 131.8 N/A
Le'Veon Bell ??? ??? ???

Yes, there is a dropoff. No, it's not a very big one.

Of the seven running backs who saw their YPC drop a half a yard or more from the 1st half of the season to the 2nd half, 3 came from YPCs that are more or less unsustainable over this many carries (7.44, 7.25, and 7.15) in the first half of the season to more reasonable rates in the 2nd half (5.75, 5.96, 4.75), 3 went from good (5.96, 5.24, 5.95) to average/good (4.42, 4.52, 5.4) and one, just one, went from average (4.66) to bad (3.65).

Six running backs even saw increases in their YPC from the 1st half of the season to the second half.

But that one player who went from average to bad is, of course, Javon Ringer. And as Spartan fans, this means we will naturally be freaked out when we see someone like Bell getting as many carries as he's getting. But unless Bell gets more up near 35 carries per game by the end of this next two game stretch, I really think it's best to treat Ringer as the outlier here. The chances are much better that Bell sees either no change, a modest decline, or maybe even a small increase in his production per carry.

Injury is, of course, a possibility on any play, and I can't tell exactly how likely Le'veon is to get injured by this heavy workload. But I can tell you that there's a really high likelihood that the worst performance effects of this will be a modest decrease down to, oh, 4.7 YPC over the last part of the season. As long as he doesn't get too injured, his performance should remain relatively high.


First let's look at a pretty ugly chart:

Targets and Catches 2012
Player Targets Catches Yards TD Catches/Targets Yards per target Yards per catch
Dion Sims 35 22 277 2 62.86% 7.9 12.6
Keith Mumphery 29 15 154 0 51.72% 5.3 10.3
Bennie Fowler 26 14 161 1 53.85% 6.2 11.5
Le'Veon Bell 18 12 67 0 66.67% 3.7 5.6
Tony Lippett 17 10 119 0 58.82% 7.0 11.9
Larry Caper 5 1 8 0 20.00% 1.6 8.0
Andre Sims Jr. 5 3 23 0 60.00% 4.6 7.7
Aaron Burbridge 3 2 14 0 66.67% 4.7 7.0
DeAnthony Arnett 3 1 48 0 33.33% 16.0 48.0
Lawrence Thomas 3 2 17 0 66.67% 5.7 8.5
MacGarrett Kings 3 3 20 0 100.00% 6.7 6.7
Andrew Gleichert 1 1 8 0 100.00% 8.0 8.0
N/A 1 0 0 0 N/A N/A N/A
Total 149 86 916 3 57.72% 6.1 10.7
Total/4 37.25 21.5 229 0.75 N/A N/A N/A

This chart tells us how often receivers are being thrown to, and how often they're catching balls thrown their way (not the same as drops). Yards per Target is to receivers as Yards Per Attempt is to quarterbacks.

Dion Sims is obviously doing great. Keep doing your thing Dion.

The receiver data is where it gets interesting. If you asked people to rank MSU's three starting wide receivers, I'd guess most would say 1. Mumphery 2.Fowler 3. Lippett. But these rankings seem to suggest that order should be 1. Lippett 2. Fowler 3. Mumphery. While Mumphery has not yet had a cringe-worthy fumble like the other two, the Maxwell-Mumphery combo has also been very inefficient, not a great trait when drops are still a concern.

But none of the three has been very good. So should MSU go to a youth movement. Wellll...

The 'veterans'
Player Targets Catches Yards TD Catches/Targets Yards per target Yards per catch
Keith Mumphery 29 15 154 0 51.72% 5.3 10.3
Bennie Fowler 26 14 161 1 53.85% 6.2 11.5
Tony Lippett 17 10 119 0 58.82% 7.0 11.9

The rookies
Player Targets Catches Yards TD Catches/Targets Yards per target Yards per catch
Andre Sims Jr. 5 3 23 0 60.00% 4.6 7.7
Aaron Burbridge 3 2 14 0 66.67% 4.7 7.0
DeAnthony Arnett 3 1 48 0 33.33% 16.0 48.0
MacGarrett Kings 3 3 20 0 100.00% 6.7 6.7

In limited reps, Andre Sims hasn't impressed and has a drop or two. Burbridge likewise has looked underwhelming in games so far. Arnett is explosive, but has had two drops in three tries, Kings is consistent but unexplosive thus far. Rookies get limited chances to prove themselves and I can't say any of these guys have done anything on the field to earn a start over what presumably the coaches are seeing out of the starting three in practice.

If you're curious, this is where we were at this point last year.

Targets and Catches 2011
Player Targets Catches Yards TD Catches/Targets Yards per target Yards per catch
B.J. Cunningham 39 29 428 1 74.36% 11.0 14.8
Keshawn Martin 19 14 132 0 73.68% 6.9 9.4
Dion Sims 17 9 80 3 52.94% 4.7 8.9
Keith Nichol 14 7 117 0 50.00% 8.4 16.7
Larry Caper 9 8 77 1 88.89% 8.6 9.6
Le'Veon Bell 8 6 40 0 75.00% 5.0 6.7
Tony Lippett 7 4 44 0 57.14% 6.3 11.0
Brian Linthicum 6 4 24 0 66.67% 4.0 6.0
Brad Sontag 5 5 41 0 100.00% 8.2 8.2
Keith Mumphery 4 2 39 0 50.00% 9.8 19.5
Edwin Baker 4 4 43 0 100.00% 10.8 10.8
Todd Anderson 2 2 23 0 100.00% 11.5 11.5
Chris D. Rucker 1 0 0 0 0.00% 0.0 0.0
Derek Hoebing 1 0 0 0 0.00% 0.0 0.0
N/A 1 0 0 0 0.00% 0.0 0.0
Drew Stevens 1 0 0 0 0.00% 0.0 0.0
Garrett Celek 1 1 8 0 100.00% 8.0 8.0
Total 139 95 1096 5 68.35% 7.9 11.5
Total/4 34.75 23.75 274 1.25 N/A N/A N/A

Drops and room for improvement

I'm not sure what the exact number of drops is so far, I've not really been able to find a source keeping track over the full season. I do know that we've had at least 13 in the last two games, and with a couple coming to mind from the first two games, I'm going to conservatively set the Spartan's season total at 16. If someone can get my better numbers, I can rerun these calculations.

But let's go with 16 drops, 4 a game so far. This number is, i think we can agree, abnormal. Even bad college receivers, in heavy passing offenses, probably won't drop 4 a game. Coming into this season, I thought 1 a game was a near certainty, 2 a game was likely, and 3 a game was possible. But 4? Get out of town. And yet, here we are.

Now the question is, do you think MSU will stay averaging four drops a game? I, for one, can't see it. And I think once we see improvement, any improvement at all, the passing game will start to look considerably better. Consider this, if I told you every dropped pass would've gone the average amount of yards per catch this year (not true, they've, to my recollection, been quite a bit further down-field in a majority of cases, but this way is simplest for now), how much would simply catching those passes improve the Spartan passing offense? Take a look:

Extreme drops and a potential return to normality
If... Targets Catches Yards Catch % YPT YPC
0% of drops were catches 149 86 916 57.72% 6.1 10.7
25% of drops were catches 149 90 959 60.40% 6.4 10.7
50% of drops were catches 149 94 1002 63.09% 6.7 10.7
75% of drops were catches 149 98 1044 65.77% 7.0 10.7
100% of drops were catches 149 102 1087 68.46% 7.3 10.7

If MSU was simply dropping 3 passes a game instead of 4, under these conservative guidelines, Maxwell is likely up over 60% completion percentage. If MSU really makes progress and is dropping 1 ball a game instead of 4, Maxwell would be completing almost 10% more of his passes, and averaging almost a full yard more per target.

I've read some pretty crazy hyperbole over the past week or two (Fowler's never going to be good, Lippett should be moved back to CB), after the growing pains have been rougher than expected. But I'm not ready to give up on those three yet. They've had four games and looked mostly bad, but I'm personally going to give them another four, at least. If after OSU, Ind, Iowa, and Mich we're still seeing the same performances, then I'll be right with others calling for the youth movement. Until then, I'm going to give the junior and two sophomores in the starting lineup a few more chances.

Offensive line

Offensive line stats? You're funny. I'd just say that the line, despite the amount of pressure other team's are sometimes getting, is at least, with the help of Bell and Maxwell, limiting negative plays. The team is 2nd in the conference in sacks allowed, and 4th in tackles for loss allowed.

The inside core of the line (Allen, Jackson, McDonald) seems mostly fine, it's the tackles, France (particularly in run blocking) and Burkland (very, very much in pass blocking) who are struggling. The season long trouble has been with edge rushers, DEs yes, but more so OLBs and CBs; and defensive stunts. Scheme needs to be adjusted so that, in particular, Burkland, who's not the fastest guy in the world, isn't one-on-one with all these speedsters with no help. if the team's running could become a little less 'right handed' (I'd say a significant majority of run plays are going to the right, often with Allen pulling) that might help as well.

If I have time, I'll try to zero in on one or two of the most egregious issues in some X's and O's stuff.


The defense seems to be at the necessary level, and the running game seems to be very close. There is nowhere to go but up for the passing game and even after what I've seen so far, I just can't accept that the raw materials there won't be enough to surpass the Iowa's and Purdue's and Illinois' of the conference towards something at least mediocre. MSU's performance on offense, if you adjust for the schedule, hasn't actually been far off what they've done in the past two years on their way to eleven wins.

In short,

-Passing game strategy has been fine (except they might want to change it up on 3rd and long)

-Le'Veon Bell, as long as he isn't missing like, 3-4 wholes games, shouldn't wear down much.

-The WRs (and to a lesser extent, Maxwell) look bad because of drops. Drops will go down, if only because they have to (Right? RIGHT?)

-Offensive line still seems better than last year, and will probably be better than 2010 if the tackles shape up in pass protection. Maxwell being smart with the ball helps.

Now, throw your pretzels.

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