The eleventh point, negative six yards, and the thirty-seven yard line.

Matthew Holst

The eleventh point.

At a certain threshold, an 11 point lead, Mark Dantonio's Michigan State squads turn essentially invincible. In the 41 games they've gone up by 11 or more points at any time during the game, they are 40-1. This past game felt pretty secure when MSU went up two scores with 13:28 left in the 4th quarter. It felt in the absolutely in the bag when Geiger put them up 12 points with 5:25 left. The same way the 4th quarters became formalities against both USF and WMU even in two games that MSU won by a combined 27 points. But even in the first or second quarter, falling down 11 points to MSU might as well be game over these days.

"Oh, big deal." you might be saying, "A team who goes up two scores win almost all of those games. Wow, fascinating. Excellent discovery, Dr. Dorland."

You don't understand.

Johnelle_zpsffa34096_medium

YOU.

In games where MSU leads by 11 or more.

Coach

Wins

Losses

Winning %

John L. Smith

20

4

83.33%

Mark Dantonio

40

1

97.56%

John L. Smith let four leads of 11 plus points slip into losses, an average of one game per year he was here. Of course, everyone remembers Michigan in 2004 and Notre Dame in 2006. After some thinking, die-hard fans could also probably name Hawaii in 2004. But can you name Smith's 4th blown lead of 11 or more points*? And, as one last trivia question: Can you name Dantonio's only loss after reaching that 11 point margin**?

Six of the last seven games MSU lost, they had a lead at some point, but just two of those games had 10 point MSU leads (we'll try to ignore grumbles of how big the lead should have been against Nebraska), the other four games featured slim Spartan leads of 4, 3, 1, and 2 points. As Iowa got the ball with 4 minutes left down 12, even as Ruddock quickly completed two passes for a first down, then later went 5/6 for 36 yards halfway through the drive, I didn't have any nerves at all. Unlike the previous regime, there's a near iron-clad security in going up two touchdowns or so, and it feels pretty great.

Negative Six Yards.

How many total yards the Spartan offense lost on their four tackles for loss allowed vs Iowa, none sacks. Excluding their kneel-downs at the end, this means the Spartans took a loss on just 5% of their 79 plays. Even more encouraging, after getting hit for all four of those losses on their first 27 plays, they ran 52 straight plays without a loss to close out the game.

When you average 4.75 yards a play, and your 'chunk plays' from scrimmage look like this (national rank in parentheses):

MSU plays of...

10+ yards

20+ yards

30+ yards

62 (103rd)

16 (116th)

3 (120th)

your offense is constantly on a razor's edge to keep drives alive. But everything can still work out as long as you do one thing, and MSU does it: don't take losses.

MSU is 2nd in the Big 10 in both TFL allowed per game, and sacks allowed per game, but that's a nice complement as that comes out to 8th and 4th nationally in those same respective categories. Simply put MSU does not give up tackles for loss very easily (just 3.8 per game), and when they do, it's not for a very big loss (2.94 yards lost per average TFL, good for 19th nation-wide).

This is important for two reasons. First off, MSU is awful when they get too far behind the chains: MSU has not gained a single first down on 3rd downs of 10 or more yards this year. And of their 31 attempts at converting a 3rd and 7 or longer, MSU has gotten the first down just 7 times (or 22.5% of the time).

So they simply do their best not to get into those situations. Though it's still early in the season of course, and I'd expect this number to go down some, MSU has gotten into 3rd down and 6, or less, at a higher, considerably higher, rate than any of their previous six full seasons:

% of 3rd downs that are 6 yards or less.

Year

Percent of 3rd downs

2013

63.53%

2012

51.85%

2011

55.45%

2010

46.43%

2009

48.82%

2008

46.41%

2007

57.35%

Avg 2007-2012

51.36%

These 3rd and 6s, or less, are converted by MSU at a 44.4% clip, very respectable, and over 20 percentage points higher than their conversion rates of 3rd and 7s or more. Avoiding negative plays keeps MSU ahead of the chains which in turn keeps MSU's typically half-dozen, to a dozen, play scoring drives alive.

The second reason few negative plays are important is because MSU still takes a lot of null plays. The only thing wrong with averaging 4.75 yards per play is variance. If you could guarantee you could gain exactly 4.75 yards on every play, every third down would be 3rd and half a yard, which you would convert every time, and touchdown drives would take forever, but as long as you didn't commit a turnover, would also inevitably march across the goal-line like death itself.

The problem of course, is variance does exist. As an issue I've talked about basically every week, 19 of Connor Cook's 44 passes on Saturday went for 0 yards. And another five MSU carries were stopped for zero yards. So after these 28 null or negative plays for -6 yards (-0.21 YPP), this means that in order to get to the 5.26 yards per play MSU averaged before they started kneeling down, the remaining 51 plays had to gain 416 yards (8.15 YPP) to pick up the slack. Of course, they did.

Throw in the offensive penalties, and you can see why its been vital that MSU has gained positive, or at least null, yardage on the vast majority of its plays so far.

The 37 yard line

MSU's field position dominance in this game, mentioned earlier by Chris and KJ, wasn't in the top 10% of Dantonio's games here, but it was in the top 25%, coming in at 19th out of 84th overall, and 10th out of 66th vs BCS opponents. Maybe importantly in a balanced win, the field position too was balanced, with MSU's average starting drive yard-line of 37 coming in at t-21st in Dantonio's tenure, and their opponent's starting on the 25 yard-line, t-15th. Essentially, Iowa started every drive as if they'd taken a touch-back, and MSU started every drive as if Iowa had kicked off out of bounds.

And that MSU field position came about in a multitude of different ways. A punt forced from the Iowa 13 was fair caught on the MSU 46. An Dennard interception and run back gave MSU the ball on the Iowa 23. An 11 yard punt return gave MSU the ball on their 42, a later 30 yard PR gave MSU the ball on the Iowa 36. It almost doesn't matter that MSU only cashed in 6 points on those four starting points, that type of field position over time, combined with MSU's ability to almost inexplicably put together multiple 15 play, 75 yard, drives per game might get MSU to the necessary 24 points or so to win almost all of their remaining games.

Trivia Answers

*a 12 point lead to Louisiana Tech in 2003.

** a 14 point half-time lead that disintegrated to the Iowa Hawkeyes, at Kinnick Stadium, in 2007.

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