6 'Free' Ways the Spartan Offense Could Improve in 2013

USA TODAY Sports

But wait- There's more! Call now and we'll throw in an improved intermediate passing game, AT NO EXTRA CHARGE!

The quickest, most straight forward, way to put more yards and points on the board is to have a great player or pair of players fly out of the preseason gates to ratchet up your team's offensive power level.

This isn't impossible, or even unlikely (see: 2007 Javon Ringer and Devin Thomas, 2009 Blair White and Kirk Cousins, 2010 Edwin Baker), but it doesn't happen every year, and maybe your offense has some problems that one or two new impact guys might not fix all the way.

The easiest way to put more yards and points on the board is to catch a couple breaks. And Michigan State is totally prepped to catch a couple breaks in 2013.

The following examples require may or may not require some tangible improvement on Michigan State's part, but nothing requires a breakout performance from any particular player or position group. Indeed, because some of these 'issues' are essentially uncontrollable by a given football team, all that is required is the blessed providence of Football God, Lord of the Football (AKA regression to the mean).

Fumble Recoveries

A fumble recovery on offense means you've just kept your possession alive. A fumble recovery on defense means your offense is walking out onto the field with a likely 20-40 yards (or more) of 'free' field position compared to if the other team had punted or scored. More fumble recoveries means more short fields and more (or extended) possessions, both things an offense likes.

Here's a really interesting article that's worth your time, but while it offers nice data on how fumbles happen, and particularly shows that putting hits on players behind the LOS is the best way to jar the ball loose, it doesn't quite do enough to overturn my suspicions that most fumbles are still more accident than intent, and most fumble recoveries are more based on whether the oblong fumble bounces randomly bounces towards your'n dudez or his'n dudez.

I mean:

You can't explain that. Nobody can. It's unexplainable. And to the extent that most fumbles seem to happen from some player getting tackled, the ball popping out, and then everyone waiting to see where the ball happens to bounce on that play, than they do to a defender purposefully ripping the ball from a ball-carrier, I'm still mostly in the 'fumbles = luck' camp.

So why is that an important distinction? Because if fumbles are mostly, even partly luck-based the Spartans are got-danged due, man. Tables:

Offensive Fumbles 2007-2012 :(
Group Fumbles Fumbles Lost % recovered
Other B1G Teams 1244 614 49.36%
Michigan State 110 52 47.27%
And...
2007-2012 :( :( :( :( :( :(
Group Fumbles Forced Fumbles Recovered % recovered
Other B1G Teams 1258 640 50.87%
Michigan State 108 46 42.59%

The Spartans have finished (counting upward from 2007) 9th, 6th 5th, 11th, 12th, and 8th in the conference in 'fumble recovery % of opponent's fumbles' over the Dantonio era, only twice posting percentages over 50%.

On the offensive side of the ball, things have been better, but not what you'd call lucky, with the team finishing 8th, 6th, 6th, 6th, 4th, and 4th in terms of recovering their own fumbles.

Basically, at some point, MSU is going to hit the fumble jackpot and have one, or even both, of these recovery rates jump up to 60%+ and 1st, 2nd, 3rd in the conference. Maybe this only means a swing of maybe like +2 in turnover margin but then again, maybe more like +8 depending on how many fumbles we force and lose respectively (as an extreme example Michigan went from -7 in 2010 to +14 in fumble recoveries in 2011. Football God hates Rich Rod.). Would anyone say no to a couple (or half dozen. Or dozen) of 'free' turnovers gained or avoided next year?

Big Plays

I think there's a misconception about big plays in that they mostly happen when some offensive coordinator out-schemes his opposing defensive coordinator, or when a player or handful of players do something really exceptional, but I don't think that's true. That's probably I don't know, a third of them. The other two-thirds of big plays happen because someone on the other team simply screws up big time. How many times have you seen a player bust a long touchdown because a defender fell over, or made a weak tackle attempt, or ran to the completely wrong place on the field?

MSU caught a handful of these breaks last year (Bennie Fowler's deflecto-TD @Minnesota, OSU's LOLarious 'how not to tackle' clinic on Keith Mumphery), but not enough of them, and in a few cases, failed to take advantage when the opportunity arose.

I'm going say something and then you have to promise me you will never think about it again, after today, OK? Ready? Alright, here goes:

You can make the argument that Greg Davis at Iowa had an equally explosive offense as MSU did last year.

Finished vomiting? It's OK, take your time.

You good?

Alright.

How did that happen? Well, basically, MSU ran the 3rd most plays in the Big Ten but was only 7th-8th in the conference in turning those into long gains. Highly Inefficient.

2012 Percentage of scrimmage plays that went for...
Team 20+ yards 30+ yards 40+ yards 50+ yards 60+ yards 70+ yards
Nebraska 7.69% 3.17% 1.35% 1.06% 0.67% 0.48%
Michigan 7.44% 4.63% 2.80% 1.46% 0.85% 0.49%
Wisconsin 6.91% 2.81% 2.27% 1.62% 0.65% 0.00%
Ohio State 6.33% 3.46% 1.67% 1.19% 0.84% 0.36%
Indiana 5.88% 2.89% 1.50% 0.96% 0.53% 0.53%
Penn State 5.69% 2.36% 1.29% 0.21% 0.00% 0.00%
Purdue 5.43% 2.61% 1.78% 1.15% 0.63% 0.42%
Northwestern 5.19% 1.97% 0.93% 0.21% 0.21% 0.21%
Michigan State 5.12% 2.09% 0.94% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
Iowa 4.79% 2.27% 0.50% 0.13% 0.00% 0.00%
Minnesota 4.60% 2.01% 0.71% 0.35% 0.24% 0.12%
Illinois 4.27% 0.75% 0.75% 0.38% 0.13% 0.00%

This was the 2nd straight year of decline, and the big drop of an ugly downward slope:

Percentage of scrimmage plays that went for...
Team 20+ yards 30+ yards 40+ yards 50+ yards 60+ yards 70+ yards
2012 Michigan State 5.12% 2.09% 0.94% 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
2011 Michigan State 6.91% 2.77% 1.28% 0.74% 0.32% 0.00%
2010 Michigan State 7.34% 3.30% 1.47% 0.61% 0.37% 0.24%

The complete lack of what football scientists call 'super-big plays' (gains of 50+ yards on a single play) has been dubiously achieved by just three teams in the last three years:

-2012 Michigan State

-2012 Utah

-2011 Florida Atlantic

The good news again, is that it should be more likely than not that a offensive chock full of returning players can take advantage of probable increase in opponents mistakes (if by virtue of nothing else but the likely easier schedule offering worse defenses), and additionally, with some help from new offensive coaches) create some big plays of their own design as well.

Drops

So that figure of 66 drops has been going around and I don't know exactly how accurate it is, but hey, I'm gonna go with it, because it certainly sounds like what I remember from last year.

I posted most of this analysis on a comment to a different article but I'm re-posting it here, because it's probably as clear and succinct of a take that I have on the issue of drops and possible improvement next year:

So let’s assume that repeating 5.1 drops a game is statistically highly unlikely and also assume that every team is going to drop at least a ball a game. MSU’s passing attack completed an awful 52.5% of passes last year, but, improving nothing else except the ability of passes hitting the hands of the receiver to be caught last season, you get:

-4 drops a game, MSU completes 55.3% of passes.
-3 drops a game, MSU completes 58.1% of passes.
-2 drops a game, MSU completes 60.9% of passes.
-1 drop a game MSU completes 63.7% of passes.

Slightly modifying what I said after that:

You can probably toss out that last bullet for being unreasonable improvement, but you can more-or-less factor in a cheap, and fairly sizable, 2.8%-8.4% or so increase in completion percentage in 2013, along with all the positive offensive goodies that typically come along with reductions in drops (better YPA, better target rates, probably more TDs, probably fewer INTs?), based off nothing more than a return to the ‘catching the gotdang ball’ mean of 2-4 drops per game.

Obviously, improvements in drop rates are less 'free' than anything else on this list, and are likely corrected by hours and hours of hard work by receivers and quarterbacks over the Summer and Fall. But also like, c'mon man, 5 drops a game, a drop on every 3.35 incompletions? Even if the components of MSU's passing game didn't do any extra work after practice, I think those numbers would still go down.

Opponent's Penalties

This is something that's been a bit of a roller-coaster for MSU. In 2008 and 2009, no team in the conference got more free penalty yardage from opponent's errors than MSU did. But last year was a different story, as MSU was at the very bottom of the Big Ten in this category with opponents getting flagged for a measly 4.3 penalties a game for an equally measly 37.2 yards per game.

2012 Opposing Penalties
Team Yards Pen./G Yards/G
Minnesota 834 7.3 64.2
Indiana 721 6 60.1
Michigan 719 6.5 55.3
Nebraska 769 5.6 54.9
Ohio State 621 5.7 51.8
Penn State 595 5.9 49.6
Iowa 585 5.3 48.8
Northwestern 626 5.7 48.2
Purdue 618 5.8 47.5
Illinois 475 4.8 39.6
Wisconsin 554 4.6 39.6
Michigan State 483 4.3 37.2

Now, there's not really anything MSU can do to effect this directly (besides getting really sneaky good at hitting other player's with the Big Ten Championship Belt while the refs aren't looking) but there's no where to go but up from last place. And more opponent's penalties means in many cases either free or easier first downs on offense, or a greater likelihood of receiving the ball back, and with better field position, on defense.

(Also: IT'S A DADGUM CONSPIRACY PAWWWWWWLLLLLL)

Opposing Punt Average

MSU was 9th in the Big Ten as opposing teams got an average of 40.95 yards per punt vs the Spartans. A regression back towards say 39.5 yards per punt or so could net the Spartan the field position equivalent of a free 9 yards a game.

Not much, basically a free first down of yardage, but not nothing either, and with no effort or practice time needed to see gains on MSU's part.

Opposing punt average? Wow, you're really stretching to pad this list out, huh Heck?

Haha, shut up. It's not like I get paid by the word.

You could have fooled us.

Haha, shut up.

Opposing Field Goals

(Maybe massaging the offense/defense difference here, but can't talk about this, without talking about this)

There's not a lot you can do when an opponent sends out the field goal team. You can try and block it, but that usually depends more on a low kick or shoddy blocking then anything else and is pretty rare. You can try and ice the kicker, which I'm not sure is even more effective than not icing the kicker. And you can drop to your knee and pray to Football God, Lord of the Football. Basically you just hope that, like most kickers, the guy is going to miss at least 1 out of every 5 kicks and maybe this time is the 1 in that calculation.

MSU did not ,in fact, finish dead last in the nation in this category, technically speaking. Opponents of the University of Hawaii made 100% of their kicks last year, which is much less impressive when you find out they were only 4/4 on the season (I have a question: What? And also: How?).

But there is a really good case that MSU was unluckier in this respect than any team in over half a decade. No one since 2006 faced the same combination of outrageous accuracy spread over such a bombardment of field goal opportunities.

2007-2012 Best Opposing Field Goal Kickers
Team Attempted Made % Made Att Per Game
2012 Michigan State 25 24 96 1.9
2007 California 25 23 92 1.9
2011 Texas 23 22 95.7 1.8
2011 Indiana 22 21 95.5 1.8
2009 Virginia Tech 23 21 91.3 1.8
2011 Tulane 20 19 95 1.5
2010 UAB 20 19 95 1.7
2009 Vanderbilt 17 17 100 1.4
2010 Colorado State 13 13 100 1.1

The only thing keeping MSU opponent's from a clean 25/25? A 30 yard miss by Nebraska's Brett Maher, funnily enough.

A missed field goal means your offense not only isn't facing the pressure of responding to an three more opposing points, but also in the cases of longer field goal tries, means your team will likely get the ball in a better spot then they likely would after an opposing kickoff.

Conclusion

So these things aren't REALLY going to be what turns around the MSU offense, right?

Probably not. What probably turns the offense around is three or four offensive weapons emerging from a whole crowd of options, where MSU really only had two last year. But, sprinkle some improvements in these categories where MSU was at the bottom, or near the bottom, of the Big Ten and you might see:

-a free 10 yards of field position from regressed punting here and there that leads to a field goal opportunity for MSU where they might have had to either punt, or go for it on 4th down, before.

-a free fumble inside the opponent's 35 yard line that leads to an instant scoring opportunity,

-an opposing kicker goes 1/3, including once handing the Spartan offense the ball on their own 34 yard line, with the added relief of six points of breathing room.

-a 15 yard penalty extends a drive that leads to points.

-A MSU receiver grabs a tough 25 yard touchdown throw that he couldn't quite come up with last year.

-and a opposing defensive back gets his legs tangled up underneath him freeing up an MSU running back for a 40 yard touchdown.

Little things that aren't even necessarily in your team's control can combine to create real yardage, field position, and points. If football is truly a game of inches, I'm predicting that these Spartan's will have... better luck next time (boom, nailed it).

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