Hope in Context

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Or: Hope, in context.

A Questionable Measuring Stick

0: the amount of scholarship players on either Morehead State or Dayton, Youngstown State's two victories on the year.

85: the number of scholarship players Michigan State is allowed this year.

75: the number of scholarships probation-slapped USC is allowed this year.

63: the number of scholarship players Youngstown State is allowed this year.

18 wins, 18 losses: The record of Youngstown State from 2010 to today.

Youngstown State is an FCS team. If we believe recent history, it's a pretty mediocre FCS team. A pretty mediocre FCS team that on Saturday was facing its first opponents of the year who were not, in a sense, a university's club football team. Definitely worth keeping in mind.

But MSU's Offense Was Still Very Good Despite That

1st of 4: in terms of points (55) and total yards (547) among MSU's four games vs FCS opponents under Dantonio

3rd of 4- in terms of yards per play among MSU's four FCS games under Dantonio

t-1st out of 27: in non-conference games in terms of points scored. The most in a non-con game since UAB, the first game of Dantonio's MSU career, on 9/1/07

3rd out of 27: in Dantonio's non conference games in terms of total yards gained.

8th out of 27: in Dantonio's non-conference games in terms of yards per play.

4th out of 82: In Dantonio's MSU career in terms of total yards gained.

17th out of 82: in Dantonio's MSU career in terms of yards per play.

There is somewhat of a ceiling, it seems, on the MSU offense under Mark Dantonio. We've seen one game with 600 or more yards (602 vs WMU in 2009. a game where Ashton Leggett memorably ran for 110 yards and 4 TDs on 14 carries, then slipped into the open mouth of an active volcano, never to be seen again.) The team has also never broken the 60 point barrier in 6 seasons and change.

Mostly, this seems to be a conscious decision. Dantonio's defenses at MSU have usually been stout, so he doesn't get in too many shoot-outs. And against over-matched opponents, as we saw Saturday, once the MSU point total creeps into the 40's, out come the back-ups to run a steady diet of "let's not embarrass anybody out there." (the next time MSU throws deep on one of these sacrificial lambs up 3 or 4 touchdowns in the fourth quarter will be the first).

So there are teams where 50+ points and ~550 total yards isn't a big deal, but those are still impressive benchmarks at MSU. There's beating a FCS school and then there's beating an FCS school. This was the latter.

A mirage or no?

In 2012, MSU racked up 495 yards and 41 points on a helpless Central Michigan team in their second game of the season, that seemed to portend the gelling of the offense ahead of the Notre Dame game. Andrew Maxwell looked like a good quarterback. Bennie Fowler looked like a good receiver. Deanthony Arnett caught a 48 yard pass that launched a thousand message board posts over the next 12 months. And it was all a lie. Everything fell apart, and over their next seven contests, the team scored an average of just 16 points a game and gained an average of 327 yards going 3-4 in the process.

So until the Notre Dame game, it's absolutely OK to hold massive reservations about the MSU offense. No one could blame you.

But if you were going to get your hopes up, here are some reasons to get a little excited:

-Youngstown State was simply the better offensive performance. 55 points, 6.75 Yards Per Play over 81 plays, and 547 yards > 41 offensive points, 6.35 yards per play over 78 plays, and  495 yards. It helps that 2013 YSU > 2012 CMU is not exactly a laughable argument right now.

-It was the more complete performance. Yards per Attmept: 8.7 vs CMU, 8.4 vs YSU. Yards per Carry: 4.2 vs CMU, 5.6 vs YSU. CMU was a big day for the passing game, but arguably because the running game was being specifically focused on by the CMU defense. Youngstown State couldn't stop either facet of the Spartan offense.

-Last year, right before the Notre Dame game MSU lost Fou Fonoti for the year, followed by losing Travis Jackson for the year 2 games later, in the first half of the OSU game, followed by off-and-on injuries to about three other linemen. So far, so relatively good in the OL health department this year.

If you can't be explosive, be mini-explosive

There are still top-end issues with the MSU offense: still no plays of 40 or more yards, and Nick Hill's 35 yard TD run was their first 30+ yard play of the year.

But if you can't hit a lot of big plays, it helps to be able to hit a lot of pretty big plays.

Removing the pure clock-running plays at the end of the game, MSU had 28% (22 total) of their plays go for 10 or more yards, a stat that no doubt helped MSU rack up 30 first downs.

If you can't be explosive, move the ball forward

On a similar note, just 2 MSU plays (2.5%) were stopped for a loss, and only 14 plays (18%) went for no gain at all. In other words on about 80% of plays, MSU was gaining some sort of positive yardage to keep the drive going. The median MSU play from Saturday picked up a respectable 5 yards.

These facts contributed to MSU tallying five 70+ yard drives compared to just two 3-and-outs (one of which, even resulted in a FG!).

Conclusion

Obviously, Notre Dame and, for different reasons, the Iowa, Indiana, and Purude games that follow, are the measuring sticks as to what sort of offense MSU has here.

But even if this game offered few clues as to how the Notre Dame game will go, it was more than just the way a game against inferior competition should go, it in many ways brushed up against the ceiling of what MSU has done to inferior opponents under Dantonio. Drubbing an over-matched opponent is less important than how they drubbed this particular over-matched opponent, namely by jumping out to a massive 1st quarter lead, keeping the game out of reach by half-time, and continuing to perform well through garbage time.

Had MSU won it's first two games by 30 points, this contest is nothing but an fun foot-note. As it stands, after MSU's immensely disappointing first two games, it's appears to be either a turning point that will be built off of not just this week (because really, it very well might not be built off of this week), but more importantly in the month of October, or it's just another mirage, here to give a week of hope before back-to-back road games at familiar foes Notre Dame and Iowa reintroduce cynicism and the one-possession game. We'll see.

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