Balance and Dimensions

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

(Most discussions of the MSU offense, talk about getting to average. This article shoots a little higher, at least in its comparisons)

I've had my problems with MSU's run-pass distribution so far. So this is not the most encouraging video for me:

First important quote:

"You've got to stay balanced otherwise you're just going to become one dimensional."

To which I ask the question: what's so wrong with becoming more one dimensional?

The first step is admitting that almost no offense is perfectly balanced. Because of some traditional ideas of how football is played, but even more so because it's advantageous to run the ball when you have the lead in the 4th quarter, either to keep the clock running, or to avoid looking like you're running up the score, almost everyone ends up running more than they throw. This year, for example, even with me gnashing my teeth about the Spartans' throwing the ball too much, MSU has run the ball on about 56% of downs.

So almost every team is more of one dimension than the other. Now back to that question up there: What's wrong with becoming more one dimensional?

Here are the top 25 offensive teams  in yards per play through 4 weeks of this season (positive numbers in the balance column mean a team runs more than it throws, negative numbers mean the opposite, 0 is a 50/50 split)::

Top 25 2013 Offenses + MSU Run-Pass

Team

Passes

Runs

Run %

Balance

Navy

20

132

86.84%

36.84%

Georgia Tech

39

181

82.27%

32.27%

LSU

92

163

63.92%

13.92%

Wisconsin

99

175

63.87%

13.87%

Washington

94

157

62.55%

12.55%

Maryland

106

177

62.54%

12.54%

Georgia

83

137

62.27%

12.27%

Baylor

89

140

61.14%

11.14%

Ohio State

119

186

60.98%

10.98%

UCF

75

115

60.53%

10.53%

South Carolina

84

123

59.42%

9.42%

Florida State

76

111

59.36%

9.36%

Miami (Fl)

79

112

58.64%

8.64%

Oregon

90

126

58.33%

8.33%

Pittsburgh

79

107

57.53%

7.53%

UCLA

109

145

57.09%

7.09%

Utah

120

154

56.20%

6.20%

Michigan State

129

164

55.97%

5.97%

Missouri

114

142

55.47%

5.47%

Louisville

120

138

53.49%

3.49%

Texas A&M

149

158

51.47%

1.47%

Western Kentucky

141

146

50.87%

0.87%

Kentucky

100

102

50.50%

0.50%

Indiana

152

154

50.33%

0.33%

Wyoming

171

155

47.55%

-2.45%

Ball State

154

123

44.40%

-5.60%

-17 of these teams run the ball more often than MSU does, and are more 'one dimensional' compared to just 8 who pass the ball more than MSU and are more 'two dimensional'.

-just 2 top-25 teams pass the ball more than they've run it so far, even teams thought of as running pass-happy offenses like Kentucky and Indiana are (just barely) majority 'running teams'.

-The 8 teams who are more balanced them MSU have good reason to be:

Team

YPA

YPC

YPA – YPC

Avg More Balanced Team

8.8

5.5

3.3

MSU

4.8

4.6

0.2

The average of those 8 more balanced teams would be the 24th best rushing team and 22nd best passing team so far this year. Those teams are balanced because it's good strategy.

But four weeks is a pretty small sample size, and teams will pass more as they enter conference play. Let's look at last year to get another take on this:

Top 25 2012 Offenses + MSU Run-Pass

Team

Passes

Runs

Run %

Balance

Oregon

373

686

64.78%

14.78%

Alabama

328

570

63.47%

13.47%

Kansas State

315

526

62.54%

12.54%

Northern Illinois

410

613

59.92%

9.92%

Cincinnati

371

492

57.01%

7.01%

Georgia

399

525

56.82%

6.82%

Arkansas State

411

540

56.78%

6.78%

Baylor

475

597

55.69%

5.69%

Clemson

474

588

55.37%

5.37%

Texas

398

493

55.33%

5.33%

Louisiana-Lafayette

393

480

54.98%

4.98%

Florida State

428

513

54.52%

4.52%

Utah State

420

473

52.97%

2.97%

Texas A&M

492

533

52.00%

2.00%

Michigan State

465

492

51.41%

1.41%

Oklahoma State

495

519

51.18%

1.18%

North Carolina

441

457

50.89%

0.89%

Arizona

538

544

50.28%

0.28%

Louisiana Tech

533

521

49.43%

-0.57%

San Jose State

468

446

48.80%

-1.20%

West Virginia

532

469

46.85%

-3.15%

Tennessee

477

413

46.40%

-3.60%

USC

461

392

45.96%

-4.04%

Miami (Fl)

447

371

45.35%

-4.65%

Oklahoma

571

434

43.18%

-6.82%

Texas Tech

594

399

40.18%

-9.82%

-14 of these teams ran the ball more often than MSU did, and were more unbalanced, one dimensional, running teams

-An additional 6 teams were more unbalanced than MSU when it came to passing the ball, making a total of 20 of the 25 most successful teams more unbalanced than MSU's 51.4-48.6 run-pass distribution.

-The five teams who were more balanced than MSU also had good reason:

Team

YPA

YPC

YPA – YPC

Avg More Balanced Team

8.2

4.9

3.3

MSU

5.9

3.95

1.95

In a coincidence, but a sort of telling one, these teams also averaged 3.3 yards more per pass than per run. This average of the five more balanced teams would've finished 2012 ranked 18th in the nation in passing offense, and 30th in rushing offense, so again, makes sense.

I got about three solid lessons out of this analysis:

1. Running on 65-70% of downs or more might be too much running.

Only Oregon, Alabama, and Kansas State were close to being as unbalanced as I initially called for the Spartans to be over a full season. On one hand, those three teams were very, very, successful in 2012 and had fearsome offenses, but on the other hand, also all had top notch player development and schemes, so maybe it's more a sign of who they are than of the effectiveness of running the ball 62%+ of the time. So there might be truth about the dangers of becoming too unbalanced.

2. But many, many good and great offenses were much more one dimensional, and less balanced, than MSU was.

80% of top 25 offenses were more one dimensional than MSU was in 2012. And 9 of those top-25 2012  teams were more unbalanced over the course of a full season than 2013 MSU is after 4 games. And 16 of those top-25 2012 teams either run or passed 8% more often than they did the other.

3. If you want to run a balanced offense, you better be good at both things.

That seems obvious, but it's true, and is a large reason I'm wary of MSU passing as much as it has been.

Second important quote:

"We have to do things for the long haul. We say we're going to Notre Dame with the idea of getting better as a football team... You can't grow if you're just going to become one dimensional."

OK, so I can be somewhat sympathetic to this idea. Dantonio knows that whether he's throwing the ball 20 times or 35 times, if he's averaging 4.8 yards a pass, he's probably eventually doomed either way. True. So in his calculus, if ND was a way to get better for the Big Ten season, how is the team's passing game more likely to get better? With 35 live game reps, or with 20 live game reps? I think the answer is pretty obvious there too. But...

That was an OK strategy against Western Michigan, because the 4th quarter of that game was a relaxing 2-3 score lead for MSU. And it was good against Youngstown State, because MSU easily blew them out, and seemed to have improved their passing game in the process. It starts to look a bit questionable when you, you know, lose the game. So I guess the question is, are those extra 10, 15 reps going to help MSU in the Big Ten season enough to make it worth potentially having cost MSU the win in South Bend? Maybe! We'll see, but I'm hardly convinced.

It's interesting to look at MSU non-con/B1G splits under Dantonio. Here's the non-conference:

MSU's Non-Con Run-Pass Balance

Year

Passes

Runs

Run %

2007

111

190

63.12%

2008

105

184

63.67%

2009

147

117

44.32%

2010

98

147

60.00%

2011

139

156

52.88%

2012

149

162

52.09%

2013

129

164

55.97%

As you can see, Treadwell generally found himself in one extreme or the other, Roushar kept it about as even as you could really expect, and Warner and Bollman are somewhere in between those two.

What's more interesting still is what happened once conference play starts:

MSU's Conference Play Run-Pass

Year

Passes

Runs

Run %

2007

282

390

58.04%

2008

294

327

52.66%

2009

276

302

52.25%

2010

275

297

51.92%

2011

312

333

51.63%

2012

316

330

51.08%

With the exception of 2007, where MSU was going to tote the damn rock, every year MSU eventually found itself in extremely balanced offenses for the final two-thirds of the year, running the ball either 51 or 52 percent of the time in 5 out of 6 seasons. The offense also became a tiny bit more pass oriented every single year from 2008-2012.

My worry isn't that MSU will continue 56-44 into Big Ten play, it's that as competition gets tougher, that will slide down closer to 50-50, a result that has so far provided offensive performances like the ones against WMU and ND. If it's Dantonio's plan to continue this trend into the 2013 Big Ten season, well, it's not that it can't work out, it just seems unlikely right now.

Conclusion

Perhaps when I said MSU should run the ball 70% of the time, that was an unrealistic number for a modern offense, much less a good, modern, offense. And perhaps 65% over the course of a season is also pushing that as well. But, I don't know man, like can a brother get 60%? High 50's? Because while I don't think Dantonio literally means one-dimensional when he says "one-dimensional", it's worth pointing out that even if MSU is running it 60% of the time, that's still 28 passes in a standard-ish 70 play game. Only in my most crazed moments of despair have I considered throwing away the pass entirely, and just running Langford behind 10 OL and TEs all game. No serious critic of the MSU offense wants a one-dimensional team that simply doesn't pass. We just want tweaked levels of how often those passes happen relative to how good (or bad as it were) the team is at throwing the ball. And who knows! It wouldn't be crazy if more runs actually opened things up in the secondary to the point where we could get the same or better passing production with fewer actual throws.

It seems clear that many, many, good offensive teams have strayed away from the Dantonian ideal of balance and found much success. Even MSU under Dantonio did that in 2007, and finished with the 2nd best offense in Big Ten play in terms of yards per play, as well as the conference's best scoring offense in Big Ten play. So, I don't know, maybe it's time for the Spartans to try it again?

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