Why MSU Does Not Run a Plain Vanilla Run-First Offense, Part 1: Run-Pass Balance as Indicator of Game Strategy

(Update: Part 2 of CPT Hoolie's analysis is here.  Well done, sir. - KJ)

(Bumped to the front. I've had this idea for a while, but didn't know how to go about verifying it.  Great info and a great post. - Pete)

I was surprised like many of you at the analysis provided by  The Rivalry, Esq showing MSU was 5th -- 5th! -- in the Big 10 in pass attempts last year.  I've heard in many places that last season's Spartan offense was a plain vanilla, rush-happy, Ringer-first, "pile into the line" offense. The logical conclusion of this being that, without Ringer, MSU's offense will be much worse this year since MSU lacks a "home run" or "workhorse" back.

From the few games I actually got to watch (don't get too many MSU games here in Texas) I remember plenty of "Ringer into the line" plays, but also screens, misdirections, fumblerooskies, and other assorted trickery. For example, see MGoBlog's tremendous "Upon Further Review" charting from the MSU-UM game:  lots of shotgun 3- and 4-wide, fly pattern from I-formation big on 1st and 10, end around from ace big, etc., etc.

I decided to do some analysis with the help of

Michigan State, a supposed "run-oriented offense", ran the ball 56% of all plays from scrimmage.  By way of comparison, Michigan, a "spread & shred" offense, ran 57%.  So, I dug deeper and looked at the overall rushing offense leader's run-pass balance to determine what a true "run first" offense's play balance.  I threw out Navy, which has deliberately forsaken the pass, settling on Oregon.  Oregon's run-pass balance is 61%-39%.  [At the other extreme, Texas Tech, an undisputed pass-happy offense, has a run-pass balance of 32%-68%, although I understand that Mike Leach considers screens, shovel passes, and such other behind-the-LOS-passes as running plays.]

[One note on the statistics:  I am aware that the CFB stats count a sack as a run, when rightfully for this analysis it should be a pass attempt.  Since the situational stats don't account sacks by situation, I can't adjust the run-pass play selection balance without going through each game log, but the result would surely adjust the balance slightly more in favor of the pass.] 

I was interested in the situational stats provided by CFBStats.  Play selection by quarter seemed to have low correlation.  Much more telling was play selection by game score.




As you can see, Michigan State has a greater tendency to run when tied or leading (and an incredible 87.5% tendency to run when leading by 2 or more TDs).  This is is not necessarily some devotion to neanderthal, smash-mouth football.  Rather, it shows a deliberate, low-variance, ball control strategy, used to choke the life out of the game when leading and skewing the overall run/pass balance toward run.

However, when the game is still in doubt (i.e., leads by a touchdown or less, is tied, or trails by a touchdown or less), MSU's run-pass balance tips to "pass" when trailing by a touchdown or less.  By contrast, Oregon is more likely to run than pass even when the game is still in doubt; in fact, Oregon's run-pass balance doesn't tip to "pass" until Oregon is trailing by more than a touchdown.




So, I submit that MSU does not use a run-first offense, but has a good mix of run and pass which adjusts heavily dependent on the game situation by score.

Next:  So what about the "plain vanilla" and all the "Ringer into the line" plays?

This is a FanPost, written by a member of the TOC community. It does not represent the official positions of The Only Colors, Inc.--largely because we have no official positions.