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Mining the Box Score: The Non-Conference Numbers

[Skipping the game-specific numbers analysis this week.  Let's go big(ger) picture.]

Long-time readers know that I have a history of downplaying my interest in college football while insisting that basketball is the only sport that really gets my Spartan juices flowing.  Well, I'll forego that shtick this year.  I'm fully sucked in this time around.  Somehow, I'm going to end up attending five of MSU's first six football games this season.  I think the emergence of Le'Veon Bell, he of the ballet dancer footwork and rugby player stiff arms, has been the clincher.  I'm officially tantalized.

Nevertheless, statistical analysis of college football remains a clunky endeavor relative to college basketball analysis.  One reason for that clunkiness is the limited sample of useful data available at most times.  By the time a typical BCS conference team has played even five games against comparable competition, the regular season is two-thirds of the way over.

The only choice, then, is to take what data we have and beat it senseless.  At the moment, we have four games worth of data against largely subpar competition to work with.  For context, we'll compare the numbers to what the team did against last year's nonconference slate.  The level of competition looks to be pretty comparable for three out of four games: a non-returned-to-glory Notre Dame, a middle-of-the-MAC-pack Western Michigan, and a non-Appalachian-State-level FCS team.  The exception is that last year's Central Michigan team--which ended up winning 12 games--was substantially better than this year's Florida Atlantic team will be.

Another difference is that last year's four nonconference games weren't played sequentially.  The game against Western didn't come until late in the Big Ten season.

With those caveats in mind, let the beating of the data begin.  Offensive stats after the jump.

Category 2009 2010
Pass Yards/Game 317.5 233.3
Pass Yards/Attempt 9.3 9.5
Completion % 65.4 66.3
Interception % 0.7 2.0
TD Pass % 8.8 7.1
Sack % 2.2 8.4
Sack Yards/Game (2.8) (16.5)
Rush Yards/Game 152.8 248.0
Rush Yards/Attempt 4.5 7.2
Total Yards/Game 467.5 464.8
Yards/Play 6.8 7.6
Pass/Run Ratio 50.7 43.7
3rd Down % 43.8 31.8


The major revelation to date has, of course, been the running game.  MSU is averaging 2.7 more yards per carry than it did last season in nonconference play.  Adjusted for sacks, MSU is averaging nearly 250 yards per game on the ground.  The team ranks 17th in the nation in rushing offense and 5th in the country in yards per carry (not adjusted for sacks here).  Only Nebraska, Northern Illinois, Michigan, Alabama, have been better on a per-carry basis (MSU is tied with Oregon).

The run blocking has been much improved, with the number of losses in the backfield dramatically reduced, and both running backs have maximized the yardage to be gained from the holes the line has opened up.  Edwin Baker and Le'Veon Bell are both averaging around 8 yards per rush and have combined for 12 rushing TDs.  MSU running backs only posted 14 rushing TDs all of last season.  And both Baker and Bell have a good shot at passing Larry Caper's team-high 468 rushing yards from last season this Saturday.

So that's gone well.

The passing game has been underwhelming in terms of the absolute yardage numbers, but has been equal in efficiency to last year's attack.  You'd maybe like to see a slight uptick in the numbers given that the quarterback position is much more settled this year than it was at this time last year, but you can't really get worked up about a 66% completion percentage and nine and a half yards per pass attempt.  Those figures rank 23rd and 11th in the country, respectively.

The major concern on the passing side of the ball is the higher rate at which the offensive line is allowing sacks.  A piece of that increase is the result of Kirk Cousins holding on to the ball an extra second several times in the Notre Dame game while trying to make a big play happen, but it's pretty apparent that this year's offensive line isn't going to be quite as airtight as last year's was.  MSU currently ranks just 79th in the nation in the number of sacks allowed per game.  That ranking needs to improve some, but the presence of a running game should mean that the passing game doesn't need to be quite so flawless for the team to put up points this year.

Mark Dantonio and Don Treadwell have been able to go with the run-heavy scheme they prefer (in part because there's only been one competitive game in nonconference play, rather than two).  The team has attempted to pass the ball on fewer than 45 percent of its offensive plays.  A significant concern has been the drop in 3rd-down conversion percentage, from 43.8% to 31.8%.  That figure will need to go up if the team is going to move the ball consistently against Big Ten teams.

Overall, the MSU offense has been almost an entire yard per play better than it was last season.  At 7.6 yards/play, the team ranks 3rd in the country--one tenth of a yard ahead of our friends in Ann Arbor.   Any issues with the performance of the offense to date are relatively minor quibbles.  The evidence points to this season's team featuring the most balanced, effective offense of the Mark Dantonio era--hopefully exceeding the standards set by the 2007 team.

On to the defense:

Category 2009 2010
Pass Yards/Game 217.8 252.5
Pass Yards/Attempt 6.0 5.8
Completion % 59.6 54.9
Interception % 1.4 3.5
TD Pass % 4.8 4.6
Sack % 6.4 2.3
Sack Yards/Game (19.0) (6.5)
Rush Yards/Game 107.8 91.8
Rush Yards/Attempt 4.3 3.0
Total Yards/Game 306.5 337.8
Yards/Play 4.8 4.5
Pass/Run Ratio 60.9 59.4
3rd Down % 28.3 40.0


The rush defense was the strength of last year's defense--relatively speaking, at least.  So far this season, the team has been even better against the run, allowing just 3.0 yards per carry (adjusted for sacks).  At this point, we do have to start accounting for the fact that Dan LeFevour didn't make an appearance at Spartan Stadium this year.  Still, the team ranks 10th in the country in rush defense and 13th in yards allowed per carry (not adjusted for sacks).

Those numbers are particularly impressive given that MSU has only recorded 4 sacks so far (99th in the nation)--compared to the 11 they recorded in nonconference play last year.  Colin Neely is the only Spartan to post more than one sack in the first four games this year, and that's only true in a very technical sense--he's been credited with 1.5 sacks.

Somehow, the team's nonconference disruption percentage has actually increased--from 18.0% to 22.8%.  That's mainly a function of more aggressive play in the secondary (particularly this past week).  All four starting defensive backs have posted at least 3 pass break-ups.  In sum, the team has recorded 23 pass break-ups and 6 interceptions to date--vs. just 11 pass break-ups and 2 interceptions in non-conference play last season.  Combining those two numbers, MSU ranks 3rd in the nation in "passes defended" per game.  That's helped push opposing quarterbacks' completion percentage down about 5 points (again, no LeFevour, and Northern Colorado was just 9 for 28 on pass attempts; we're beating the data pretty hard here).

Despite ranking 32nd in the country in pass completion percentage and 22nd in passing yards/attempt, the MSU defense has seen opposing offenses attack it with the pass more frequently than any other team in country at 43.3 attempts/game.  That's partially a function of the reverse phenomenon on 3rd downs from what we've seen on offense: an increase of 12 percentage points in opponents' conversion percentage.  MSU's drives have generally been shorter than you'd expect based on fundamental statistical indicators; their opponents' have been longer.  Reversion to the mean, please.

Overall, the defense has been no worse than last year's, despite the distinct lack of a strong pass rush.  You can spin things two different ways here.  The positive spin is that the freshman/sophomore-heavy defensive line will get better as the year goes along (Jerel Worthy is adjusting to being the most potent playmaker on the line; Will Gholston is adjusting to playing against players his own size).  The linebackers remain the strength of the team (in terms of stopping the run, at least).  The secondary, meanwhile, appears to be more competent in terms of staying somewhere in the vicinity of opposing receivers.  Put that all together, and the defense could conceivably be averagish in Big Ten play.

The negative spin is that the secondary has only seen one real passing attack and--if a pass rush doesn't materialize soon--will get torn apart like it did last season as Big Ten quarterbacks have plenty of time to find open receivers.  That scenario is less fun to conceptualize.

One last statistic I'm duty-bound to report, even though I'd rather not: MSU is averaging 78.0 penalty yards per game this season, vs. just 49.3 yards per game last season.  This year's figure is good bad for 113th in the country.  Those yards will be much more costly this Saturday than they were last Saturday.

In terms of adjusted season expectations after nonconference play, a 7-win season is now the absolute floor.  With home games remaining against Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue, anything less than that mark will represent a severe disappointment.  With Wisconsin the only other conference game being played at home, though, getting closer to double-digit wins will be an uphill climb.  The team will need to play well in hostile territory against upper-level Big Ten competition (albeit upper-level Big Ten competition that doesn't appear to be of nationally-elite caliber).

We'll know quite a bit more about the season's trajectory in two weeks.  For now, I'd say that 8 wins would be acceptable, 9 would be respectable, and 10 would be delectable.