Why Johnny Can't Pass Rush: And What We Should Do About It

[Bumped. The Captain is back! -KJ]

There seems to be some angst among the Spartan fanbase about MSU's perceived lack of a pass rush, based on 2009 and on the first game of 2010.

I took a look at the stats and found that it may not be as bad as we fear, relatively speaking.

CFBStats' excellent database only goes back to 2006, so I had to use Rivals' stats database for the seasons 2003-2005.

Here are the sacks per game averages for that period:

Year Sacks / game
2003 2.45
2004 2.50
2005 1.90
2006 2.09
2007 2.12
2008 1.98
2009 2.00


As you can see, the national average number of sacks per game decreased by 0.5 sacks / game from 2003 / 2004 to today.

MSU's sack stats during that time period:   

Year Sacks / Game
2003 3.75
2004 1.92
2005 1.18
2006 0.67
2007 3.42
2008 2.17
2009 2.75


MSU has been right at or slightly above the national average except during the terribly stinky years of 2005-2006.

I think there are two years that we have imprinted on as a standard for "successful" pass rush seasons.  1999 (not shown here) was an amazing year for Julian Peterson; he had 15 sacks (and Robaire Smith added another 8, for a combined total of 23 sacks), but honestly, he was a linebacker rushing as a defensive end (a la Pat Swilling -- remember him?).  In 2007, the "Sackmaster", Jonal St.-Dic, had 10 sacks (combined with Ervin Baldwin's 8.5 sacks for a combined total of 18.5, and up from 2 sacks the year before).  As you can see from the stats, these two years were, honestly, outliers.  (2003 was a more combined but anonymous effort, when Greg Taplin (10 sacks) combined with Clifford Dukes (7) and Matthias Askew (6) for 23 of the team total 45 sacks.)

The bottom line is this:  sacks are down across College Football.  The reason for this, I believe, is the rise of the spread offense.

Primarily, most passing spread offenses rely on 3-step, quick release, short passes.  Even if a defensive lineman had a running start and was untouched by the offensive line, there is little chance that they can get to the quarterback quickly enough to get a sack before the quarterback releases the ball (save for a "coverage sack").

In addition, wider splits by the offensive line increase the distance that an edge rusher has to go to reach the quarterback.  (Many teams increase this distance even further by designed rollouts away from the blind side.)

Finally, the five-man offensive line has superiority of numbers against the four-man defensive line.  The only way the defense can regain superiority is to bring blitzers -- but the LBs and DBs are needed in coverage since the number of eligible receivers has now increased under the spread.

Look at the leaders in sacks allowed (i.e., fewest sacks per game). 

Name G Sacks Sacks/G
1 Boise State 14 5 0.36
2 Stanford 13 8 0.62
3 Army 12 10 0.83
4 Oklahoma State 13 11 0.85
4 Air Force 13 11 0.85
6 Georgia Tech 14 12 0.86
6 East Carolina 14 12 0.86
8 TCU 13 12 0.92
8 Georgia 13 12 0.92
10 North Texas 12 12 1
10 Arizona 13 13 1
10 Nevada 13 13 1
10 Oregon 13 13 1


Some of the spreadiest of the spread offenses there.  The one that jumps out as not fitting is Army, but Army only attempted 161 passes out of 754 total plays (80%-20% run-pass balance) and so provided fewer opportunities to be sacked.

What should we do about it?

I think it is time to recalibrate our expectations.  I believe the days of 20 sacks from the D-line are long gone, at least until we see the resurrection of the pro-style dropback passer that takes 5- and 7-step drops.  

A more important defensive line metric against spread teams will be QB hurries (MSU had 5 hurries in the Western game).  I also believe that the defensive line's role against spread teams changes from one of pass rush to "soak up as many blockers as you can, clogging gaps and preventing the quarterback from sprinting up the gaps in the middle". 

Therefore, I have reset my expectations to 2 sacks/game with 2.5 being a great success.

MSU had 1 sack against Western Michigan, so they better get busy on Saturday regressing to the mean!

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.