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The Run-Pass Divide

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AKA: please be specific when making fun of and/or raging about our crappy, crappy, offense and some other assorted thoughts about what this means and what might happen next.

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

At the macro level, it sure looks like we're strapping in for another fun year of Bad Offense. Against two teams who in their other game so far this season gave up an average of 435.5 yards and 40 points (to two D-II teams, no less), MSU averaged 281 yards and 23.5 points (with at least 14 of those 23.5 points per game actually coming directly from the defense, so, yeah). The MSU scoring offense is 87th in the nation (technically more like t-121 after removing defensive TDs), and they're 118th in yards per play.

But when we talk about Bad Offense, as we must, I think it's important to break it down to a slightly more micro level, wherein its revealed that what we actually have as component parts of this year's Bad Offense so far is a below average, mayyybbbeee average, running game and just the worst passing game.

General Statistics

Pass game

-MSU is averaging 3.4 yards per pass attempt, 125th in the nation, also known as 'dead-last'.

-MSU is averaging 105 passing yards per game, 117th in the nation.

-MSU's passing game is:

12.9 yards per attempt worse than the nation's best passing offense (Baylor, IMO, as Georgia Tech played just 1 game and threw just 11 passes).

5.8 YPA worse than the 25th best passing offense (Troy or Penn State).

4.3 YPA worse than the 50th best passing offense (Stanford, Georgia State, or East Carolina)

3.5 yards worse than the 75th best passing offense(Iowa, Ole Miss, or Tennessee).

2.1 YPA worse than the 100th passing offense (Boise State, Rice, or Kansas).

And 0.0 YPA worse than the worst team (Michigan Sta- aw hell).

Run game

-MSU is averaging 4.4 yards per carry, 63rd in the nation, almost exactly in the middle.

-MSU is averaging 176 rushing yards per game, 61st in the nation.

-MSU's rushing game is:

5.6 yards per carry worse than the nation's best rushing offense (Oregon).

1.53 YPC worse than the 25th best rushing offense.

0.38 YPC worse than the 50th best rushing offense (Georgia).

0.33 YPC better than the 75th best rushing offense (Louisville).

1.32 yards better than the 100th best rushing offense.

And 2.76 YPC better than the worst rushing offense.


Pass game

-1 sack for every 30.5 pass attempts (great!) but even after adjusting for drops, 48% of passes are resulting in a zero yard gain (maybe not a lot of time to scan options before getting rid of the ball) for the offense.

-7 pass plays over 10 yards, 111th in the nation

-2 pass plays over 20 yards, 109th in the nation

-0 pass plays of 30 yards or more, tied for 111th in the nation.

Run game

-1 out of about every 6 carries either gains zero yards or is for a loss (about average I think, though much higher than we'd be used to with Bell.)

-11 run plays of 10 yards or more, 50th in the nation

-3 run plays of 20 yards or more, tied for 40th in the nation

-0 run plays of 30 yards of more, tied for 111th in the nation.

Play Calling

Pass Game

-Unable to build off of decent run game. Inability to break down 8 man fronts

-Cases where play design frees up open receivers seem rare. Cases where open receivers are delivered ball seem rarer yet. Routes appear very static (more on this topic later this week, I think).

Run Game

-Surprising success vs same 8 man fronts, able to gain yards even with no threat of pass.

-Pretty creative! Direct snaps to running backs, jet sweeps, reverses, options, read-option plays and called QB runs, runs from both shotgun and under center, mix of zone and power blocking.

Pushing Against Push-Back

"'below average' my butt. They suck ass at running the ball too!" someone somewhere is probably saying. I think there are a couple of good reasons to hold this view, but I'm going to explain why I'm sticking to my guns.

Argument 1: Maybe they're doing average nationally, but they're doing it against a weak schedule.

Argument 2: Maybe they're average nationally but they're 9th out of 12th in the B1G right now.

True, MSU's two opponents are both 0-2, each with a home loss to division II opponents. Among the small, small, sample size of teams who've played two other 0-2 division one teams, MSU is probably at or near the bottom in YPC. And among the 12 teams of the Big Ten,  they are right behind a Michigan team who played Notre Dame and a right above a Penn State team who played Syracuse on a neutral field, so it's a little hard to compare those teams schedules favorably.

But I have a couple of  counter-arguments involving similar teams to MSU that make things look better than 9th out of 12.

For one, MSU is 27th out of the 40 teams who are 2-0 in yards per carry, setting their running game just outside of the top 2/3's among teams who are currently undefeated after two games.

Second, MSU has the 42nd best YPC out of the 73 AQ teams this year, putting them with the top 60% of AQ teams.

Third, MSU has the 10th best YPC among the 25 worst passing offenses by YPA, meaning that among teams who have little choice but to run the ball, and who will face defenses prepped to stop it, they're in the top 40% of those handicapped teams.

I think lack of production against underwhelming opponents is a valid concern, but as far as the running game goes, I am staying with 'below average' and not 'bad' until proven otherwise.

The Real Costs of Being Bad Through the Air

Given the choice of a bad passing game or a bad running game, give me the bad running game every single time. Not only are the performance differences between the best and worst passing attacks far larger than the best and worst running attacks on a per play basis, a good passing attack is also far more likely to generate the big plays that Michigan State desperately needs and craves right now. For example, there are 15 teams with double digit 20+ yard pass plays. There is one team with double digit 20+ yard run plays.

If MSU's passing game was 63rd in the nation and their running game was 125th, the opposite of right now, they'd be averaging 7.2 yards an attempt and 1.64 yards per carry. Even if we don't mess at all with MSU's current run slanted ratio of 61 pass attempts-80 rushing attempts, flipping MSU's offensive strengths and weaknesses leads leads to the slightest of improvements from 3.99 Yards per Play to 4.04. If we assume a stronger passing attack and weak rushing attack would lead to more of a 50/50 split of MSU's 141 plays, lets say 71 passes to 70 runs, the MSU offense improves from 3.99 YPP to 4.44. If we assume this hypothetical swap would lead to the reverse of MSU's run pass distribution with 80 passes to 61 runs and the MSU offense improves from 3.99 YPP to 4.79. In short, the costs of being bad through the air vs bad on the ground may be as much as around a half to three quarters of a yard per play, or about 35-50 extra yards a game.

So, what to do?

My initial reaction at half time was that MSU was going to need to continue throwing the ball about 50% of the time in the 2nd half and vs Youngstown State in an attempt to give enough reps to jump start the passing from terrible to at least bad to give MSU any chance of success in the Big Ten. The corollary to this was that Andrew Maxwell (or possibly Tyler O'Connor) was probably going to be the best option at QB, if only because unlike Cook they provide some semblance of threat through the air, even if it's just 4 or five yards per attempt.

At the end of the game, I'd abandoned that line of thinking and decided that the passing game is simply too bad against sub-par competition, and that if our yards per carry, and this is almost impossible to do, is actually outstripping our yards per attempt, what's the point of even throwing the ball and dealing with a 0 yard play 50% of the time and the terrifying possibility of a pick-six? In this crazy world, it appears MSU might be best suited to sticking with Cook (or possibly O'Connor), passing the ball, not at Navy levels of 5 times a game, but more like Auburn, Minnesota levels of 20 times a game and spreading the ball out to their suddenly decent trio of running backs (Langford, Bullough, Hill), putting the ball into the hands of Burbridge, Kings, and Mumphery either in the air or on sweeps or reverses when defenses cheat way too much, and incorporating Cook (who I believe is averaging 4.5 yards a carry after adjusting for sacks) and again, possibly O'Connor (who has shown some Cook-esque running ability in high school and reportedly in practice, if not in games yet) into the running game to balance out the arithmetic of the eight, maybe nine, man fronts we'd see (not like this is any different than right now!).

I'm not totally sold on that post-game reaction either, but I'm still leaning more towards it than the other idea. What I am pretty sure of is that this 'middle of the road' thing where MSU is throwing the ball 30 times a game, and on 43% of downs is most likely not the optimal strategy going forward. The Spartans either need to hammer the hell out of their passing game raw materials and throw, throw, throw, vs Youngstown State in the attempt to fashion it into some sort of cutting edge, or they need to toss it off to the side and start trying some other approach. Because if you're doing basically the worst thing one of the 125 Division could do on 43% of downs you're not only being really inefficient, but you're also not really forcing your team to fix those inefficiencies through mass repetitions. If the question is "what to do?", the easiest and plainest answer I can give is, "Well, clearly not the status quo, huh?"

To their credit, it seems the shift towards a heavier run-focused attack has possibly already begun. The benching and re-benching of Andrew Maxwell was one clue. The change from 37 passes and 42 runs in the WMU game (a pass 47% of the time) to 24 passes and 38 runs (a pass 39% of the time) was another clue. That the 2nd half of the USF games featured 24 runs and 11 passes (a pass 31% of the time, or 35% if you remove the final four Nick Hill runs, with nine of those eleven passes coming from Maxwell) was a third clue, maybe the clearest given the 7-6 lead that the Spartans entered that half with.

I imagine by the end of the Youngstown State game, we'll have a fairly firm answer as we head into Notre Dame week. If Andrew Maxwell starts or gets a plurality of snaps, we're probably going to try and salvage the passing attack. If it's Cook or O'Connor (especially if it's Cook), a 70%-30% run-pass might be our 2013 offense, and (again, especially if it's Cook) is probably for the best.

The Spartans have ten games left. Is such an attack going to get MSU to better than, say, 1-3 vs the Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan, Notre Dame foursome on their schedule? I doubt it. Would it still be able to combine with what could be the nation's best defense to strangle out something like a 4-2 record vs the other six teams we face? Almost certainly. So, sans improvements, 7-5 (4-4), is sorta where we seem to be headed right now.


The good news is through two games only half the offense appears completely broken, while the other half is near the 'just ok' level MSU needs to compete for titles, and that broken half is absolutely what is dragging down the overall offensive ranks into the 100's. Whether the correct option is to try and fix the broken half or simply jettison most of it from the game-plan, is going to be up to the coaches.

So until things start going wrong in the running game (circles @ND in marker like, five times...) I'm going to do my best to be accurate when talking about our Bad Offense, and making sure I keep in mind its constituent parts are operating at considerably different levels thus far, and thus should be coming in for very different levels of blame. And until things start going wrong in the running game, it might be best for the Spartans to lean on their comparative offensive strength, even build around it, and see how far it, an elite defense, and great field position can get them this year. You know, again.