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Michigan State Spartans Football Five Factors: Rutgers

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Joe breaks down another misleading win

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

Sorry, this doesn't list injuries (big box score):

And in chart form:

[Check out Bill Connelly's introduction of the Five Factors here. As always, data is sack adjusted. I excluded Rutgers' final drive of the first half, and the final kneeldown for MSU at the end of the game.]

The Offense is Better Than You Think

Yes, 489 yards of offense and 31 points are both solid figures in and of themselves. But MSU had their most efficient game of the season offensively behind a makeshift offensive line, and posted just one three-and-out. Despite the special teams gaffes, MSU's offense was able to flip field position even when they didn't score.

One funny thing that has happened this year is that MSU has adopted a strategy which makes the offense look less impressive than it actually is, but also increases the odds for an upset loss. Consider this: if MSU is truly the superior team in a matchup, then you'd expect that more plays would give MSU's advantage more opportunity to show up. Instead, MSU's ball-control strategy for most of the season has shortened games, leading to smaller margins and possibilities for upsets. Again in this game, MSU only had 10 true drives; that would match last season's low against Penn State.

Part of that is the lack of big plays offensively. MSU's longest play in this game was a 30-yard rush by Gerald Holmes. The longest pass play was 29 yards. I don't know if that's vanilla playcalling or a broken-down offensive line or both, but it's an issue. No MSU scoring drive in this game was fewer than 8 plays long.

This was the most efficient offensive performance by this MSU team since the Rutgers game last season, and the offensive output had more in common with that 2014 game than the final score would suggest.

Rutgers Got Lucky

MSU had gotten some pretty substantial turnover luck through the first five games of the season. The Oregon game was the only game in which MSU did not receive some benefit from an oblong ball doing unpredictable things. But that was reversed in this game, where Rutgers' adjusted turnover number was 1.6 and MSU's 0.9. The lack of turnovers for Rutgers really benefited them offensively despite the fact that they put the ball on the ground twice, and the Connor Cook interception in the red zone almost certainly took points off of the board for MSU.

Rutgers also benefited from an unsustainable level of finishing drives well, until their final field goal. Rutgers had 10 drives. Four of them were three-and-outs, four of them were scoring drives, and just two were neither. This leads me to believe that the defense was a little better than I initially gave them credit for, as well.

Long Plays Allowed :(

Before and after the Oregon game, I suggested that the MSU defense was gearing up for a bend-but-don't-break style for the season in order to counteract the effectiveness of big-play offenses against the 2014 defense. That, I'm guessing, is still true. But they've done a poor job of actually stopping big plays.

The 72-yard run by Paul James was a great example of this. Looking back at the play, it seemed like Riley Bullough hit the wrong gap, and then Arjen Colquhoun took a bad angle. On the 39-yard Leonte Carroo touchdown, Colquhoun got beat off of the snap and wasn't able to recover (and Joel Heath got held by the Rutgers offensive line). These are issues.

But they still seem like correctable ones. Now that the secondary is more or less sorted out, I expect that these issues will be less frequent. I also don't expect to see another receiver of Carroo's quality for some time.

Oh, and Colquhoun redeemed himself by making that huge third-down pass break-up on Carroo. That forced Rutgers to kick a field goal.

Special Teams :(

KJ has a religious belief that all special teams outcomes are random. I'm not totally sure I agree after watching special teams issue after special teams issue with this MSU team. There was another bad snap on a punt (without poor conditions this time). Jake Hartbarger's second punt went for 24 yards, giving him an average of 17.5 yards per punt on the day, and giving Tyler O'Connor his first punt attempt. There was the blocked field goal and the banked-in field goal. And, perhaps intentionally, the kickoff out of bounds before Rutgers' final drive.

I don't think it is possible to discount special teams as a major problem area for this MSU team anymore. Not when pretty much everything possible has gone wrong at this point.

On the positive side, this does seem like another area where easy gains could be made.

Injuries

There's no elegant way to account for injuries from a statistical perspective. But I'm going to try anyways.

One way to do it is to look at the preseason two-deep. From that perspective, there are 46 total player listed (24 on offense because 12 positions are listed). Twelve of those 46 have missed some amount of time with injury: Madre London, Trevon Pendleton, Josiah Price, Macgarrett Kings, Jack Conklin, Jack Allen, Kodi Kieler, Dennis Finley, Ed Davis, Darian Hicks, R.J. Williamson, Vayante Copeland. And that doesn't even include Montez Sweat, listed on the preseason two-deep but not playing due to a violation of team rules.

Look at it this way: MSU is still 6-0 despite playing at about 75% strength. Add in that several of those players are already back or could have played last week but didn't (Conklin was available for emergency duty if necessary). We may find that health is less of a factor in a particularly important game.