So if you thought the game was fun, wait until you see this box score! (big box score)
And in chart form:
[As always, this data is sack-adjusted. Categories based upon Bill Connelly's Football Five Factors. I removed the MSU drive to end the first half and the UM drive to end the game for yardage purposes. I call Michigan "RM" because it bothers me that their name doesn't have a modifier. ]
Sometimes Things Line Up
I'm sure this will turn out to be a total shock to you, but MSU ended up getting about a touchdown's worth of turnover luck in this game. I love it when this analysis so nicely dovetails with what is seen on the field. Also I can't stop smiling and I think my face is broken.
As I already wrote, the special teams were so bad that they distorted both the statistics for the game as well as the decision-making of Mark Dantonio and staff. Michael Geiger wasn't allowed to take a 45-yard attempt in the first quarter when a 16-play, 70 yard drive came to 4th-and-8 at the RM 28, or a 49-yard attempt in the late third quarter when a drive came to 4th-and-10 at the RM 32.
These were the right choices. With an NFL kicker, this calculator suggests that there isn't much difference in win percentage between going for it and attempting the field goal. With a kicker that is ... not that ... I think the analysis ends up favoring going for it. Long live Dantonio.
The field position was a real issue, and to win a game with a -12 yard margin in terms of field position is rare. Bill Connelly suggests that teams which lose the field position battle by that type of margin win just 13.3 percent of the time. That was on the punters, the call to fake it, the punt and kick coverage units, and the inability to achieve a touchback on a kickoff, even with the wind. I mean, wow.
Given all that happened, I don't think you could even call special teams a positive on the day. Without the field position disparity, this game isn't close.
Field Goal Attempts = Failure
Both teams had 6 opportunities with the ball inside their opponents' 40 yard line, and the difference in ability to finish those drives was razor-thin. This is a great example of how field-goal attempts are defeat once a team gets into "the maroon zone" - even though RM hit all three of their attempts, they were barely better than MSU at finishing drives overall.
With neither team attempting to salt away a big lead, the number of possessions increased to a season-high 12 for both teams (tied with the Oregon game). That number of drives coupled with allowing just 230 yards results in a sub-20 yards per drive figure which is the lowest of the season. For comparison, MSU is giving up about 32 yards per drive on average so far this season.
And field position wasn't the reason for this, either. Regular Michigan gained just 30.8% of available yards, by far the best result in 2015 for MSU (Purdue was second-best at 39.0%). Michigan fans may argue that the total yardage disparity isn't meaningful, and they are right to join the #DeathToTotalYardageStats bandwagon. But unlike the Air Force or Central Michigan games, the yardage totals in this game reflect the true nature of the strengths of the offenses and defenses; despite the massive field position disparity against RM, MSU still gained more of the yardage available to them. This difference was significant.
This Michigan State team is better than the first six weeks of S&P+ or Sagarin ratings would tell you, for reasons that are now becoming clear. MSU's strength offensively is throwing the football with Connor Cook and Aaron Burbridge. Getting out to big leads against weak opponents, compounded with offensive line injuries, forced Dave Warner and Jim Bollman to call run-heavy games which ultimately led to slow, close games . Defensively, the strength is still stopping the run, but safety support in the run game was spotty due to injuries. Better health and the emergence of Grayson Miller and Khari Willis will solve several of these issues.
If the general quality of special teams play can simply regress towards the mean, all goals of this team are still on the table. I've seen much larger miracles.