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Michigan State Spartans Football Five Factors: Air Force

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Joe scratches his head, becomes cautiously pessimistic

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

This is one of the more strange box scores I've ever seen (big box):

[Notes: as always, the data is sack-adjusted. Check out my football primer for explanations. I removed the last drive of the first half for Air Force, and the last drive of the second half for MSU, as they were irrelevant.]

Total Yardage Stats Can Be Misleading

MSU got outgained in this game by more than 100 yards, 428-324. But that's misleading in this case, because of the difference in field position and the possession imbalance; MSU only had 9 meaningful drives where Air Force had 10. The long R.J. Williamson touchdown return also contributed to this discrepancy.

This is why I prefer my "available yards gained" metric to total yardage stats. It accounts for the difference in field position as well as differences in total possessions.

Additionally, the box score will tell you that MSU gained only 1.8 yards per rush, because it isn't sack-adjusted. That's not true; it's 2.7 yards per true rushing attempt. MSU's penchant for a more-balanced attack (props to Aaron Burbridge and Connor Cook) is why there's a bigger difference in the rushing and passing categories than the overall "yards per play" metric. That's because Air Force attempted just 9 passes compared to 26 for MSU (23 attempts plus 3 sacks).

...But MSU Got Some Serious Turnover Luck

MSU recovered two of three available fumbles and got an interception on the only pass that an MSU defender got a hand on. This resulted in an estimated 9.7 points worth of turnover luck, and because one of the positioning of the turnovers, it could have meant more than that.

Aaron Burbridge is Our Savior

He's averaging 18.7 yards per reception and making circus catches. And all of them were important on a day where Connor Cook was sacked three times and the running game didn't eclipse 100 yards.

Aaron has a long way to go before getting to Tony Lippett-level, but I'm optimistic.

Second Half Woes

MSU gained a total of 58 yards on the final four possessions of the game, after the first five went TD-TD-Missed FG-TD-TD. The final three possessions against WMU went Punt-FG-Punt. The final two possessions against Oregon were three-and-outs that could have iced the game.

This leads me to...

Should We Be Worried?

Brian Fremeau has done some interesting split analysis of how certain teams perform against teams of other calibers. These breakdowns are here.

If MSU is an elite team (i.e. top-5 nationally, likely in the playoff), then the wins against Air Force, Western Michigan, and even Oregon are all somewhat concerning. For example, by Fremeau's analysis, Air Force falls into the "average" category. In games against teams like Air Force, elite teams win 99% of the time, with an average score of 42.9-16.6. Since MSU only won by 14, MSU performed 12.3 points worse than you'd expect from an elite team. Here's a breakdown, for both Elite and Very Good:

Michigan State vs. "Elite" Expectations

Michigan State vs. "Very Good" Expectations

As of right now, MSU is performing more like a "Very Good" team than an "Elite" one. Now, these Massey Rankings will change over time. And maybe you think all three of MSU's opponents are better than their ranking at this juncture. But as of right now, MSU has yet to break the 25th percentile of performance by elite teams. It's fair to be somewhat concerned.

Please Don't Schedule Air Force Again

Between the chop blocks and the inability to take much away from the game defensively, games against Air Force seem to be almost all downside with very little upside. If Air Force wins the Mountain West (and they could, though it's unlikely) it'll look like a slightly better win than a below-average, non-P5 team. But does that do enough to make any difference with a playoff committee? I don't think so.