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Just how good is the MSU defense?

The Spartan defense has been very good so far, and the numbers tell us to expect more of the same.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Michigan Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

After two mediocre defensive seasons, the Michigan State defense is off to a fantastic start this year. For the first time since the departure of Pat Narduzzi, the Spartan Dawgs defense looks to have gotten their teeth back.

While it is still early in the season, we are now five games in and two games into the conference season. MSU has played a pair of ranked teams, and a solid Iowa squad. Tougher tasks certainly lie ahead, but let’s take a look at the numbers to see if the defense has really been as good as it feels like they have.

Overall Ranks

We can start by looking at some of the basic defensive stats and where MSU ranks nationally in those areas. This won’t tell us the whole picture but it will give us a good idea of where to start.

Scoring defense: 16.4 points per game (13th nationally)

Total defense: 258.6 yards per game (4th nationally)

Yards per play: 4.18 (9th nationally)

Rushing defense: 97.20 yards per game (12th nationally)

Yards per rush attempt: 2.96 (13th nationally)

Passing defense: 161.4 yards per game (13th nationally)

Yards per pass attempt: 5.6 (9th nationally)

Those are some pretty solid and consistent stats across the board. While the total defensive number is a little on the low side, the rest of them are pretty solidly in the 9-13 range.

Here are some more notable numbers that we have talked about in other pieces this year and where they rank nationally.

Sacks: 13 (T-39th nationally)

Turnovers forced: 9 (T-46th nationally)

Third down percentage: 27.40% (13th nationally)

Not as good overall as the broader numbers, but still pretty good. And as we have documented, these are a huge improvement over last year.

But what do these numbers really mean? Are they a product of an improved defense, or has it been the result of early season scheduling and luck? To find out we need to look at MSU’s opponents.

Opponent Ranks

We are going to start with opponent’s scoring offense but before we do it is important to acknowledge the role that Michigan State’s offense and special teams has played in allowing points against.

The Spartans have allowed 82 points total this year. They have also allowed four defensive or special teams touchdowns so far. Taking out those four touchdowns takes the points the defense has allowed down to 54, or 10.8 points per game. They didn’t allow an offensive touchdown until Notre Dame scored on their opening drive of the third game of the season.

Now on to the MSU opponents. First up is Bowling Green, who is 114th in scoring at 19.5 points per game. If you take out the MSU game, they are averaging 21.4 points per game, which would only move them up slightly.

Next we have Western Michigan, who ranks 13th with an average of 42.8 points per game. Taking out the MSU game the average is 48.6 points, which would be the highest in college football. However, that number is also inflated by this weekend’s insane seven overtime game where the Broncos put up 71 points, 40 of which came in OT. Still if we take out the overtimes from this weekend, they are still averaging a robust 40.6 points per game in their non-MSU games.

Notre Dame hung 38 points on the Spartans, which is just below their season average of 40 points per game, putting them 18th overall. The non-MSU average is about the same at 40.4 points.

On to the conference opponents now, Iowa is up first. The Hawkeyes are 71st nationally averaging 28.8 points per game. Taking out the MSU game that number improves to 32.6 points per game, which would move them up into the top 50 nationally.

And finally, Michigan. The Wolverines are 80th in scoring at 27.2 points per game. Removing the MSU game that improves to 31.5 points per game, which would move them up to 57th overall.

So overall the Spartans have played a couple of good offenses, a couple of middle of the road offenses, and a bad one. In all games, MSU has held their opponents to less than their season averages, and in most cases well below, with the exception of Notre Dame.

This is an encouraging sign overall, and looking ahead to the rest of the schedule, it bodes pretty well. Here are the scoring ranks of the rest of the Spartans schedule:

Minnesota: 75th

Indiana: 67th

Northwestern: 89th

Penn State: 19th

Ohio State: 4th

Maryland: 43rd

Rutgers: 108th

One other number that I wanted to look at was the passing numbers for the MSU opponents. That is an area that the Spartans specifically struggled the last few years, so it is worth noting whether their improvement in that area is once again a product of their schedule or not. For this we are going to look at yards per attempt and passer rating.

Bowling Green: 6.3 YPA (109th) and 111.91 (114th)

Western Michigan: 7.3 YPA (69th) and 153.50 (26th)

Notre Dame: 5.7 YPA (119th) and 108.97 (116th)

Iowa: 7.6 YPA (56th) and 150.69 (32nd)

Michigan: 7.6 YPA (56th) and 119.98 (98th)

So, as you might have expected, the Spartans have not really been tested by a good passing attack yet this year. In fact, Bowling Green and Notre Dame are quite bad. That is somewhat alarming as Notre Dame had their highest YPA and rating against MSU, which also represented the low water marks for the Spartans this year. In all four of MSU’s wins, they have held their opponents below their average yards per attempt and rating, in most cases well below.

Looking at the upcoming schedule, only three of the final seven opponents have a better yards per attempt ranking than the teams MSU has already faced; Ohio State (14th), Penn State (31st), and Minnesota (43rd). Everyone else is ranked 83rd or lower.

Finally, the running attack, this is where the defense has been really impressive. In the Spartans four wins this season they have held their opponents to less than 3.25 yards per carry, including holding three opponents to less than three yards per carry.

Once again, the opposition hasn’t been great in this department overall. Just two of MSU’s opponents are in the top half in yards per attempt, Notre Dame (2nd) and Western Michigan (36th). Iowa (101st) and Michigan (84th) both had their overall numbers hurt considerably by their poor performances against MSU’s rush defense. The Hawkeyes would be 85th overall if you remove the MSU game and Michigan moves up to 64th, which is right about middle of the pack.

As we saw with the passing attack, the remaining MSU opponents aren’t great rushing teams either. Just three rank in the top 50 in yards per attempt; Ohio State (8th), Maryland (45th), and Penn State (50). Obviously that Penn State number is somewhat deceptive because Saquon Barkley is a beast.


The major things to take away from all this for me is that the Spartan defense has overall been very good, but has also benefited from who they have played. However, their opponents up to this point are a pretty good representation of what remains. Outside of the two obvious games against Penn State and Ohio State, no one on the schedule poses a particularly explosive threat in either the pass or run game.

The one outlier in this is the Notre Dame game, where the Spartans had their worst games in terms of points and both rushing and passing yards per attempt. Although they did hold ND below their averages in rushing YPA and points (barely). The question is, was that one bad game? Was it a product of the turnovers that put them in bad spots? Or did Notre Dame do something that other teams can look at and exploit?

The answer is probably a combination of things, but one factor might be the mobile quarterback. We will see how that shakes out moving forward, with a couple of mobile quarterbacks left on the schedule, although I would say that J.T. Barrett is really the only one that compares with Wimbush in terms of usage and effectiveness. Peyton Ramsey at Indiana is second on his team in attempts, but only averaging 3.49 YPA. Trace McSorely at PSU also has a decent amount of carries but an even lower YPA.

The bottom line is that Michigan State fans should be encouraged that this defense does appear to be quite good. What you have seen up to this point is probably what you can expect most of the rest of the way. How well they finish the season will likely equate to how well they do against the two big opponents left. But outside of those two games, I expect the defense to continue to be very stingy.

One final positive note. More than half of the MSU sacks on the season have come in the last two games against conference opponents. Iowa had only allowed five sacks in four games before the Spartans got them three times. Michigan had been sacked 12 times in five games, and the Spartans got to O’Korn four more times.

While this defense likely won’t be quite as good as the Rose Bowl defense. It sure looks like they will return to being at least a top-20 level defense, if not bordering on a top-10 defense. That should help keep the Spartans in almost every game the rest of the way, especially the next three, allowing the offense to continue to get better.