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Situational improvement has led to early season success for MSU

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Both the offense and defense have really stepped up their third down performance

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

In the off-season I went through both the offensive and defensive statistics from last season to see if there were particular areas that needed work. The conclusion drawn was that there were certain situational areas that, if improved, could make the difference this season.

With four games in the books we are now a third of the way through the season, although the conference schedule has just started. But it seems like a good time to check in and see how MSU is doing in terms of improving in those specific areas.

Defense

The defense has really been very good so far. The Spartans ranks 21st in scoring defense allowing 18 points per game, fifth in total defense, and 11th in yards per play against.

Two of the biggest areas we highlighted as an obvious struggle for last year’s defense were a lack of turnovers and sacks, so let’s start with that.

So far the turnover situation hasn’t really changed much from last year. Through four games the Spartan defense has four takeaways. This is about at the same pace as last year when they finished with 13 takeaways. This was really looking grim until last game when they forced a pair of fumbles against Iowa. Still, this group has seemed much more active, so I expect the turnovers to come in greater number than last year.

On to sacks, where the defense had just 11 last year. This year, they already have nine. Now that isn’t an earth shattering number, it puts them at 52nd nationally in sacks per game, but it is a MASSIVE improvement over last year. Sacks and turnovers are the defense’s version of big plays, and they can have a huge impact on a game. We saw this against Iowa where sacks ended drives and turnovers helped keep points off the board.

Now on to a few of the situational numbers. Let’s start with third down percentage. Last year teams converted 42.26% of their third downs against the Spartan defense, which ranked 90th nationally. This year that number is down to 26.79%, good for 12th in the country. That is a huge improvement in a key area. It means drives ending sooner and getting off the field quicker. We saw this come up big against Iowa twice when the defense forced the Hawkeyes into three-and-outs twice after Hartbarger had pinned them deep with punts, setting up MSU scoring drives.

The next statistical area is red zone defense. Last year the Spartans allowed teams to score on over 90% of their trips to the red zone. So far this year that number is down to 75 percent. That is another solid improvement, from 112th nationally to 29th as of now.

Now teams are still converting touchdowns on 62.5% of their red zone trips, which is a little lower than last year. But, like sacks, the red zone stops have almost eclipsed last year’s total. There were only four opponent trips to the red zone that didn’t result in points last year. This year they already have two.

Finally on the defensive side, we look at long plays. As of now the Spartan defense has given up the ninth fewest plays of 10+ yards, the fifth fewest plays of 20+ yards, and no plays of 50 yards or more. Last year the defense allowed 24 plays of 40+ yards, with eight of those going for at least 50 yards. This year they have allowed two 40 yard plays and nothing over fifty.

The improvement in sacks and third down percentage are the two numbers that really stand out as being big improvements over last year, and are major factors in the overall defensive improvement to this point. These are also the areas that MSU will need to continue to do well at if they expect the defense to keep performing at or near the level they have so far. But needless to say, the signs have been very encouraging through four games.

Offense

The Spartan offense hasn’t been quite as good as the defense so far, showing flashes of brilliance, but lacking any real consistency. Brian Lewerke has been doing a lot of the leg work for the offense, oftentimes literally with his legs. Let’s see how some of the situational stats look for the offense, compared with last year.

We are going to look at a lot of the same stats as we did on the defensive side for this so let’s start with third down conversions. Last year MSU was 80th nationally at picking up third downs with a 38.73 conversion rate. This year, they are converting 49.21% of their third downs, good for 12th in the country. That is on par with the last two years of Connor Cook’s tenure in East Lansing. That number might not be sustainable for the offense, but Lewerke has shown a Cook-like knack for finding a way to convert on third down, be it with his arm or his legs.

Next up is the red zone. Last year MSU was 91st in the country converting a little over 80% of their red zone trips into points. Things have not improved so far this year, with MSU getting points on just 11 of 16 trips to the red zone, a 68.75% scoring rate. Of those 11 score, nine of them were touchdowns, so that is good, but the overall touchdown rate of 56.25 is about the same as last year. One of the main culprits in this is L.J. Scott’s fumbles. That pretty much took two sure touchdowns off the board.

MSU is only averaging four red zone trips per game, so they really need to make the most of those. This is an area that still needs to improve, especially as we get deeper into conference play.

Now, let’s look at big plays. Through four games MSU has 60 plays of 10+ yards, about on pace with last year’s team. They have 19 plays of 20+ yards, again similar to last year. The numbers the rest of the way aren’t all that good either, although they do have almost half as many 40+ yard plays as they had all last year, so that is a positive.

Overall, the only real situational improvement on the offensive side is on third down, and that can’t be overlooked. Converting third downs helps keep drives alive, keeps your defense off the field, and helps in the field position battle. Even if you aren’t always scoring points, you can flip the field, or at least give your defense a break.

However, they need to cash in their red zone trips when they get them, because while they are picking up third downs at a near 50% clip, only 29.79% of their possessions reach the red zone. That puts them in the bottom half nationally, and seventh in the Big Ten. They can’t afford to waste the chances they do get.

Finally we need to at least address the elephant in the room, turnovers. Michigan State has given the ball away eight times, an average of two per game. That is almost half way to last year’s total of 18 turnovers. On top of just the sheer number of turnovers, it’s what they have led to or taken away.

Six of MSU’s eight turnovers have either directly led to, or taken touchdowns off the board. There are the two L.J. Scott fumbles on the goal line. There are THREE defensive TD’s against, two on fumble returns and one on a pick-six. And there was the Lewerke fumble against Notre Dame that set the Irish up with a short field, leading to a touchdown. So not only has MSU turned the ball over a fair amount, but 75% of those turnovers have had a seven point impact against them on the scoreboard.

We will continue to monitor these situational stats as we move through the season, but the areas that have seen the most improvement do seem to be making a difference so far, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Whether or not they can keep things going in the right direction, and improve on the areas where they are still struggling, will likely determine how successful the conference season is for the green and white.