Throughout this season we have tracked stats in some key areas we highlighted in the off-season to see if the Spartans were able to improve in these areas and thus, improve their record from last season. Well we already know that they did in fact improve their record from last year, by completely flipping it from 3-9 to 9-3. Doing so is no small feat. So were the areas we focused on important, or was there an overall improvement across the board that led to the resurgent season. Let’s take a final look at the numbers.
We will start on defense and we will start with some of the overall numbers from last year and this year to give us a general idea.
Scoring Defense (National Rank)
2016: 27.8 points per game (61st)
2017: 20.3 points per game (23rd)
2016: 364.8 yards per game (32nd)
2017: 297.8 yards per game (9th)
Yards per Play
2016: 5.53 (53rd)
2017: 4.85 (18th)
Passing Defense Yards per Attempt
2016: 7.5 (83rd)
2017: 6.3 (20th)
Rushing Defense Yards per Carry
2016: 4.14 (50th)
2017: 3.38 (14th)
So safe to say it was a pretty big improvement across the board on the overall numbers for the Spartan defense. They shaved a little over a touchdown off their points allowed per game, and had massive gains in total defense, yards per play, and passing and rushing defense.
So now let’s check in on some of the key areas we focused on in the off-season.
The big one that was really obvious was sacks. As I am sure you recall, MSU was third from the bottom in the country last year with just 11 sacks. This year, 28 sacks, ranking 35th nationally. That is a 154% increase in the number of sacks from the previous year. I am going to go out on a limb and say that this helped out a lot.
We also talked about turnovers. Last season MSU forced just 13 total turnovers, ranking 112th out of 128 teams. This year’s defense had 13 interceptions, with eight fumble recoveries to go along with them. That makes 21 turnovers forced by the MSU D this year, ranking 33rd overall. That is a 62% improvement over last year.
So you are talking about massive improvements in game changing type plays on defense over the previous season. But these were pretty obvious ones, what about our more situational stats?
The big one we looked at was third down percentage. How often do you get off the field when you have the chance? This was a big problem for MSU last year as they allowed teams to covert 42.26% of their third downs, 90th in the country. This year the Spartans held their opponents to just a 31.90% conversion rate on third down, 16th best in the country. That is a huge improvement, and it means that drives were ending a lot quicker than they were a year ago.
As a result, MSU ranked 14th in the country in opponent first downs per possession (1.15) and opponent yards per possession (23.34). You did not see very many long drives against the MSU defense this year.
So far we appear to have been right in that improvement in these areas would correlate to an overall defensive improvement. Now let’s check the red zone stats.
Red Zone Opponent Conversion Rate
2016: 90.24% (112th)
2017: 86.21% (86th)
Red Zone Opponent TD Rate
2016: 68.29% (103rd)
2017: 55.17% (44th)
Well the overall scoring rate didn’t improve significantly, but the touchdown rate certainly did. MSU allowed 16 touchdowns on 29 opponent trips to the red zone this year, if they had been allowing red zone TD’s at the same rate as last year, they would have allowed 20 touchdowns this year. So the improvement saved them four touchdowns over the course of the season. Considering MSU won five games by a touchdown or less this year, that seems significant.
Finally on defense we looked at long plays. Here is the breakdown from last year to this year.
10+ Yards 140 127
20+ Yards 52 42
30+ Yards 25 17
40+ Yards 16 7
50+ Yards 6 2
60+ Yards 2 2
Once again, better across the board. A really good improvement when you look at the 20-50 yard plays. Last year the defense was allowing more than one 40 yard play per game, this year they allowed one basically every other game. That’s a big difference, and it goes back to what we said earlier, that teams did not often put up long drives on this defense.
On the defensive side of the ball I think we hit the nail on the head. These key areas really made the difference for the Spartans this year. Sacks and turnovers served as the defenses big plays, while the improved third down rate got them off the field. When teams did move the ball into the red zone, the defense did a better job keeping them out of the end zone. They minimized big plays and forced teams to work for every yard and more often than not it was the MSU defense coming out on top.
Same deal for the offense now, let’s check the overall numbers from last year to this year.
2016: 24.1 points per game (104th)
2017: 23.1 points per game (106th)
2016: 395 yards per game (75th)
2017: 378.3 yards per game (91st)
Yards per Play
2016: 5.64 (74th)
2017: 5.04 (112th)
Passing Yards per Attempt
2016: 7.2 (65th)
2017: 6.4 (109th)
Rushing Yards per Attempt
2016: 4.40 (68th)
2017: 3.92 (95th)
Yikes. Would you have guessed that the MSU offense was worse across the board than they were a year ago, at least in the major categories? I probably wouldn’t have either. But there were some games where things were a real struggle for them. Some of those games had some tough weather, and the Spartan coaches took a much more conservative approach. But overall, pretty ugly numbers.
So let’s check in on our situational stats.
The first one we highlighted in the offseason was turnovers. Last year MSU had 18 giveaways, which ranked 47th overall. That wasn’t all that bad considering how badly the team struggled all season. Well this year they had 19 turnovers, including 12 fumbles lost. The overall turnover rank is 77th but the 12 turnovers ranked 118th nationally. The seven interceptions ranked 30th and really wasn’t all that bad.
So they weren’t any better there, how about third down conversions. Last season MSU was 80th in the country with a third down conversion rate of 38.73 percent. This year they ranked 39th and converted 43.23% of their third downs. That is pretty close to Connor Cook’s first season at the helm when MSU picked up 43.93% of their third downs.
So that looks like an area where there was a significant improvement.
We also looked at the red zone numbers on offense so let’s look at those as well.
Red Zone Conversion Rate
2016: 80.95% (91st)
2017: 80.85% (91st)
Red Zone TD Rate
2016: 57.14% (92nd)
2017: 55.32% (96th)
Welp, that didn’t do it. The Spartan offense continued to struggle in the red zone this season, as they did the last. Now they did have five more trips to the red zone this year compared to last and as a result had two more touchdowns and two more field goals than last year, but the percentages tell you that this was still a problem. Several goal line fumbles really hurt this number. For what it’s worth, Brian Lewerke had a TD-INT ratio of 14-0 in the red zone this year.
And finally we will look at big plays on offense.
10+ Yards 174 167
20+ Yards 55 46
30+ Yards 19 15
40+ Yards 11 8
50+ Yards 7 4
60+ Yards 5 2
Once again, that is all going in the wrong direction. Not much worse, but worse none the less. The Michigan State offense was just not an explosive unit this year.
While the offense showed flashes at times, and was able to put together some really nice drives, especially when they needed to, it was overall not a very productive unit. Outside of the third down improvement, they regressed or stayed the same in all the other areas that we looked for improvement from last season.
While I do not think that really any of the coaches should be criticized after the turnaround this team had, I think this does give some fodder to the people that want to see a change with the offensive staff. This is now back to back seasons where the offense has really struggled to be consistent.
While many of the players were quite young and inexperienced, Brian Lewerke showed he was a massive improvement in talent and skill over what they got from Tyler O’Connor a year ago. I’m not saying they need to make a change, but if the offense sputters out of the gate again next year, with almost everyone coming back, it will get harder and harder to justify not making one.
What all of this is telling me is that the defense made the season for Michigan State. They improved in every area, while the offense ran in place. The defense shaved a full touchdown off what they allowed last year while the offense more or less stayed the same. With the amount of close games MSU usually plays, that made a huge difference in flipping the record.
I do think that this also shows that Michigan State came out about as well as they could have. They played six games within one score and won five of them. They played two other games that were within two scores, winning both of those. They split the four games decided by more than three scores.
MSU won the close games, something they are used to doing under Dantonio, but they didn’t have a wide margin of error. The defense kept them close in most games, and they were able to make the plays they needed to at the right times to pull out wins.
For next year, I would hope that the offense can close the gap with the defense, and MSU will look more the part of a 10 win team than they did this year. And if they keep finding the inches, they could be very dangerous.