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Checking back in on situational improvements

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When last we checked, the MSU defense had made great strides since 2016, has the offense caught up?

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

With nine games in the books and three games left, Michigan State’s season is in better shape than almost anyone could have predicted. They are tied for first place in the Big Ten East, with a matchup against Ohio State this weekend that will essentially determine who goes to Indy to play for the Big Ten title. It’s been a pretty remarkable turnaround in East Lansing so far, and it’s not over yet.

So this seemed like the perfect time to once again take a look at the specific areas for improvement that we targeted in the offseason and checked in on earlier in the year. Let’s see if our predictions hold true, or if the Spartans have just improved in every area that these have taken care of themselves.

Defense

The defense has been pretty good this year, and certainly an improvement from last season. They currently rank 27th nationally in scoring defense at 20.1 points per game, although that puts them sixth in the Big Ten. This number is only up about two points per game since we checked in last time though, so pretty good. MSU checks in at 12th in total defense, and 15th in yards per play. Overall, this is still a top-20 defense in the country.

Now the two main areas we highlighted on defense were a need for more sacks and turnovers.

When last we checked, the Spartan defense had four takeaways through four games, but had just forced a pair against Iowa to double their season total. We said that this was not a great pace through four games, but were confident that this group had more turnovers in them. We were right.

The very next week MSU came up with five turnovers in Ann Arbor to help beat the Wolverines, and followed that up with two in Minnesota the next week. They then went without a turnover against Indiana and got one in Northwestern before grabbing three more last week against Penn State. That is four, multi-turnover games in conference play, after having only two total in the nonconference season.

With three games left to play the Spartans are at 15 total takeaways, already surpassing their total of 13 from last year. They still have a ways to go to catch up with some of the great Spartan defenses of the past, but the improvement is certainly there.

On to sacks, where we already saw a huge improvement when we checked in after four games. Then MSU was at nine sacks on the year, only two away from last year’s pathetic total of eleven. They are now up to 22 sacks, doubling their total from a season ago, with at least three games left to play. They are averaging 2.7 sacks per game in conference play, and have had multiple sacks in every Big Ten game other than Northwestern.

Nationally they rank tied for 32nd in sacks. A year ago they were 124th. They also have 42 quarterback hurries according to cfbstats.com, which has already surpassed the total of 38 they had a year ago. It’s safe to say, this group has done a much better job getting pressure overall.

Third downs was another area we highlighted. When last we checked in, Michigan State was the 12th best team in the country at getting off the field on third down at 26.79% opponent conversion. Both those numbers have gone up in conference play, but not a lot. MSU is now 16th nationally at 30.77% opponent third down rate. That is the second best number in the Big Ten.

Looking at the game by game totals, only two teams have converted third downs at a 40% rate or better, Notre Dame and Northwestern. No surprise that the two losses came when the defense had trouble getting off the field.

Another spot we were monitoring was red zone efficiency. After four games teams were scoring 75% of the time in the red zone and scoring touchdowns 62.5% of the time. That overall number is now up to 90.48%, which is about the same as last season. However, the TD percentage is down to 57.14%, more than 11 points better than last year. So while teams are still scoring when they get to the red zone, they aren’t getting as many touchdowns.

The two teams that have done the best in the red zone against MSU? Notre Dame (4 trips, 4 TD’s) and Northwestern (5 trips, 4 TD’s, 1 FG).

And finally we wanted to check in on long plays. MSU currently ranks 30th in 10+yard plays allowed, 19th in 20+ yard plays, 9th in 30+ yard plays, and 3rd in 40+ yard plays. They have allowed only three plays of 40+ yards and only one of 50+, which came last week against Penn State. For reference, the defense allowed 16 plays of 40+ yards last year and six of 50 or more.

The predictions on the defensive side seem to hold water. MSU has made huge improvements in sacks, turnovers, and third down conversions. They have limited big plays and gotten a little stingier in the red zone. All that has led to what has so far been about a touchdown per game improvement in points allowed. One less TD allowed per game is a pretty significant improvement.

Offense

When we last checked in the offense was struggling with consistency but had shown some real flashes of brilliance. I’m not sure things have changed all that much, but things seem to be trending in the right direction.

Overall the Spartans are just 97th in points per game at 24.1, also known as the exact same average points per game they had in 2016. Most of the other overall numbers are similar as well. So let’s get right into the situational stuff.

Like defense, third down offense was a big thing we highlighted in the offseason piece. When we last checked in, MSU was converting at a little over 49% and ranked 12th nationally. That has fallen off a little bit, down to 43.26% and 40th overall. That is still about a five percent improvement over last year though.

And if you read our film room piece from the Penn State game, you know how well MSU did on third down in that game.

Next up, red zone efficiency. This number is not great, although it has gotten better since we last checked in. Currently, MSU is scoring at an 80% clip in the red zone. That number was at 68.75% last time we looked. Their current rate is 87th nationally, and both numbers are right about where they finished last year.

They have converted 60% of those red zone trips to touchdowns, which is a mild improvement over both last year, and earlier this year. Still, they are averaging 3.8 trips to the red zone per game, so cashing as many of those chances in for TD’s is pretty important.

And finally, big plays on offense. When last we checked the Spartan offense was about on par with last season in terms of big plays. Not much has changed since then. In fact, across the board, the Spartans are averaging almost the exact same amount of big plays in each category as they did in 2016. So that area remains consistent from earlier this year and last year.

Offensively the differences haven’t been as pronounced, but the improved third down rate has certainly helped the offense stay on the field a little more, which, if nothing else improves field position and helps the defense out.

I would say that if MSU continues to swing to the pass heavy attack we saw late in the Northwestern game and in the Penn State game, that there is a good chance the offensive numbers increase across the board, especially in the big play department.

Overall

What this tells me is that the defense has been the difference this year, and I think a lot of people would agree with that, even just from watching the games. They have improved almost across the board in the areas we focused on. Those improvements have resulted in a better than a touchdown per game less points. When we did this piece in the off-season we said a seven point swing would have greatly changed MSU’s season last year, and we are seeing that this year.

Given the games remaining, I don’t think the end of the regular season numbers will be all that different from where we are now. If the offense can catch up a little bit to the defense, over these next three games, like they did against Penn State, then we might be in for a fun ride over the next three to four weeks.