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Where can the MSU defense improve? (Part 2)

The overall struggles were obvious, but the defense really struggled in a few key situations last year.

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

The other day we looked at some of the overall defensive statistics and at where the MSU defense needed to improve in regards to those numbers. In this edition we are going to take a look at some specific situational areas where the Spartan defense needs to make strides this year.

First up is third down conversions. Getting off the field and ending your opponent’s drive is really the most basic goal of the defense. So when you see that Michigan State ranked 90th in opponent third down conversion rate, the problem becomes pretty obvious. Teams converted 42.26% of their third down chances against the Spartans. Teams were converting two more first downs per game against MSU last year than in 2015. That is two more drives that don’t end that potentially result in points.

Oh, and while we are talking about drives not ending, we should mention that Michigan State gave up 23 first downs on penalties last year. That ranked 79th nationally. This however, has long been an issue for the MSU defense, who consistently ranks in the lower half, or near the bottom in this category.

Let’s talk red zone now. Last year MSU gave up points on 90.24 of their opponent’s red zone trips, ranking 112th nationally. As you might expect, the majority of those were touchdowns, 68.29% to be exact. That ranks 103rd. Both of those numbers were about five percent worse than the 2015 team, which was also below average in both categories.

Finally, we are going to look at long scrimmage plays. The breakdown on this is what is really interesting. Let’s take a look at the national ranking at each 10 yard interval.

10+ yards: 6th

20+ yards: 26th

30+ yards: 42nd

40+ yards: 79th

50+ yards: 38th

60+ yards: 13th

So, while the Spartans didn’t allow a large total of big plays overall, they did allow a decent amount of big plays between 30-50 yards. They didn’t allow any plays over 70 yards, and only two plays over 60 yards. What this tells me is that they gave up a significant amount of 40-50 yard plays compared to the rest of the country.

Most drives with a 40-50 yard play are going to net points for the offense. So again, this is a specialty area that, if improved, can make the difference between allowing that extra touchdown per game.

So, to sum up, the defense last year was bad. It feels safe to say that it was the worst defense under Mark Dantonio at Michigan State. However, it wasn’t that much better in many areas than the defense that played in the college football playoff. There are a few key spots that, if improved this year, will make a big difference. A drastic improvement is needed in probably at least half of these areas, with turnovers and sacks being the most important, followed by third down performance and minimizing big plays.

It won’t be easy, especially with the uncertainty up front. The defense must find some playmakers, and those players must make plays. Otherwise you are going to see a lot of the same in 2017 that you did in 2016, and that is going to put a lot of pressure on the offense to be a lot better than they were last year.