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Where the Spartan offense needs to step up

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A lack of efficiency hurt MSU last year, and that will need to change if they are going to get better in 2017.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Maryland Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

A little while back we dug into the Spartans defensive stats from last year to see where they were exceptionally bad and if there were some specific situations that, if improved, could have a major impact on the overall performance for this year. Now we are going to do the same thing with the offense.

Now a simple eye test will tell you that MSU’s offense last year really struggled. Anyone who watched the games could see that the drop-off from the previous few years was pretty substantial. We will start with an overview of the general numbers and go from there.

Points per game: 24.1 (104th nationally)

So yeah, right off the bat we see Michigan State in the bottom third of the country in THE most important offensive statistic, points scored. The drop off from the previous season was 5.7 points per game, or a little less than a TD per game. It was the second lowest per game average behind only the 2012 season when the Andrew Maxwell led Spartan offense scored just 20 points per game.

Rushing Offense: 172.67 yards per game (65th)

4.40 yards per carry (68th)

14 rushing TD’s (108th)

These are not terrible overall and actually right around where the Spartans usually are under Mark Dantonio. It’s an improvement in both areas over the previous season, when the Spartans ran for 151.29 yards per game and 3.84 yards per carry. In fact the 4.40 yards per carry ranks third during the Dantonio era behind the record setting 2014 team (5.15) and Dantonio’s first team in 2007 (4.44).

Passing Offense: 222.3 yards per game (74th)

7.2 yards per attempt (65th)

57% completion rate (84th)

128.60 QB rating (72nd)

19 passing TD’s (71st)

11 interceptions (64th)

Now this is interesting because if you asked most people they would have told you the passing game was disastrous last year. And while this certainly shows that it was not good, it also wasn’t as bad as you might think, at least statistically. Most of the numbers rank in the bottom half nationally, but the yards per attempt is right in the middle. The 7.2 per attempt isn’t good, but it’s only the fourth worst number of the Dantonio era. The worst, once again, was the 2012 team with an abysmal 5.9 yards per attempt.

So while it is obvious that the offense wasn’t good, they were middle of the road in yards per attempts in both areas. However, they were much worse in scoring. Something is obviously helping make up the difference.

Looking at some situational stats might give us a better understanding of what really ailed the MSU offense last season.

Turnovers lost: 18 (47th)

The number one killer of an offense is turnovers, but the Spartans really weren’t all that bad in the turnover department. Their 18 total puts them in the top half nationally in terms of total giveaways. It comes out to 1.5 per game, which isn’t great, but isn’t terrible. It certainly isn’t the worst under Dantonio. Now MSU had done a good job taking care of the ball the last few seasons, ranking in the top 17 each of the previous three years. As we discussed in the defensive piece, the lack of takeaways were way more the issue than the number of giveaways.

Third Down Conversions: 38.73% (80th)

So here is an area that saw a significant drop from the previous couple seasons. Whatever you want to say about Connor Cook, he could pick up some third downs. In his three seasons at the helm the MSU offense had its three best seasons under Dantonio in third down conversions, all above 43 percent. The last two years the Spartans were top-10 in converting third down.

However, the rate from last year is pretty much on par with the pre-Cook conversion numbers. So while it obviously isn’t good, it had not really been a strong suit of the MSU offense before Connor Cook took over under center.

Red Zone Conversion rate: 80.95% (91st)

Red Zone TD rate: 57.14% (92nd)

So this seems pretty basic. If you aren’t converting your red zone trips into any points, that is clearly a problem. And when you are in the bottom third in punching the ball into the endzone on your trips inside the 20, well things get really ugly. This was the case for MSU last year. The Spartans lost three games last year by four points or less, or the exact difference between a touchdown (with extra point) and a field goal.

Only 29.79% of the MSU offensive possessions found the red zone, which ranked 73rd nationally. When you are only getting to the red zone less than 30% of the time, you really need to convert more than 57% of those trips into touchdowns.

Long scrimmage plays

10+ yards: 174 (77th)

20+ yards: 55 (84th)

30+ yards: 19 (114th)

40+ yards: 11 (91st)

50+ yards: 7 (66th)

Big plays can be game changers. If nothing else, they usually put you in position to get points, and they take pressure off your offense to have to grind out 10+ play drives every time out in order to score. When you see that they were amongst the worst in the country in 30+ yard plays, that tells me they have no big play capability. And they weren’t much better with the 10 and 20 yard plays either.

So when you can’t pick up big chunks of yardage at a time AND you aren’t efficient at converting third downs, it’s starting to become pretty obvious as to why this team had trouble scoring points. This bears itself out in the numbers when you see that only 6% of MSU’s drives went at least 20 yards and resulted in a touchdown (96th nationally).

It also comes into play when you note that the Spartans average starting field position was just inside their own 30 yard line. That ranks 94th nationally by the way. When you have to go 70 yards to find the endzone, and you aren’t picking up large chucks of yardage at a time, nor can you convert on third down, you have a big problem. This is how MSU ends up 110th in the country in yards per point.

The end result is that the Spartan offense was just not very efficient last year. They must find a way to sustain drives better, or start hitting on some bigger plays. Obviously that is easier said than done. The defense could certainly help out too by giving them a short field every now and then.

I expect the offense to be better this year, and having a consistent presence under center should help that. LJ Scott and the trio of running backs should be able to handle a heavy work load as well. The real question will be if enough players in the pass game can step up as playmakers, and if Brian Lewerke and the MSU coaching staff can figure out how to get the ball into those playmakers hands.