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Where can the MSU defense improve? (Part 1)

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The 2016 Spartan defense was the worst of the Dantonio era, but improvement in a few key areas could make the difference this year.

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

The 2016 college football season was one to forget in East Lansing, as Michigan State fell from the college football playoff, to their worst record in a quarter century. Despite the desire to place most of the blame solely at the feet of the quarterback, the offense, the secondary, or the coaches, it truly was a team effort to put together a season that went so badly.

While it is easy to say that the team didn’t score enough and gave up too many points (both true), instead we need to look at some specific and situational areas where things went wrong. While MSU was blown out a few times, they also lost four games by single digits, and five total by two scores or less. One or two plays either way in some of those games could have made the difference between a mediocre season, and the total disaster that we saw instead.

For this piece we will focus on the defense, with the offense coming next week.

Let’s start off with some basics and see where the team ranked overall in some of the broad defensive categories.

Scoring Defense: 61st (27.8 points per game)

Total Defense: 32nd (364.8 points per game)

Yards per play: 53rd (5.53)

Rushing Defense: 51st (158.67 yards per game)

Yards per carry: 50th (4.14)

Passing Defense: 36th (206.2 yards per game)

Yards per attempt: 83rd (7.5)

Opposing QB rating: 84th (136.31)

Sacks: 124th (11)

Turnovers: 112th (13)

That is a lot of numbers, some of which are much more important than others. What you can throw out pretty quickly are some of the yardage stats. While the Spartans were a respectable 32nd in total yardage and 36th in pass yards, as well as a middle of the road 51st in rushing yardage, all those numbers rank below the most important defensive stat, scoring.

The 27.8 points per game was the highest of the Mark Dantonio era by more than a point over his first season in 2007. So, like we said up top, this team gave up a lot of points. What makes it even worse is that they shut out Rutgers. Take that game out and you are looking at 30.3 points per game allowed in the other 11 contests.

The rushing defense comes out pretty consistent. The total yards and the yards per carry ranks are almost the same. As expected that yards per game total is the highest of the Dantonio era. So the rushing defense was well below expectations at MSU, but not catastrophically bad overall. The worst rushing defense at MSU under Mark Dantonio was still better than 60% of the rest of college football teams last year.

The passing numbers are where you really need to look past the overall yardage stats. Ranking 36th in passing yards against per game is a meaningless number. In fact that was their highest ranking since the 2013 “No Fly Zone” team that won the Rose Bowl.

Looking at the yards per attempt gives us a much better appreciation for the struggles of the MSU secondary. The 7.5 yards per attempt is, once again, the worst under Mark Dantonio. The previous high was 7.3, coming the year before that. In the eight seasons previous to that, they only allowed more than seven yards per attempt once, in 2009. There was a lot of similar personnel in the defensive backfield the last two years, so the fact they put up the two worst seasons in this category isn’t shocking.

What the previous season’s defense did that last year’s did not was take the ball away, and get to the quarterback.

The 2015 team averaged two takeaways per game, finishing ninth in the country with 28 total takeaways. Fifteen of those were interceptions. Last year’s team only forced 13 turnovers TOTAL.

The sacks were even worse. In 2015 the Spartan defense got to the quarterback 37 times in 14 games for an average of 2.64 sacks per game. Last year, 11 total sacks in 12 games. That is a half of a sack more than Shilique Calhoun had by himself the previous year.

Sacks and turnovers are game changing type plays. Turnovers end a possession and sacks can often do the same. While the 2014 MSU defense wasn’t all that much better than the 2015 version on paper, they got to the quarterback and forced turnovers. By doing that they were 6.1 points, or one touchdown, better than the 2015 version. That right there could be the difference between 3-9 and 6-6.

Lack of game changing plays was certainly an issue for the defense, but that isn’t the only area they struggled. There were some other situational spots where the Spartan defense struggled that need to be improved for this year. We will take a look at those in the coming days in part two.