The Michigan State defense probably isn’t getting the credit they deserve. Sure, those watching the team know how solid they have been all season. The numbers against the run are fantastic and well known. After this last performance against Purdue the Spartan defense is back to number one against the rush, allowing just 77.38 yards per game.
But the unit often gets dogged for their pass defense, which ranks 114th in total pass yardage against per game. But would you believe the MSU defense has more interceptions than touchdowns allowed? They do, 12 picks to 11 touchdowns. They also rank a very solid 44th in opponent passer rating and 49th in yards per pass attempt.
And of course the most important stat when it comes to defense is points allowed. Here is where I think MSU needs to be given more credit than just looking at the base numbers, which aren’t bad either.
The Spartans rank 27th nationally in scoring defense allowing exactly 21 points per game. Not bad. In fact it’s good for third in the Big Ten. But that number doesn’t quite tell the whole story.
MSU has consistently held its opponents below, and often well below, their season scoring averages. I went though and crunched the numbers to find out how far below the season averages MSU held each of its opponents. For this exercise I took the average from the other team’s games against every non-MSU opponent, and compared it to their performance against MSU. Here are the results.
Utah State: Averages 52 points per game, MSU held them to 31 points, their second lowest total of the year and 21 points below average.
Arizona State: Averages 30.6 points per game, MSU held them to 16 points, their second lowest total of the year and 14.6 points below average.
Indiana: Averages 27.6 points per game, MSU held them to 21 points, 6.6 points below average.
So far so good. That’s three games and a little over six touchdowns below average total. Next up are the two outliers.
Central Michigan: Averages 15.9 points per game, scored 20 against MSU, 4.1 points above average.
Northwestern: Averages 24.6 points per game, scored 29 against MSU, 4.4 points above average. Although I am willing to call this one a wash considering their last touchdown was more on the offense turning it over on downs than on the defense.
Never the less, that’s 8.5 points above average for the only two games where teams have hit or surpassed their average. Now comes the real impressive part.
Penn State: Averages 44.4 points per game, MSU held them to 17 points, their lowest total of the year, and 27.4 points below average.
Michigan: Averages 38.1 points per game, MSU held them to 21 points, 17.1 points below average.
Purdue: Averages 35.7 points per game, MSU held them to 13 points, their lowest total of the year, 22.7 points below average.
Against three conference opponents, all averaging well over 30 points per game, the Spartan defense held them to a total of 51 points, an average of 17 per game, and a combined 67.2 points below their averages.
For the season, MSU has held teams to a total of 100.9 points below their average scores against all other opponents.
Adding up some other totals, in five of their eight games MSU has held teams to at least two touchdowns below their average, and three touchdowns below in three games. Half of their games MSU has held their opponents to at least 17 points below their average. That’s three scores fewer in half the games this year.
All this has been done against a pretty tough schedule to this point. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings ranks the Michigan State schedule as the eighth toughest in the country.
The takeaway from this should be what a lot of Spartan fans already know, that this defense is really good. They should not be taken for granted.
In fact going back to last season, this defense has held 12 of their 21 opponents (57%) to 20 points or less. MSU is 11-1 in those 12 games, with the lone loss coming at Arizona State this year. That is a pretty remarkable stretch in this day and age of college football.
If the defense can continue to shut teams down like they have over the last three weeks, MSU should be in good shape the rest of the way. They face three more teams that average at least 29.8 points per game as of now, and the worst scoring team in the country in Rutgers to close the season.
But only Ohio State is a higher scoring team than any of the three MSU just faced. And let’s not forget the only team to score 30 against the Spartans was Utah State, who is the third highest scoring offense in the country, and would be number two if it wasn’t for MSU holding them to just 31 points.
Oh, and MSU still hasn’t been fully healthy on defense, with Josiah Scott yet to play this year. Add him to the mix and this group can continue to carry the team to wins, despite all the turmoil on the other side of the ball.