Welcome back from a brief hiatus, all. I hope everybody is enjoying the holiday season.
We are just a few days away from the Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, California (Monday, Dec. 31 at 3 p.m. EST), in which the Michigan State Spartans and Oregon Ducks square off in an intriguing matchup of high-powered offense vs. smashmouth defense.
For this matchup, I wanted to look at Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert’s numbers in the first six games of the season versus his numbers in the second half of the season. Now, let me preface this by saying that Herbert is a very good quarterback who can make just about every throw. He would have been a surefire top-five draft pick had he not decided to return to Eugene for his senior season in 2019. However, it is safe to say that Herbert had a much stronger start to the season than he had finish.
Let’s take a look at the high-level numbers
First six games: average/(totals):
- 63.2 percent completion rate (total)
- 268.8 yards per game (1,613 total)
- 2.83 touchdown passes per game (17 total)
- 0.83 interceptions per game (5 total)
- 176.35 rating (total)
Last six games: average/(totals):
- 59.1 percent completion rate (total)
- 228.7 yards per game (1,372 total)
- 1.83 touchdown passes per game (11 total)
- 0.5 interceptions per game (3 total)
- 136.71 rating (total)
So, I think there are a few takeaways here. First, Herbert was much more accurate in the first half of the season. His completion percentage in the first six games is more than four points higher than that of the past six games. What’s interesting, though, is that Herbert actually had his two lowest single game completion percentages in the first half of the season (47.6 percent in Week 1 against Bowling Green, and 47.1 against San Jose State in Week 3). However, he also had three games in that stretch with a completion percentage of at least 72.7. He only had one such start in the back half of the season, which came in the last game of the season against Oregon State. The caveat there is that Herbert was injured in the Civil War game and only attempted 12 passes (completing nine). Herbert did not surpass a mark of 56.8 percent in four of his last six contests.
The second thing that jumps out at me is touchdowns. He was averaging a touchdown more per game in the first half of the season at 2.83. That number dropped to 1.83 in the final stretch. Herbert threw 17 touchdowns in the first six matchups, but then followed that with only 11 passing scores in the last six games. Again, he was injured in the last game of the season, and didn’t play in the second half of that contest, but one half of play cannot be looked at as the reason for the discrepancy.
Next, there is a big drop off in yardage. Herbert was throwing for 40 less yards per game in the last half of the season compared to the first half. His average went from 268.8 yards to just 228.7 yards per contest. For comparison’s sake, that’s only 7.7 yards more than Michigan State’s abysmal passing attack averaged this season. The Oregon signal caller passed for 241 more yards total in the first half compared to the second half of the season. Herbert had two games where he passed for more than 300 yards in the first six games. He had zero 300-yard games in the last six games. To be fair, he did have four games in each stretch where he passed for at least 250 yards, though. If my math is correct, his yards per attempt are way down as well at about 9.85 yards/attempt versus about 7.2 yards/attempt.
And, of course, all of the things we mentioned above contributed to Herbert’s lower overall quarterback rating in the back half of the season. He did, however, throw less interceptions in the second half with just three, compared to five in the first half. He does a pretty good job avoiding picks overall, as he threw just eight interceptions in 371 passing attempts (2.15 percent).
Let’s also remember that Michigan State’s passing defense was much improved toward the end of the season. The unit was carved up early on, but only allowed 138.8 yards per game in the final four contests with Josiah Scott back in the fold.
With all of this said, the Spartans still have a tremendous challenge in front of them. Justin Layne’s absence is going to be a big loss for the Spartans. His long, athletic frame would be great to mitigate Hebert’s effectiveness and Oregon’s play-making wide receivers. Scott will play and burn his chance at a redshirt. Josh Butler will start opposite of him. I think MSU can be pretty confident in those two, but depth behind them is questionable.
According to defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, if MSU wants to be successful against Oregon, they’ll have to chase Herbert out of the pocket and not let him get comfortable. The front four, led by Kenny Willekes will need to generate pressure and make him get rid of the ball early.
Again, the purpose of this piece is not to say that Hebert has “regressed” or isn’t a good quarterback anymore, because that is far from the truth, but rather to think about Herbert’s level of play now versus earlier in the season, compared to the improvement of Michigan State’s passing defense in the last quarter of the season. I think Spartan fans can be a little bit more confident going into the matchup with this mindset. But MSU still needs to bring its best game against a top tier passer.