The running game has been an issue for the Michigan State Spartans for several seasons running now — and although the hope was the unit would be much improved this season as it returned many players with starting experience, and brought in a highly-regarded offensive line coach in Chris Kapilovic — that trend continues in 2020.
I think it’s important to remember that this staff is only four games into a season/offseason that has been severely altered by a global pandemic. I still whole-heartedly believe Kapilovic, Mel Tucker and the staff will get this thing turned around at some point. These things take time. That said, the Spartans’ ground game has just been absolutely abysmal thus far.
Just how bad has the offensive line been in run blocking? Well, just looking at the high-level stats gives you a pretty clear picture of that: MSU ranks 122nd in the country (out of 126 teams) in rushing yards per game with just 73.8, and ranks 124th in yards per rush (2.2). The Spartans also have only scored one rushing touchdown so far this season.
While those numbers are awful, the advanced metrics are even more alarming. According to Football Outsiders, Michigan State ranks 123rd out of 125 qualifying teams (only ahead of Massachusetts and Northern Illinois) in “Line Yards Per Carry” at just 1.81 yards per carry. The sad thing is, if you’ve watched a Michigan State game this season, this information is surprising to absolutely nobody.
Football Outsiders defines “Line Yards Per Carry” as follows:
“Instead of the ALY figure FO used for the NFL, this one is tighter: the line gets credit for rushing yardage between 0-3 yards (instead of 0-4) and 50% credit for yards 4-8 (instead of 5-10). Anything over 8 yards is quantified as a highlight opportunity, and credit goes to the runner. As with the pro definition, lost yardage still counts for 125%. (Garbage time is filtered out for all line yardage averages).”
The Spartans also rank 124th in “Standard Downs Line Yards Per Carry” (definition can be found at the bottomof this article, but trust us, MSU’s performance here is bad). The Spartans’ mark of a mere 1.71 yards per carry in this metric is ahead of only Massachusetts (1.68).
Then there is “Opportunity Rate,” where MSU ranks third-to-last nationally, ahead of only Northern Illinois and Miami (OH), at just 35 percent. “Opportunity Rate” basically means when the offensive line “does its job” and shows a percentage of plays in which at least four yards are gained on a single carry.
The next metric to look at is “Stuff Rate,” which as you may have guessed is the percentage of carries by running backs that are stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. Michigan State has been stuffed on 26.2 percent of its carries, which ranks 119th nationally. So, you’re telling me that of the team’s 133 rushing attempts registered this season, roughly 35 of them didn’t make it past the line of scrimmage? Come on, to me, this may be the most damning stat of all of these advanced metrics.
Michigan State ranks much better in pass protection, but is more middle of the pack than top-tier. The Spartans rank 54th nationally in “Sack Rate” (5.6 percent), 60th in “Standard Downs Sack Rate (4.4 percent) and 71st in “Passing Downs Sack Rate” (8.6 percent). These metrics are defined below.
And here is a summary of our thoughts on Michigan State’s run blocking effort:
Here are Football Outsiders’ definitions for each of the metrics we just discussed (outside of “Line Yards Per Carry,” which we already defined above):
Run Blocking Stats
Standard Downs Line Yards per Carry: The raw, unadjusted per-carry line yardage for a team on standard downs (first down, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, fourth-and-4 or fewer).
Passing Downs Line Yards per Carry: The same unadjusted averages for rushing on passing downs.
Opportunity Rate: The percentage of carries (when four yards are available) that gain at least four yards, i.e. the percentage of carries in which the line does its job, so to speak.
Power Success Rate: This is the same as on the NFL side — percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown.
Stuff Rate: Same as STUFFED on the NFL side — percentage of carries by running backs that are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage.
Sack Rate: Unadjusted sack rate for all non-garbage time pass attempts.
Standard Downs Sack Rate: Unadjusted sack rate for standard downs pass attempts.
Passing Downs Sack Rate: Unadjusted sack rate for passing downs pass attempts.