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Pittsburgh versus Michigan State Peach Bowl matchup, by the numbers

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When Michigan State takes the field against Pittsburgh in Atlanta, what should fans expect? Even though “stats are for losers,” let’s dig into the #math

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Purdue
If MSU is going to win the Peach Bowl, Payton Throne needs to be the MVP
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

In just a few short days, the Michigan State Spartans will be taking to the field one last time in 2021. The Spartans have already traveled to Atlanta and will be squaring off against the Pittsburgh Panthers of the ACC in the Peach Bowl.

The point spread opened with the Panthers favored by as many as four points in some places. In the past few weeks, that line has drifted steadily in Michigan State’s favor. The Spartans are now favored by as many as three points, depending on the source.

A big reason for this shift is likely due to the opting out of several marquee players, including Pittsburgh’s quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist Kenny Pickett, as well as starting cornerback Damarri Mathis. On the Green and White side, Spartan running back and Doak Walker Award winner Kenneth Walker III has also decided not to play. On balance, it seems that Vegas feels that this combination of factors favors Michigan State.

All of this uncertainty on both sides of the ball makes the Peach Bowl matchup particularly difficult to handicap. While some people, including Mel Tucker, might say that “stats are for losers,” I believe that it is still worth a try. I find it informative to compare the rushing and passing numbers for both teams on both offense and defense in order to get an idea of what to expect. It is also useful to take a careful look at the schedule of each team to see how they compare.

To this end, let’s dig into the numbers, starting with Michigan State’s offense.

Michigan State’s Rushing Offense versus Pittsburgh’s Rushing Defense

Raw numbers:

  • MSU: gains 185.6 yards per game (ranked No. 43 in the FBS) and 5.03 yard per attempt (No. 29)
  • Pitt: allows 91.8 yards per game (No. 6) and 2.74 yards per attempt (also No. 6)

While the raw numbers are telling, the full picture can be grasped by looking at the complete set of data for both Michigan State and Pittsburgh. Figure 1 below shows the first of these comparisons.

Figure 1: Comparison of the MSU’s rushing offense to the the season averages of each opponent (left panel) and Pitt’s rushing defense to the season averages of each of their opponents.

Figure 1 (and the three figures that will follow) contain a lot of information. In each case, the left panel summarizes Michigan State’s performance and the right panel summarizes Pittsburgh’s performance. The x-axis shows the season average data for each opponent, while the y-axis shows the performance that MSU (and Pitt) had in the specific game against that opponent. The trendline then provides a rough prediction of how each unit is likely to perform.

From the Michigan State point of view (the left panel) it is clear that the Spartans faced three fairly strong rush defenses in Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State (as they appear to the left of the panel), one very poor rush defense (Northwestern), and seven average defenses. As expected, on average the Spartans tended to run the ball better against weaker defenses (as indicated by the slope of the trendline), but the correlation is a bit weak (R-squared of only 0.43).

The left panel of Figure 1 also suggests that Pittsburgh has the best rushing defense that Michigan State has faced all year, and the Spartans will need to go against it without their top running back. This is far from ideal. The correlation in the panel (which should be taken with an entire block of salt) suggests that the Spartans might only be able to muster a little over a yard-and-a-half per carry on the ground.

The right panel paints a slightly different and more optimistic picture. While Pittsburgh does have a very good rush defense, Michigan State is the third best ground attack that the Panthers have faced this year (behind Syracuse and North Carolina). While the correlation is quite weak in this case, the numbers in the right panel suggest that MSU is likely to gain closer to three yards-per-carry against the Panther defense.

This difference in the predicted performance for the Michigan State rushing attack between the left and right panels also suggests that MSU, on average, had a tougher schedule than Pitt. Other metrics support this idea. Finally, it is also notable that teams like Tennessee and Clemson both had remarkably good days on the ground against Pitt (although both in losing efforts).

If I take all of the data together, it suggests that Michigan State should put up between about 60 and 100 yards of rushing, if the Spartans get an average number of carries. If MSU can find a way to overachieve in this area, despite not having Walker, it will go a long way toward a Spartan victory in Atlanta.

Michigan State’s Passing Offense versus Pittsburgh’s Passing Defense

Raw numbers:

  • MSU: gains 245.3 yards per game (ranked No. 57) and 8.41 yard per attempt (No. 28)
  • Pitt: allows 257.4 yards per game (No. 106) and 7.34 yards per attempt (No. 71)

Figure 2 below provides the visual representation of this passing comparison.

Figure 2: Comparison of the MSU’s passing offense to the the season averages of each opponent (left panel) and Pitt’s passing defense to the season averages of each of their opponents.

While the rushing game appears to be a situation of strength-on-strength when MSU has the ball, the passing game will be more of a situation of strength-on-relative weakness. Running the ball against the Pittsburgh defense is going to be a challenge. Throwing the ball, however, is an aspect of the game where Michigan State should or perhaps needs to have an advantage.

As the left panel of Figure 2 shows, the Panthers’ pass defense is one of the weakest units that the Spartans have faced this year. Only Maryland and Rutgers posted worse numbers on average. Furthermore, the right panel shows that MSU is one of the better passing offenses that Pitt has faced.

Based on the correlations shown in Figure 2, MSU would be expected to throw for between eight and nine yards per attempt, which should translate into between 250 and 300 yards for the game based on the season average number of attempts.

That said, the correlation on the Pittsburgh side is very poor and seems to be either feast or famine. The Panthers shut down the passing attacks of Clemson, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. However, Miami, Western Michigan, Duke and Virginia all lit up the Pitt secondary. Two of those teams (Miami and Western Michigan) beat the Panthers, while Duke and Virginia both played Pittsburgh closer than expected.

Pittsburgh’s Rushing Offense versus Michigan State’s Rushing Defense

Now, let’s turn to the situation where Pittsburgh has the ball.

Raw numbers:

  • Pitt: gains 152.7 yards per game (ranked No. 72) and 4.03 yard per attempt (No. 84)
  • MSU: allows 119.4 yards per game (No. 19) and 3.47 yards per attempt (No. 18)

Figure 3 below provides the visual representation of this comparison on the ground.

Figure 3: Comparison of the MSU’s rushing defense to the the season averages of each opponent (left panel) and Pitt’s rushing offense to the season averages of each of their opponents.

These data sets suggest that Michigan State has a good chance to contain the Panthers’ rushing attack. The left panel shows that Pittsburgh’s rushing attack is fairly average compared to the Spartans’ other opponents in 2021. The statistics are closest to that of Western Kentucky, Maryland and Northwestern. None of the teams in this part of Figure 2 rushed for more than 120 yards against MSU.

Furthermore, the right panel reveals that Michigan State’s rush defense is one of the toughest that Pittsburgh has faced all year. Only Clemson posted significantly better numbers on the ground, defensively.

The season averages and the correlations in the two panels suggest that the Panthers will likely rush for between 3.2 and 3.3 yards per attempt and just over 100 yards in the entire game. I would not be at all surprised if Pittsburgh’s production is significantly less than that.

Pittsburgh’s Passing Offense versus Michigan State’s Passing Defense

Raw numbers:

  • Pitt: gains 350.2 yards per game (No. 6) and 8.74 yard per attempt (No. 16)
  • MSU: allows 337.7 yards per game (No. 130, in other words, last) and 7.29 yards per attempt (No. 65)

Figure 4 below provides this visual representation of this comparison through the air.

Figure 4: Comparison of the MSU’s passing defense to the the season averages of each opponent (left panel) and Pitt’s passing offense to the season averages of each of their opponents.

As expected, Pittsburgh’s high-powered passing attack grades out as one of the best that Michigan State has faced all year. That said, both Ohio State and Nebraska had better per attempt numbers, and Western Kentucky’s stats are comparable.

Furthermore, while Michigan State certainly gave up a lot of yards through the air, the per attempt yards were closer to average in the FBS. The right panel in Figure 4 shows that Pittsburgh only faced three teams with clearly better pass defenses than Michigan State: Clemson, Miami and Tennessee.

Based on the correlations shown in Figure 4, Pittsburgh is expected to post between 8.2 and 8.4 yards per pass against the Spartan defense, which should translate to between 325 to 400 yards through the air. That all said, all of Pitt’s passing numbers were accumulated with Kenny Pickett on the field. In his absence, it seems likely that the Panthers’ productivity through the air will likely be diminished with Nick Patti in at quarterback.

In Summary

If I take all of the data together, the Peach Bowl appears to be an intriguing matchup. If each team had their full rosters at their disposal, I can see why Pittsburgh was the slight favorite. While both teams have clear strengths and weaknesses, the numbers favor the Panthers slightly. Both teams are good against the run and suspect against the pass. Michigan State appears more balanced offensively, but Pittsburgh’s passing game is potentially elite.

However, if we consider the actual rosters available for the game in Atlanta, it is easy to see why the point spread has shifted in Michigan State’s favor.

The numbers above suggest the yards on the ground are going to be difficult to come by for both teams. Even if Walker would be on the field, the Spartans might have trouble getting over 100 yards on the ground for the game, and Pittsburgh isn’t likely to do much better. If either team can find success on the ground, it will spell big trouble for the opponent.

So, the Peach Bowl will likely come down to which team will have more success throwing the ball. As pointed out above, both matchups are strength versus relative weakness. However, Pitt will be missing both its starting quarterback and a starting cornerback. At the same time, Michigan State might be getting wide receiver Jalen Nailor back for the bowl game. All of these factors are to the benefit of the Green and White.

If quarterback Payton Thorne has a good game, and I believe that he will, I think that the Spartans will win this game, perhaps comfortably. That is what the numbers tell me, but only time will tell. Until then, enjoy, and Go State, beat the Panthers!