Thursday, October 29, 2009

How to Beat Michigan State? Only Two Stats Really Stands Out

If the game against Michigan State this Saturday is the most important of the season, I thought I'd dig into their stats and see if we could find out how to beat them. At 4-4, they've been just as good-or bad- as Minnesota, although they do sport a better record in the conference (3-2). Looking at the major offensive and defensive stats, the Spartans look impressive- much more impressive than you'd expect from a .500 team. In fact, it's hard to imagine how a team with an offense that's 22nd nationally in passing yards (273.5 per game) and 39th in total offense (403.5) and a defense that's 24th nationally against the run (103.9 yards per game) and 39th in both pass defense (229.6) and scoring defense (20.8 points per game) is only 4-4.

Well I decided to look at their three wins (I excluded their week one blowout of 1-AA Montana State- their other three wins were over Michigan, Illinois, and Northwestern) and four losses (early to Central Michigan and Notre Dame and in-conference to Wisconsin and Iowa) and see what similarities or differences I could find.

To be honest, I was shocked at how similar the stats were, and could find only two real noticible differences between their wins and losses: when the Spartans won the battle of time of possession they were 4-0, and when they out-rushed their opponent, they were 4-0. Those two stats, obviously, go pretty well together, and perhaps for Michigan State it's just that simple. In their wins they averaged 161 rushing yards for and only 79 against, but in their losses they managed an average of only 95 while giving up an average of 132.5. That tells us that they're not a great running team, but it also tells us they ARE a great rush defense. Even to give up 132 in a loss is not a ton of rushing yards, and Wisconsin is the only team all season to gain more than 138 (John Clay and Co. plowed their way to 193 rushing yards and almost doubled the Spartans' time of possession), which of course if you've watched Sconnie at all this year shouldn't really surprise you.

Offensively, the Spartans' numbers were remarkably similar in wins and losses. The Spartans offense actually averaged more total yards (392.72 to 388), touchdown passes (2.25 to .67), and had a better 3rd down percentage (41% to 38%) in losses than in wins. Their turnover averages were almost identical (1.5 in a loss, 1.67 in a win), although they did average more than two penalties more in a loss (7.75 per game) than a win (5.67).

They were much better defensively in their three 1-A wins than in their four losses, thanks largely to two absolutely dominant performances against Michigan (holding them to just 251 total yards) and Illinois (just 272). And yet, as dominant as they were defensively in those games, they had to go to overtime to beat the Wolverines and beat the hapless Illini by only 10, despite outgaining Michigan (417 yards total offense) and Illinois (372). Overall, they can also really get after the quarterback, as their second in the Big Ten in sacks with 24.

So what seems to keep the opposition in games? Three things:
1) Turnovers
Michigan State is tied for 7th in the conference with the Gophers with a -4 turnover margin, and are actually worse at forcing turnovers than Minnesota, as the Spartans have forced just eight through eight games. In the seven games I looked at, MSU had virtually the same amount of turnovers forced in wins (1.67 per game) as losses (1.5).

2) Penalties
The Spartans are tied with Indiana for the most penalties committed in the Big Ten at 53 for the most yards (467) and the second highest average of penalty yardage per game (58.4). And it's not like the opposition isn't returning the favor either, as MSU ranks third in the conference in opponents penalty yardage per game (50 yards per game). Penalties are also killing them defensively on third down, as they've given away 18 free first downs to the opposition, the second most in the Big Ten.

3) Third Downs
Their defense has struggled on third down all season long, whether it's been giving them away with penalties or legimately, the Spartans rank 8th in the Big Ten by allowing their opponents to convert 41.2% of their third down tries. Offensively they've been exactly average in the conference, ranking sixth while converting an almost identical percentage at 41.1.

So how can the Gophers take advantage of this? Well, considering that the three weaknesses I just named for Michigan State are also weaknesses for Minnesota, that could be good or bad depending on how you look at it. I prefer the "glass half-full" theory which is that this is going to be as good of an opportunity as any to improve in some key areas that are giving us trouble.

However, I think the first two stats I gave you were the most important, and one of the Gophers keys to victory, in beating the Spartans If we can run the ball somewhat effectively and control the clock, we'll beat Michigan State. Of course, that's going to be much easier said than done for one of the worst rushing offenses in college football this season.

Two glimmers of hope in that department are that we have run much better at home this season, and that Michigan State has not seen a quarterback who is as good a runner as MarQueis Gray is (if only Juice Williams were still playing at Illinois...oh wait, he is?), and if used similarly to the way he was against Ohio State, MarQueis could have a big, big night. The Spartans can be thrown upon, although as Graham said on the podcast last night, their pass defense has really improved since getting carved up by Central Michigan and Notre Dame earlier in the year. Northwestern did go for 291 on them, so if we can get Decker loose...oh that's right, he's not playing. Well, um, just like with our penalty, 3rd down, and turnover issues, if there was ever a time to get our new receivers and passing game on track, maybe this is it!

Defensively, if we can't stop Michigan State from running the ball, we're not going to stop anybody. The Spartans removed two running backs from their roster this week, and while neither guy were much of a factor the past few weeks, that still has to hurt Michigan State's depth a bit. No matter who has been running the ball for them, their run game hasn't been great, so our rush defense, which ranks second to last in the conference, is going to get a great chance to boost their numbers. The passing game though...yikes, this could be ugly. Michigan State is the best passing offense we'll see, and considering we've been carved up by anybody with a passing game all season long, we HAVE to get pressure on the Spartan quarterbacks or it's going to be a long, long night for our secondary.

Michigan State is going to give us chances to stay in the game, and it's going to up to us to improve on what have been our weaknesses and capitalize, or it's going to be a very scary Halloween indeed for the Maroon and Gold.

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