Statistically Speaking: Michigan State-Cal Preview

Posted by: Avinash on Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

As we gear up for the season opener, it’s time to scope out the Spartans. This is mostly Michigan State; the evaluation on how Cal can handle them will come soon enough. This is also longer than some passages of the Bible, so pop a can of beer or grill some sausages before you settle down to read this baby.

Introduction: In his first year at Michigan State, Mark Dantonio helped bring the Spartans back to Big 10 prominence after suffering a near decade-long malaise hanging near the bottom of the conference. Only once had the team finished with at least eight wins since 2000, with a mere two bowl appearances. Dantonio brought the Spartans back, rallying them to a deceiving 7-6 season in more ways than one (more on that later). While not exactly a dramatic turnaround for the program like Tedford’s hiring was for Cal in 2002, the Spartans seem confident that they are on the rise in the fleeting Big Ten.

What made the difference? The offense was far more explosive. The Spartans averaged 33.1 points and 198 rushing yards per game last season, up from 25.2 points and 129 yards from the season before. Every other stat declined across the board, but only marginally. This was the drastic improvement that Michigan State fans can point to; a solid power run game with Javon Ringer and underrated Jehuu Caulcrick backed up by an experienced offensive line.

Quarterback: On paper Brian Hoyer had a solid if not spectacular season. Other than a nightmarish Bowl game with a somewhat decimated team, he only threw seven interceptions, keeping the Spartans in almost every game. Despite the feeble pass protection he received all of last season, he did quite well for himself.

However, just by looking at the passer ratings, you can see Hoyer was not as consistent as his stats, going from great games to mediocre games right back to great. Against the two best passing defenses last season in Michigan and Ohio State, he finished below average, yet he excelled against only slightly weaker passing Ds in Purdue and Penn State.

Some interesting situational stats also appear based on down and distance though. Focusing again on conversion rate, we see several things. Hoyer is generally above average in every category save the crucial 3rd down 4-6 category (which was interestingly Longshore’s ’06 weakness). His passer ratings don’t quite match up, but Hoyer doesn’t throw quite as many touchdowns outside of 3rd and short situations.

Probably the most important thing to note about Hoyer is that he doesn’t fade late. In the second half last year he threw 12 TDs and 2 INTs with a 138.49 passer rating; in the 4th quarter his numbers were a scorching 7 TDs and 1 INT with a 141.73 passer rating. His weakest quarter was surprisingly early (the second). However, Hoyer doesn’t appear to have a rocket arm; 14 of his 20 touchdown passes came in the red zone. It’d be interesting if the Bears try to force Hoyer downfield and challenge him to beat them deep, just like opponents of Cal did last season with Longshore.

Running backs: This is a little disturbing, but guess who Javon Ringer reminds me of? Before you click over to read the rest, here’s a hint: We love him very very much.

Javon Ringer, MSU 2007: 5’9″ 200 lb, 245 carries, 1447 yards, 5.9 yards per carry
Justin Forsett, Cal 2007: 5’8″ 190 lb, 305 carries, 1546 yards, 5.1 yards per carry

Both are undersized, both exhibit explosive power off the line of scrimmage, both are highly regarded by their fanbases. Their highlights might as well be carbon copies: both Ringer and Forsett have too many plays that you would swear the other could duplicate.

This isn’t where the similarities end either (and that’s not a good thing). Ringer’s and Forsett’s situational stats are what really caught my attention.

3rd down and 1-3 yards to go
Forsett: 19 carries, 56 yards, 2.95 ypc
Ringer: 10 carries, 26 yards, 2.6 ypc

National rushing average in these situations: 3.63 ypc (Michigan State was 115th overall in this category)

Red zone
Forsett: 50 carries, 143 yards, 2.86 ypc
Ringer: 35 carries, 84 yards, 2.4 ypc

National rushing average in these situations: 2.72 ypc

Despite the all-around talent of Ringer in the open field, in short-yardage situations (especially at the goalline), he struggles just like Forsett did last year. Neither had quite the size (Forsett was a little better, although he was only slightly above the mean) to deal with the much bigger defenses in these constrained situations. Their movement predicated on openness and spreading the defense so they could power their way through the holes. The fact that their numbers dropped back to the field is a discernible weakness, and could be part of the reason why Forsett might be out of Seattle despite a spectacular preseason.

Caulcrick picked up the slack last season for Ringer with 21 rushing touchdowns near the goal-line, but he’s not here this year. Ringer will probably still gain the most yards of any offensive player on the field Saturday, but I’ll be interested to see how both the Spartans call plays in short yardage situations. Unless Ringer is much improved in this department, we might see more than enough passes mixed in.

Caveat: Cal was 6th on rushing offense (5.55 ypc) on 3rd downs. Michigan State was 87th (yucko stinko 2.06 ypc). Since we both finished with the same record, though, we can’t really use this as an indicator of success.

Caveat: Despite predicating their game on strong rushing attacks, last season both Cal and Michigan State finished tied only for 79th in rushing red zone offense last season in terms of ypc even with Ringer and Forsett in the backfield.

Receivers: Devin Thomas was their highlight machine last year. On kickoff returns he averaged an astounding 29.1 yards per return, 11th in the country (Michigan State as a whole, 3rd place in the country).

Unfortunately, he’s not here anymore. That leaves them with the overwhelming Deon Curry and Mark Dell (a combined 44 catches for 420 yards last season). Wouldn’t be surprised if Ringer is their best receiver this year. This is looking like a Brian Westbrook situation, where the running back is forced to shoulder the load on top and bottom.

Caveat: Kellen Davis, their tight end and second most productive receiver, also spotted as a pass rusher and managed two sacks as a defensive end. He’s passed onto the NFL too.

Offensive line: One thing you can always note about a solid offensive line is consistency from beginning to end. Despite having plenty of experience and size though, this Spartan o-line was plenty schizophrenic.

Michigan State rushing yards per carry (ypc)
1st quarter: 5.42 ypc (13th ranked in Division I)
2nd quarter: 3.41 ypc (80th)
3rd quarter: 5.26 ypc (23rd)
4th quarter: 3.62 ypc (66th)

Talk about inconsistency. The offensive line started strong at the beginning and middle of games, only to diminish in capability as the game wore on. They also had trouble protecting Hoyer, who was sacked 30 times last season. With a less experienced unit manning the field this year, the Spartans will have to contend with a strong linebacking corps that won’t make it easy for Hoyer to settle in the pocket.

Defense: If you want to beat up the Spartans on the ground, you better do it early, because as day turns to night, they do turn into the 300. Their 3rd down rushing defense is just as fearsome (0.83 ypg allowed) as their 3rd down rushing offense is turgid.

In the 1st quarter they allowed 4.34 ypg, in the 2nd quarter they allowed 4.59 ypg, then put the clamps on in the 3rd quarter (3.56 ypg), and shut down movement in the 4th quarter (1.97 ypg).

However, the Spartans are an ancient people, so it’s no surprise that if you go to the air attack, you will eventually overwhelm their spears and shields. They are astonishingly bad in 3rd down and long situations, allowing 30 touchdowns and 1st downs on 72 3rd and 7+ passing downs. The numbers in the crucial fourth quarter jump for their opponents, with a 134.5 passer rating as opposed to mid 110s in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. It makes you wonder if their lack of defensive depth eventually did in their fatigued starters. This year, only six starting defenders are returning (they are losing their two leading sackers on the defensive line) but about thirteen players return with starting experience. Players to watch will be Greg Jones #53, their leading tackler at strong linebacker, the strong safety #21 Otis Wiley, and the defensive end #58 Trevor Anderson, the transfer from Cincinnati.

The Spartans defense mirrored what most Big 10 defenses did with the Spartans offense; they sacked a lot (forty in all last year), they stopped the run on 3rd down, they struggled stopping the pass on 3rd down. When they were behind last season the defense tightened up, making it easier for the offense to get back into the game. Hence the huge number of close games that turned Michigan State’s season into a tossup in terms of where they would end up. And which is why the line for Saturday’s game is as close as it is.

We almost won every game! Yes, the Spartans lost all six of their games last season by a touchdown or less. Yes, theoretically, they could have won all twelve regular season games and gone to the national title game (OMG Michigan State rox!).

However, they blew a ten point lead to Michigan–at home–in the final seven minutes. That seven point loss to the Buckeyes was more Ohio State beating themselves–those two turnovers returned for touchdowns by Michigan State created the final margin. The Spartans only managed three points on offense there. They lost as sixteen point favorites to Northwestern at home. They were stagnant against Pitt at home and needed four quarters to beat them. And Bowling Green was not finished until late in the 4th quarter.

So I’m guessing if you flip the coins on Michigan State’s season, seven times out of ten they finish 7-6 or 8-5. They were only 3-5 in the Big 10.

Vegas: As is true of their namesake, the Spartans love being the underdogs. The five times their opponents were favored to win last season, they covered the spread in four of them (that includes Wisconsin and Ohio State) and split on the other (Michigan). Twice they won outright (Purdue and Penn State). Right now the Spartans stand as about five point underdogs. We can only hope the trend ends here.

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Previews previews everywhere! (If you want more on the game, click on the bold).

If there’s anything I missed about the Spartans, leave it in the comments.

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