Scouting the Spartans: How Has Michigan State's Defense Fared in 2018?

By Nick Polak on October 10, 2018 at 10:00 am
Oct 6, 2018; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio reacts after a play during the second half against the Northwestern Wildcats at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

A seven-point win over Utah State, a three-point loss to Arizona State, a 14-point win over Indiana, an 11-point win over Central Michigan, and a 10-point loss to Northwestern.

While more was expected of the team that opened the season at No. 11 in the AP Poll, nothing on that list of results from the first six weeks of the season looks terribly out of place. Yes, both losses were unexpected (kind of), but neither is the type of game that we'll look back on in the same light as Iowa's 55-24 win over Ohio State or Pitt's 43-42 win over Clemson. And the reason for that is that this year's version of the Spartans just isn't anything terribly special. Then again, most versions of them aren't.

The Spartans currently rank firmly in the "pretty good!" category of the S&P+ rankings, sitting at No. 31 overall, but that's kind of where the good news ends. Yes, they have a well-regarded defense, holding at No. 24 in defensive S&P+, but they've also yet to play the big-time offenses on their schedule. Utah State (25th-ranked offense) is the best they've seen, with Arizona State (No. 38), Indiana (No. 81), Central Michigan (No. 130), and Northwestern (No. 97) filling out the rest of the schedule.

Defensive Rushing Rankings
Category Rank
Marginal Efficiency 1
Marginal Explosiveness 26
Opportunity Rate 1
Stuff Rate 1

To their credit, the Spartans have been relatively stout against the competition they have seen thus far. The clear strength, though, is the rushing defense. To this point, they have swallowed up opposing running backs, becoming one of the toughest defenses move the chains against on the ground, consistently getting to the runner in the backfield. The Spartans have allowed just 33.8 rushing yards per game through their first five six weeks, highlighted by Northwestern's measly 8 rushing yards last weekend (though the Wildcats still won the game).

Defensive Passing and Third Down Rankings
Category Rank
Marginal Efficiency 84
Marginal Explosiveness 13
Passing Completion Rate 113
Sack Rate 77
Passing Down Sack Rate 98
Third-and-short % 56
Third-and-long % 88

Against the pass, things have been more of a mixed bag. They've been great at limiting explosive plays, but haven't had as much success keeping teams from moving the ball down the field. And for as great as they've been as far as getting to rushers in the backfield, they haven't been able to do much in the way of getting to the quarterback. They have also had a tough time getting off the field on third down.

If we dip into the more traditional stats, the picture doesn't become any prettier for the Spartans. They are 8th-worst in the country when it comes to passing yards allowed per game, giving up over 300 per game through five games. To make matters worse, they haven't been so far ahead in any single game that there would have been a bevy of inflated passing stats (even though S&P+ does normalize for garbage time stats).

All in all, this week should provide the passing attack a golden opportunity to gain more efficiency. Against Ohio State, they had an opportunity to flex their big play muscles. Now, they need to get back to their third-down-converting ways to open things up for Trace McSorley and Miles Sanders in the running game.

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