Deep Stats: Exploiting Michigan State

By Craig Fritz on October 12, 2018 at 11:04 am
Penn State Defensive End Shareef Miller
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
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Michigan State has faced a huge rash of injuries, and while their run defense remains statistically elite, there are a lot of other spots where the Nittany Lions can cause significant problems for the Spartans.

air raid

Nick went over Sparty's up-and-down defense on Wednesday, but I want to focus on how advance stats show teams are beating MSU through the air. Northwestern's win in East Lansing last week perhaps encapsulates this more than any other boxscore I've ever seen. Caleb Thorson tossed the rock for 373 yards (second highest of his career), while the Wildcats amassed just EIGHT YARDS rushing for the entire game. So far Central Michigan, the literal last-placed offense in the nation, is the only team to not reach 272 yards passing against the Spartans. Clearly this is an area to attack for Ricky Rahne.

This is further borne out in S&P+ Havoc statistics. Havoc is defined as the percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up). While MSU's defensive line is a total force (7th nationally), its linebackers and secondary fail to do much of anything disruptive, ranking 50th and 90th in the nation respectively. So it's clear the the Spartans struggle to defend beyond the line of scrimmage.

A couple weeks back I broke down a solid start by Penn State safety Garrett Taylor, and explained a bit about the Marginal Efficiency of individual players. Marginal efficiency is the difference between a player’s success rate allowed (for an individual defender) and the expected success rate of each play based on down, distance, and yard line. So players closer to the line of scrimmage have better (lower) numbers since they have the biggest opportunity to halt plays for little or no gain (average ME for a defensive lineman is -19 percent). The average marginal efficiency for defensive backs nationwide is +23.3 percent. So again, think of that as the standard player. By this measure, Michigan State's DBs are having a brutal year. While Justin Layne is above average at +20.8 percent, Khari Willis (+35.1), David Dowell (+36), Matt Morrissey (+36.3), and Josh Butler (+55!!) have been very poor. 

goal lion stand

One area where the Penn State defense can find success against the Spartans is in the redzone. Nick outlined how rough this year has been for Sparty on offense, but good grief, look at the numbers.

MSU Red Zone Offense
category rank
11-20 Yd Line Success 66
Inside 10 Success Rate 125
Inside 10 Turnover Rate 118
1st-and-Goal Success Rate 126
Goal Line Success Rate 122

They're at the very bottom nationally in all plays that happen near the end zone. This is wildly uncharacteristic for a Dantonio-coached team, especially with a very mobile quarterback. I have to wonder if the huge rash of injuries have made Spartan play callers a bit more conservative in moving Lewerke on designed runs. They are already missing so many pieces, they would not survive their No. 1 quarterback going down.

live behind the line

Another defensive key for the Nittany Lions will be big plays behind the line of scrimmage, whether they come as stuffs or sacks. As Nick showed Thursday, Michigan State has been very willing to allow opposing defenses into the backfield, ranking 87th nationally on Passing Down Sack Rate (sacks allowed).

This is shown further in two key advanced stats. New to S&P+ this year is a metric known as Blitz Downs. Borrowing from the wizardry of Bill Walsh, Bill C. defines blitz downs as first-and-18 or more, second-and-14 or more, and third-and-3 or more

Michigan State Blitz Downs
category rank
Blitz Down Success Rate 76
Blitz Down Big-Play Rate 84
Blitz Down Sack Rate 84

Sparty is hovering near the lower third nationally in all three categories. They're not very good at positive plays on blitz downs, they don't make teams pay for blitzing by hitting big plays, and they give up lots of sacks when facing a blitz. This is a sexy statistical matchup for the Nittany Lion defense as they rank 34th in stopping plays on blitz downs, 14th in preventing big plays on blitz downs, and 6th in blitz down sack rate.

Lastly for living behind the line, Michigan State is 84th nationally in Havoc Rate Allowed (reference Havoc above), while Penn State is 18th nationally in Overall Havoc Rate. These two advanced stats show a true weakness for the Spartans facing a verified strength of the Nittany Lions.

return to sender

Our last Spartan weakness Penn State can exploit is the punting game. Senior punter Jake Hartbarger was injured in game two against Arizona State, and it was just announced that he will miss the rest of the year. His replacement is a freshman, backup quarterback Tyler Hunt. While Hartbarger could boom it, averaging 48.8 yards/punt, Hunt has had a rough go of things with a measly 38.9 yard average. Michigan State ranks 127th nationally in Punt Efficiency, and faces a Nittany Lion squad with multiple return weapons. DeAndre Thompkins and KJ Hamler have paced Penn State to a respectable 34th overall ranking in Punt Return Efficiency. Be sure to look for some fireworks when Sparty is forced to punt.

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