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How Can Michigan State’s Offense Improve In 2017?

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NCAA Football: Michigan at Michigan State Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Continuing our look at what Michigan State needs to improve on to avoid extending last year’s humiliating results with the aid of Bill C’s Advanced Statistical Profile, we turn now to the offense.

Well that’s...actually not as bad.

First, let’s glance at playcalling tendencies. On standard downs (first down, 2nd and 7 or less, and 3rd or 4th and 4 or less), MSU ran considerably more than the average team; on passing downs (anything not a standard down), MSU ran considerably less than your average team. If you have ever heard an MSU fan grinding their teeth over offensive coordinator Dave Warner being too predictable, this is why.

Another interesting point is the % of solo tackles number. This stat tells you on what percentage of your offense’s plays the opposing defense had to have someone tackle the ballcarrier unassisted - in essence, it’s a measure of how good your offense is at giving its playmakers the ball in one-on-one situations. The answer, for MSU, is not very. Spread teams, like Kansas State and Texas Tech, routinely approach 90% in this figure, meaning a defender has to bring their guy down alone almost every time. This number by itself is just a measure of how spread your offense is - and as you can see here, it is not always a measure of an effective offense - but in MSU’s case, it fits part of a larger narrative.

Before we get there, though, if you look up and down the other numbers, there’s nothing too hideous. So what gives? There are a couple more stats that stand out.

Go up to the top of that profile, to the Five Factors section. MSU ranked sub-100 in a couple of them: field position and finishing drives. Their average drive started on their own 28 yard line; the average trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard line netted MSU just over 4 points.

Taken together, those numbers mean that MSU’s offense typically had a long field in front of it, and when it did hammer out a strong enough drive to get close, it typically ran out of gas short of the goal line.

Well, why did that keep happening? "Tyler !@#^$%@%& O’Connor" is probably the first answer many Spartan fans would give you. And to be sure, he wasn’t great, but the stats will show you that he was far from the biggest problem.

He turned the ball over 11 times between INTs and lost fumbles, which isn’t great by any means, but should not have been enough to shove MSU’s drive-finishing capability so low.

The overall picture in our humble opinion is simply this - last year, MSU’s offense, with a big thanks to the poor play of its defense and special teams, often had a long field in front of it. To traverse that distance, it often proceeded in a way that was very predictable.

This didn’t stop it from being quite effective at times; in the second halves of games, this offense was in the top third/top quartile in the country. But if a standard down play or two failed and the offense found itself in a passing down, it was bad news bears, as the pass protection was too shoddy, giving up a sack rate of nearly 10% in such situations.

There also wasn’t a bona fide chain-moving receiver for the quarterbacks to throw to. Four targets - RJ Shelton, Donnie Corley, Josiah Price, and Monty Madaris - accounted for over 70% of the passing targets, but of them, only Shelton managed a yards-per-target over 8 - which matters because that’s approximately the yardage MSU was looking at on a typical passing down.

/exhale

So, what does MSU do to get better on offense?

Well, better starting field position would help, which is entirely beyond the offense’s ability to control. But if you look at MSU’s kick returns, for example, they may as well have taken the touchback on each and every kick. There were entire games where it seemed like MSU’s returners did not bring a kick out of the endzone. If it occasionally results in a drive starting at the 14 instead of the 20, well, last year’s results suggest the extra 6 yards wasn’t enough to help much anyway.

Calling plays against tendency would probably be helpful, too. And yes, conventional wisdom suggest that if it’s 3rd and 9, a run is not likely to be successful, but chucking it into 8-man coverage isn’t likely to be successful either.

There’s always a chance, of course, that simply inserting more talented personnel into the same scheme produces better results. Despite being just a redshirt freshman, Brian Lewerke showed some nice promise last year, and he has a ton of talent on the perimeter plus a fully intact tailback corps at his disposal.

As with the secondary on defense, it could be that last year’s featured players simply weren’t the difference-makers the team needed, and this year’s will be. This is where the % of solo tackles stat could matter. MSU does not make a point of getting their playmakers isolated very much; it therefore becomes necessary for the guy with the ball to make multiple dudes miss instead of just one if a big play is to be had. If Trishton Jackson, Cam Chambers, and Donnie Corley can do that better than Josian Price, RJ Shelton, and Monty Madaris did, MSU’s offense could be considerably better off without compromising what the staff pretty clearly wants it to be.