Stats o' Plenty: The early results of MSU's "defensive mayhem"

MSU's offense has been, um, a little hard to figure out lately. But how about the defense? Are we getting the "defensive mayhem" we were promised during the off-season? How has the defense handled the innovative up-tempo offenses it's faced so far? Let's take a trip into the wonderful, ambiguous world of stats to find out!

Let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way: that last defensive drive against Auburn was pretty difficult to watch. Though the defense showed a variety of looks all night long and kept Malzahn’s machine in check most of the game, those last two minutes . . . . Man, those last two minutes. In that span, we gave up eighty-eight yards, five consecutive pass completions, and an eleven-yard run on third and ten. It was a clinic on how not to play defense at the end of a game.

But notwithstanding that colossal failure, I think the majority of State fans pin the lion’s share of blame for that and the team’s other loss on offensive shortcomings of one sort or another. The Oklahoma State debacle has been well-documented elsewhere, and we’ve all had time this week to bemoan the conservative, predictable, and flat-out frustrating play-calling in the last twenty minutes of the Auburn game. At minimum, we’d like to think that when our defense holds up-tempo, innovative offenses like those we faced in weeks one and three to twenty-one and twenty-four points, the offense should be in a position to win us the game.

So, if we take a moment to step back from the offensive enigma we’ve been pondering, how exactly is the defense doing?

Well, there have certainly been some bright spots in each game we’ve played so far. The final scores allowed against Ok. St. and Auburn were, again, quite respectable. OSU has scored 56 and 59 in its other two games (against admittedly far weaker foes), and Auburn scored 31 and 38 in weeks one and two. The defense dominated an outclassed Alcorn St., as it should have. It has helped give the team a positive turnover margin despite the loss of two current NFL players at corner. Even though the total sack numbers so far aren’t any better than last year, we seem to be getting a little more pressure on quarterbacks. (Our QB-hurries are on pace to increase by more than 60% over last year’s team—we have 3.33 per game so far this year, and we finished with 2.08 per game last year.) And our tackles for loss are up a bit as well—we finished 13th in the conference in this category last year with 64 TFLs, and with 20 so far this year, we’re tied for 3rd.

And breaking things down with a bit more particularity, against Auburn, the defense did many of the kinds of things you’d hope an aggressive defense would do in a big conference game. It created turnovers at critical times in a hostile environment on the road. It tallied three sacks against an offensive line that hadn’t allowed any in either of its other two games. It allowed only one red zone touchdown in Auburn’s three trips. And in the next closest situation—when Auburn drove 62 yards down to our 27 yard line in the 3rd quarter—the D held them to a three-yard loss on 3rd down and forced another field goal.

All that said, the thing I find most interesting about the defense so far this year is its contradictory, seemingly incompatible strength and weakness—it has the bizarre and uncanny ability to completely neuter an offense, taking the opponent totally off of its game, and yet simultaneously allow that same offense to morph before our very eyes into a juggernaut by running its most unproven plays and schemes.

Take, for example, Oklahoma State. That team’s 2012 passing offense needs little discussion here (7th nationally in passing yards per game, etc.), but look at how it has fared in its two games since MSU:

Oklahoma State's Passing Offense
Opponent Yards per attempt Yards per catch Completion % Yards
UT San Antonio 12 14.8 81.4% 518
Lamar 7.5 11.8 63.9% 271

So, despite the shifting personnel at QB, it has remained fairly potent. But against State? Nope:

Oklahoma State's Passing Offense
Opponent Yards per attempt Yards per catch Completion % Yards
MSU 4.4 6.95 63.6% 146

Awesome. The defense imposed its will and took Oklahoma State completely off its game. And even though it usually has a solid running game too, that’s not the focal point of its offense. I mean, look at how Oklahoma State ran the ball against the cupcakes they played this year:

Oklahoma State's Rushing Offense
Opponent Yards per carry Yards
UT San Antonio 2.72 87
Lamar 4.08 155

No problem, right? Well, against MSU, Oklahoma State’s rushing numbers were a quite bit different:

Oklahoma State's Rushing Offense
Opponent Yards per carry Yards
MSU 7.15 286

What’s that, double their season average in total rushing yards and YPC? Alright then.

Strange as it was to watch that occur in week one, we saw the same thing against Auburn, but in reverse. In its first games, Auburn relied heavily on the run, both for yards and points:

Auburn's Rushing Offense
Opponent Yards per carry Yards TDs
Washington State 6.41 295 2
Arkansas State 6.02 301 3

MSU’s defense apparently set its mind to stopping the Auburn rushing attack, because that’s exactly what it did:

Auburn's Rushing Offense
Opponent Yards per carry Yards TDs
MSU 3.33 120 0

Yards per carry cut almost in half; total yards cut to less than half; and no scores on the ground. Well done.

And, based upon Auburn’s first two games, there wasn’t as much to be feared through the air as there was on the ground:

Auburn's Passing Offense
Opponent Yards per attempt Yards per catch Completion % Yards
Washington State 5.0 9.9 50.0% 99
Arkansas State 8.8 15.2 57.9% 167

But against MSU, the Auburn passing game reached new heights:

Auburn's Passing Offense
Opponent Yards per attempt Yards per catch Completion % Yards
MSU 10.0 14.7 67.6% 339

So to recap: What? We’re taking away what’s most dear to our opponent’s offensive schemes, only to be burned by Plan B? You always hear about good offensive coordinators taking what defenses will give them, but I’m not sure I recall so stark an example of it in back-to-back FBS games.

And the fact that the rushing game and passing game switched roles makes it even more perplexing—we stop one of the best passing attacks in modern college football, only to be lit up two weeks later by a former DB playing his first SEC game at QB?

Sure, we had some blown coverage issues at Auburn that gave up a big play or two, and the option look we saw from Oklahoma State was apparently unexpected. And as I said before, the defense has done a pretty good job of keeping opponent’s scoring in a range that would normally put us in a position to win. But when the exact same thing happens to the defense twice in three games, it makes me wonder.

Predictably, I’m not sure what to make of this. So feel free to pontificate in the comments section below.

But I will note in closing that I’m interested see how the defense approaches Troy. Troy—in its rigorous early-season tests against the likes of UAB, Savannah St., and Arkansas St.—is first in its conference in scoring offense, passing offense, and total offense. But its rushing offense—third in its conference—may not be too shabby either.

[all stats are, as always, from of the good people (or number-crunching robots) at www.cfbstats.com]

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