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Death by Numbers: A look at some of the stats behind MSU's Liberty Bowl victory

Wins don't always look like wins in the box score. But, man, this one sure did.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Though post-game statistics offer concrete quantifications of a team’s play, they are admittedly limited metrics. A defensive line’s performance is not measureable only by sacks or tackles for loss, just as a secondary’s game cannot be judged solely on the basis of the number of pass break ups or interceptions it gets on a given Saturday. These numbers usually represent only some of the parts that make up the whole of the on-field experience, leaving a great deal more to be gleaned—at least from the fan’s perspective—from simple, visceral observation. The reactions this elicits may be premised on more nebulous qualities of a team’s execution than yards per carry or third-down efficiency, but they are no less satisfying or commonly understood.

Then there are games like the one we witnessed on December 31st. Nothing unclear about that one—State just totally and utterly demolished Rice in just about every way it could. Running, passing, tackling, scoring, blocking . . . . State just did it all better, start to finish.

There are so many things I could look at statistically to find evidence of this sideline-to-sideline domination, this piece could essentially be written as an epic poem. But there are two facets of the numbers that I’ve found most interesting among all the other lopsided stats: smothering Rice’s two best playmakers, and facing Rice’s strengths head-on.

Rice’s go-to running back, Charlie Ross, and most productive receiver, Jordan Taylor, are beasts. Ross, a 6’1" 235 lb wrecking ball, was a fifth-year senior that had been on a roll all year. He entered the Liberty Bowl averaging more than 6 yards per carry and had run for over 1,200 yards over the course of the season. Taylor was perhaps even more impressive given the near absence of Rice’s passing game. He came into the bowl with over 840 receiving yards on the year (which accounted for one-third of Rice’s total passing offense for the season), averaging 65 yards per game at close to 16 yards per catch. Oh yeah, he’s also 6’5" and sort of athletic.

So how did these guys fare in our game? Ross: 28 rushing yards on 10 carries. Taylor: 1 catch, 2 yards.

Now, let’s give this a little context. The last time Ross averaged less than 3 yards per carry when he had 10 or more carries in a game was in November 2009 as a freshman. And in Taylor’s 32 career games, he’s only had less receiving yards twice.

So essentially, MSU’s defense completely took these guys out of the game as almost no opponent had in their careers and dared someone else on the offense to step up. No one did.

Just as noteworthy as the defense’s domination of these guys was the offense’s direct attack on, and total neutering of the strengths of Rice’s defense—passing, 3rd down conversions, and big play defense.

All three of those phases of Rice’s D came into the bowl game among elite company. Rice’s pass defense allowed only 196 yards per game, and it held opposing offenses to a paltry 50.1% passing efficiency. Those numbers ranked 13th and 7th best in the nation, respectively. And perhaps as a result of this salty pass defense, Rice was great at stopping opponents on 3rd downs and at limiting big plays. Before playing MSU, Rice’s 3rd down defense was 16th best in the country (holding opponents to a 33% conversion rate) and its big play defense was 18th (allowing only about 11 plays per game of 10 or more yards).

Instead of trying to play around Rice’s strengths, MSU sized them up, gave them a wink, and then punched them in the throat. State passed for 294 yards with a 60% efficiency rate. It converted 66.7% of its third downs. And it had 19 plays of 10 or more yards. After that single game, Rice’s national rankings in all of those categories dropped by between 4 and 14 spots.

Yes, Rice played a Conference USA schedule, and yes, the talent gap between the teams was evident. But in my experience as an MSU fan, those facts rarely guaranteed the kind of performance we saw Tuesday afternoon. (Ask Maryland about the C-USA talent gap—Marshall, who Rice thrashed in their conference championship game, racked up 475 yards of offense in its 11-point victory over the Terps in their bowl game about a week ago.) Too often have we lollygagged our way to victory against an over-matched opponent, or played flat against a team we should beat, for me to downplay the nature of the team’s win on New Year’s Eve.

Winning a bowl game is great. And beating a 10-win conference champion is solid. But absolutely drubbing them on a national stage is something else. It's just damn satisfying.