Analysis: Statistics aside, Michigan State is still a mystery

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Mark Dantonio stood in a dimly lit room at a podium, paused for an uncomfortable period of time, then shook his head.

What else could he do?

Moments earlier, Dantonio’s Michigan State Spartans allowed a touchdown with 1:35 remaining to drop a 31-27 decision on the road at 3-6 Illinois. There were only 47,144 fans scattered inside Memorial Stadium to see it.

It was Michigan State’s seventh consecutive loss.

“I guess it’s like I told our football team. We’re on that road,” Dantonio said on Nov. 5, 2016, pointing ahead at the imaginary road in the distance. “We’re on a long road, and everybody’s walking.

“There’s a long line of us on that road, and we’ve got to keep pushing, and we’ve got to come out on the other end.”

Ten and a half months later, the Spartans are still walking.

But what direction are they headed?

The statistics, following wins over Mid-American Conference members Bowling Green (0-3) and Western Michigan (1-2), offer few concrete conclusions.

Michigan State, for example, currently ranks 16th nationally in rushing (255.5 yards per game) and 27th in yards per carry (5.4).

But … cross the Michigan State game off Bowling Green and Western Kentucky’s schedules, and those teams still rank 121st and 108th nationally out of 129 FBS programs in rushing defense, respectively.

Entering a prime-time home game against Notre Dame (2-1) on Saturday, Michigan State ranks 13th nationally in third-down conversions (50 percent).

But … Bowling Green and Western Michigan rank 126th and 100th nationally in third-down defense, even with the MSU game wiped off the slate.

Michigan State has scored a touchdown on seven of eight red-zone trips this season (87.5 percent), a drastic improvement from its 57.1 percent clip in 2016.

But … Western Michigan is dead last in red-zone defense, having surrendered a touchdown — not just points — in all 10 of its opponents’ red-zone trips this season. Bowling Green hasn’t fared much better, ranking 86th nationally in that category.

But …

But …

But …

You get the point, but Dantonio still sees improvement.

“This year we're scoring (in the red zone),” Dantonio said. “I think it's execution. I think it's a mindset, not just from your coaching staff but your players. It was a big point of emphasis. Right now we're getting that done, again, step-by-step process in terms of, ‘We've got to continue to do that to be successful.’

“I would like to see our guy kick a field goal at one point, but it's not all bad either. He'll have his opportunities.”

Through two games against two Group of Five opponents, it’s difficult to confidently circle where Michigan State’s strengths lie in 2017.

It’s true, the Spartans rank first nationally in third-down defense, allowing just 10.7 percent conversions. Two weekends ago, Western Michigan converted just 1 of 15 in a 28-14 loss.

But Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly isn’t ready to trust the optics just yet.

“I mean, look, they've played two games,” Kelly said. “I think Western Michigan is a really good opponent. It's harder to judge Bowling Green. But I think they were challenged a little bit better against Western Michigan.

“I thought they did a really good job on third down. They've got a nice third-down package that's difficult sometimes to know where pressures are coming from. They've got some guys that can come in in third down, that can bring some pressures. They really did a nice job against Western on first and second down, put them in some third-and-long situations.

“I think stats right now, as it relates to Michigan State, are a little early.”

So, sure, the statistics are mighty impressive. The Spartans rank second nationally in pass-efficiency defense, third in total defense (203.5 yards per game), 12th in scoring defense (12 points per game), 17th in rushing defense (91.5 rushing yards per game) and fourth in red-zone defense. In fact, the Spartans are one of just four teams nationally that has yet to allow a red-zone touchdown.

But … this is still a Michigan State team, despite two early wins, that starts only one senior on either side of the ball. It’s still a group that finished 3-9 in 2016, then dismissed four players in the offseason. It’s still a team that played nine true freshmen and 10 redshirt freshmen in its first two games. It’s still a team that returns a total of 14 career catches from its wide receivers and starts four offensive linemen that have started eight or fewer games.

It’s a team that a year ago, before it dropped seven straight, started 2-0.

It’s a young team on a long road, and the finish line keeps moving.

Flimsy statistics aside, Michigan State is still a mystery.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio, left, shakes hands with Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly at midfield following Notre Dame's 36-28 loss to Michigan State in an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN