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Friday, September 20, 2013
Small boost for MSU offense goes long way

By Adam Rittenberg

Warning for Michigan State fans: This post might depress you, at least initially.

But hear me out. If you're a glass-half-full person, you'll see that it won't take much for the Spartans to become a Big Ten title contender this season.

It's no secret that Michigan State has been a lopsided team the past 16 games. The Spartans have had a suffocating defense and an offense that, more often than not, suffocates itself. Michigan State has averaged just 4.9 yards per play and 22.6 points per game on offense, while allowing just 4.1 yards per play and 15.5 points per game during the span.

ESPN Stats & Information this week examined how Michigan State would fare with just a mediocre offense. We're not talking Oregon or Texas A&M here.

The Stats & Info crew notes that Michigan State has forced the most three-and-outs (104) and allowed the second fewest yards per game (256.1) and yards per play in the FBS since the start of the 2012 season. The "Spartan Dawgs" rank fourth nationally in third-down conversion defense (28 percent) during the span.

Looking at this season alone, Michigan State leads the nation in yards allowed (177 ypg), surrendering 13 fewer yards than any other team. The Spartans' numbers in relation to the rest of the Big Ten are staggering: they allow an average of 87 fewer yards per game than any other Big Ten defense, including 36 fewer rush yards per game.

To be fair, MSU hasn't been challenged yet, playing three weak opponents (Western Michigan, South Florida and Youngstown State). A better gauge takes the past two seasons into account.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, since the start of the 2012 campaign, the Spartans had "more expected points added per game than any other team in the FBS. This means that the defense contributed 12.4 points per game towards its scoring margin. In their first two games this season, the defense scored two more touchdowns (4) than their offense."

BYU is No. 2 in defensive expected points added with 12.2 per game, followed by Florida State (11.7), Florida (10.6) and Rutgers (10.6).

Here's the kicker: "Based on EPA, if Michigan State had an average offense in each game they played, the Spartans would have added four more wins to their total from last season, resulting in an 11-2 record."

That's tough to swallow, but hardly surprising for a team that lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points last season.

The optimistic view is that marginal improvement on offense could lead to a very different type of season for Mark Dantonio's crew. Michigan State doesn't need to win shootouts. It just needs to reach the end zone a few times a game and let the defense do the rest.

Few expect the Spartans to replace last week's offensive renaissance against Youngstown State on Saturday at Notre Dame. But a solid performance might be enough to knock off the Irish.

Michigan State then enters a favorable schedule stretch -- open week, at Iowa, Indiana, Purdue, at Illinois -- before a challenging November.

"Last week I saw our offense play excited," Dantonio said Tuesday. "I saw us execute and have some big plays, which was good for our football team. Hopefully, we caught fire a little bit.  It's important that we continue in that vein."

It won't take much on offense for the Spartans to have a potentially special 2013.