Sept. 26, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - Michigan State's statistical profile is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
The glass-is-half-empty crowd will find plenty of support for their vocal lamentations. For example, the Spartans are 108th in the nation in passing efficiency and tied for 110th in quarterback sacks.
The half-full gang finds comfort in knowing that MSU is a respectable fourth in the Big Ten in passing offense, just 23 yards off the pace set by last season's Spartan pass attack which finished No. 2 in the league. And sacks aside, Michigan State is ranked No. 1 in the conference and sixth nationally in total defense.
It's no wonder defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is so fond of saying "statistics are for losers."
It's not difficult to find a statistic to prop up any particular point of view.
Sure, MSU's passing game looks good on the Big Ten stat sheet in one respect, but it's dead last in the league in passing efficiency.
The rushing attack looks even worse, by comparison, at eighth in the league and 53rd in the NCAA. That should come as a surprise since Le'Veon Bell is the nation's third-leading rusher with 152.5 yards per game.
The Spartans are the envy of all the other Big Ten teams thanks to their No. 1 ranking in passing efficiency defense and No. 6 ranking in the nation. Except, how does anyone reconcile those numbers with the way MSU is 103 spots lower in the nation in sacks than last season when it was seventh?
Head coach Mark Dantonio sounds like someone who wishes even he could make sense of it all.
"How do you figure out all those stats? What's important? I don't know," he said this week.
Of course, the only stat that means anything is wins versus losses and the Spartans are 3-1 going into Saturday's Big Ten opener against Ohio State.
What's worrisome to many Spartans fans, however, is the non-existent category of Style Points. Michigan State didn't score many in last week's 23-7 come-from-behind victory over Eastern Michigan that even made Dantonio grumpy afterward.
Leaving the field while being serenaded by a chorus of "boos" didn't exactly lift Dantonio's mood, but what really exacerbated his frustration - already red-lining because of six dropped passes - was "the way we carried ourselves" as a team.
So while coaches can be dismissive of statistics, they can also find solace in them.
Sure, the rushing attack may look even less impressive than MSU's passing game in the bizarre realm of statistics, but "we have the (third) leading rusher in America right now, so we've got some guys," Dantonio said. "I think that we have very high standards on defense here. I also think that we're playing very, very well. But with that we can continue to play better. I think there's always room for improvement.
"We need to press the quarterback more. We're getting pressure on the quarterback. We need to sack him more, keep him in the gate, which will be tough this week as well."
Perhaps statistics would make more sense if they are read and interpreted like tea leaves as an idea of what things can look like in the future instead of an indication that a team is doomed by its past.
Michigan State's passing attack has been negatively skewed by the dropped passes that have already occurred. The Spartans have probably already dropped more passes in the first four games than they have in any complete season under Dantonio. The numbers could signal a trend that will impact MSU all season or symbolize potential.
But it's not hard to see how a couple of well-thrown balls by Andrew Maxwell into the end zone could have led to a win over Notre Dame and a more stylish triumph against Eastern Michigan - had the receiver held onto the ball on both occasions. Turn those drops into catches the rest of the way, and the passing attack will become the least of MSU's worries.
And how's this for an opportunity signaled by statistics: Ohio State's pass defense is 11th in the Big Ten and 104th nationally.
Maxwell and the receivers better be optimistic about making hay at the Buckeyes' expense, but they can be assured that that's how the OSU defenders are looking at MSU's passing attack.
What can't be measured is confidence, and all Dantonio knows is that the Spartans don't have enough.
"I think our offense is very, very capable," he said. "We're talented at wide receiver. I think Andrew Maxwell can throw the ball very effectively. I think our offensive line has experience. I think we got a great tight end in (Dion) Sims. So we have some things. We just have to put it together and play more confidently, I think, and allow things to sort of flow."
There's no shortage of confidence on defense, just sacks, but even that doesn't bother Narduzzi, who will be happy with just one against the Buckeyes if it leads to or preserves a victory.
The Spartans haven't allowed a touchdown drive longer than 51 yards - both of Notre Dame's covered that distance - in four games. And three of the opponents' three field-goal drives came on short fields with possessions covering just 3 to 28 yards.
Although conflicting stats and an unsatisfactory grade on the eyeball test can cause panic, and losses cause fans "to think it's all over," Dantonio said, there's only one bottom line.
"If you win, things are great, you can move on," he said. "If we win, can we continue to win? If we lose, can we win? It will all be about how do we handle success or how do we handle failure? I think that's so important in the whole big scope of things."
Those answers can't be found in statistical trends no matter how hard you look.