Last week in this space, we identified some issues that Indiana might have in the red zone. Looking at IU’s 3.5 points per trip inside the 40 (on 8 attempts) last week, we appear to have hit the nail on the head there.
For this week’s WGOH, I had an article written up about how Indiana will struggle to break big plays in the run game this weekend against MSU’s front 7, especially if Feeney and Camiel are out. This is pretty obvious, as it’s an area where IU’s struggled so far, and MSU’s #1 in rushing defense IsoPPP (a stat measuring the ability to generate (or stop) big plays.) Spoiler alert — if you picked the “over” on Indiana big run plays this week, you might want to reconsider your decision.
But there’s a more interesting topic to discuss this week for Indiana fans. One of the following statements you’ll read will not be a surprise to you, and the other one’s likely to be a big one.
First, the obvious. It’s almost a stereotype at this point — this Michigan State program is borderline obsessed with establishing the running game. With backs like Le’Veon Bell coming out of the program in recent years, they’ve typically been very strong in that department.
And this year the mentality is the same. When MSU has been on schedule on a drive (1st and ten, 2nd and six, and so on), you can absolutely bank on them running the ball. This year, they’ve run the ball just short of 75% of the time in those situations, which is 23% more than the national average and 9th most often in the country. Granted, they run it less when they’re behind the sticks, but if it’s first and ten or third and short, you can bet that MSU is running the ball.
I’ve strung you along enough here — here’s the surprising bit. This year, despite the switch to the 4-2-5, Indiana might actually be well equipped to stop Sparty’s run game. Stop laughing and hear me out for a minute here.
The logic’s pretty simple here. MSU’s run game really isn’t good enough to justify that kind of emphasis, and Indiana’s front 7 looks to be good enough to slow it down.
MSU trots out unique size at the RB spot (L.J. Scott and Gerald Holmes are both over 6 feet, 220 pounds) and a real reputation for imposing their will on a defense.
But being truthful, they’ve disappointed this year. The rushing attack has only gained the yards they need to stay ahead of the sticks 40% of the time (88th nationwide.) They’re not getting yards in chunks, either, as they’re currently one of the fifteen least explosive rushing attacks in football. The stats add up to a really unimpressive (and borderline bad) rushing attack.
This weekend, they’re going up against an improved rush defense from Indiana. IU has been well above average in that department, actually holding opponents to a rushing success rate 10 percentage points lower than the national average (21st nationwide.) They are giving up a few big plays here and there against the run (77th in isoPPP), so they’ll have some things to clean up. But against an unexplosive State RB unit, the likelihood that it hurts IU isn’t as great.[ref]Although certainly a possibility. Indiana had a slightly similar situation in 2014 when they faced Penn State. The Hoosiers held Penn State’s running backs to 92 yards on 28 of their 29 carries, a 3.3 yards per carry average. Unfortunately Bill Belton broke a 92 yard touchdown run on the other carry and Indiana lost 13-7.[/ref]
If MSU continues to over-emphasize their run game (to their own detriment) look for Tom Allen to open up some of his unique blitz schemes this weekend. If Indiana’s able to stay in (or win) this one, shutting down this MSU running attack will be a huge part of it.
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