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Vegas has MSU as a narrow favorite, but what do the numbers say if we dig a little deeper?
Merry Christmas everyone! While some of are playing with our news toys from Santa, shot-gunning eggnog, and pounding Christmas cookies, the MSU football team is making final preparations for the final game of the 2019 season. On Friday, December 27th, the Spartans will be taking on the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in New York City at Yankee Stadium.
As I mentioned previously, MSU opened up as a 3.5-point favorite in Vegas and that translates to a 60% chance that MSU wins straight-up. The computers models generally agree. The FPI, in fact, agrees within a tenth of a point (-3.55) while my algorithm likes MSU by just slightly more: -4.7. The over-under for the game is sitting right at 50 points. If I take all this data together, my computer likes MSU to win roughly 28-24, beating the spread and hitting the over. But, the indicators are not strong and I must also say that MSU is only 3-9 against the spread this year and 5-7 on the “over.” So, take it all with a grain of salt.
That is the macro analysis of the game, but what if we look at the individual unit match-ups in more detail? Specifically, I find it useful to compare the passing and rushing performance on both the offense and defensive side of the ball on a yards-per-play basis. In my experience, this is the best way to get a feeling on how the game is likely to progress. Furthermore, I find it useful to take a closer look at the competition that each unit has faced to get a feel for how seriously to consider the raw numbers. As for the 2019 Pinstripe Bowl, let’s start with what to expect when MSU is on defense.
Wake Forest Rushing Offense (3.87 yd/rush, #94) vs. MSU Rush Defense (3.27 yd/rush, #15)
Let start with the good news first. Statistically, Wake Forest has a weak rushing offense and they are going against one of the best rush defense units in the country. MSU has only allowed more than 3.3 yd/carry only three times this year, and two of those three times were against Ohio State and Wisconsin, who both have Top 10 rushing offenses. The 3rd time was against Maryland, but in fairness, the Terps 43rd ranking rushing offense was actually the 4th best MSU faced all year.
Wake’s rushing offense, statistically, is the most similar to Michigan (#89) and Northwestern (#82) and MSU contained both of those rushing attacks to a fairly pedestrian 2.6 and 3.3 yd/carry, respectively. If we look at Wake’s rushing performance, the story looks even a little better. Wake has only faced three Top 40 rush defenses all year: Clemson (9), Florida State (31), and Virginia Tech (32). Their best performance in these three contests was against Florida State where they only managed 2.9 yd/carry. Against the Hokies and Tigers, the output was even worse (2.2 and 1.7 yd/carry). If we take all these numbers together, I would expect the Demon Deacons to rush for just less than 3.0 yds/carry and possibly much less.
Wake Forest Passing Offense (8.12 yd/rush, #36) vs. MSU Pass Defense (6.76 yd/rush, #37)
So, for Wake Forest’s Offense to score points reliably, they are most likely going to need get there through the air. On paper, Wake’s passing offense and MSU’s passing defense look to be an even match-up, as both units are ranked in the Top 40. MSU has faced five Top 40 passing offenses this year, and the results have been a bit mixed. Ohio State (10), Wisconsin (27), and Michigan (37) all lite up the MSU secondary for well over 8 yd/pass. However, MSU did a little better against Indiana (6.8 yd/pass) and Arizona State (5.4 yd/pass). Of course, MSU lost 4 of those 5 games and came dangerously close to losing to Indiana, which would have made this whole analysis moot.
But, if we against look Wake’s opponents, there is perhaps reason for a bit more optimism. The Deacon’s have only faced three Top 40 passing defenses: Clemson (1), VA Tech (31), and Duke (38). Clemson is on anther plane of existence, but the Virginia Tech and Duke games are likely more indicative. Against the Hokies, struggled to only put up 238 yd at 6.6 yd/attempt and only managed 17 points. Against Duke, however, Wake’s offense in general was very good and they put up a whopping 11.4 yd/attempt.
In general, however, MSU’s defense overall looks more like a slightly better version of Virginia Tech’s defense and it seems most likely to expect a similar output from Wake: about 300 total yards of offense, mostly through the air, and roughly 17-21 points. The question is, can MSU score more points than that?
MSU Rushing Offense (3.46 yd/rush, #122) vs. Wake Rush Defense (4.32 yd/rush, #65)
Now, for the bad news. MSU’s offense is statistically very bad, especially when running the football. MSU’s 122nd ranked rushing attack is the worst that Wake has faced all year. But, the good news is that MSU has faced a lot of Top 40 rush defenses this year (6 of the 12 opponents) and MSU has shown some ability to run on the weaker defenses. Specifically, MSU did OK (4.4 yd/carry) against Indiana (52), rather well against Illinois (5.4 yd/carry / #75 rush D) and good against Western Michigan (7.4 yd/carry / #99 rush D). However, MSU did not fair as well against Tulsa (#5), Rutgers (105), or Maryland (#68), mustering only 2.7, 3.3, and 2.4 yd/attempt.
As for Wake Forest, they have generally faced a much weaker set of rushing attacks, and they have not always shut down even the weakest of them. Wake has faced 5 total teams that are currently outside of the Top 90 in rushing offense per carry: Virginia Tech (93), Florida State (104), Syracuse (107), Duke (110), and Rice (116). Of those 5 fives, Rice was the only team that they truly shut down (1.8 yd/carry) and Florida State (3.7 yd/att) was the only team that was held to under 4 yds/carry. MSU only hit that number three times this year. If MSU’s rushing attack can get close to that number, I think the odds of victory go up significantly.
MSU Passing Offense (6.72 yd/rush, #101) vs. Wake Pass Defense (7.49 yd/rush, #79)
The Pinstripe Bowl is the last time that 3-year starter Brian Lewerke will suit up for the Spartans. How well is MSU’s passing offense likely to do in his curtain call? The number’s don’t paint a pretty picture of MSU’s passing attack, as they rank outside of the Top 100 in yards per passing attempt. However, Wake doesn’t exactly have an elite passing defense. Wake’s pass defense is the 4th worst that MSU has faced all year.
Of the 5 passing defenses that MSU has faced that are outside of the Top 70, MSU’s passing numbers were actually pretty decent. MSU achieved over 7.0 yards per pass against Arizona State (71), Illinois (88), Maryland (102), and Rutgers (106). MSU did struggle against Tulsa (only 5.1 yd/attempt / #70 pass defense) in Week 1, but I think we can chalk that up to first week issues with MSU’s new offense.
As for Wake Forest, they have faced five total teams with passing offenses outside of the Top 80, and the results are honestly pretty inconsistent. They range from a dominating performance against NC State (only 3.3 yd/att) to a not great performance against Utah State (8.7 yd/att). But, the pass defense was pretty good in their last two outings, having limited Duke (125) and Syracuse (87) to 7.1 and 6.7 yards / attempt. Based all this data, MSU is likely to be able to achieve maybe between 7-8 yards per pass attempt. Will this be enough?
Add it all up
As I look at each of the individual unit match-ups this has all the trimmings of a potentially very good match-up, as the Vegas line implies. Wake is not likely to be able to run very much at all, but they will likely be good enough through the air to put points on the board to the tune of ~20 points, much as they did against the other good defenses that they faced this year. The key question, therefore, is will MSU’s offense be able to keep up?
Based on the numbers above, I do see reason for optimism. While MSU’s offense has obviously been sub-par, but MSU has faced tough competition all year. Wake, on the other hand, outside of Clemson (who beat them 52-3) has not. MSU is likely the 2nd or 3rd best team that Wake has faced all year, while Wake is maybe the 6th or 7th best team MSU has faced. Statistically, among Wake’s opponents, MSU is most similar to Virginia Tech, and the Hokies beat Wake 36 to 17. Wake has allowed over 30 points a game, yet has only played 4 teams in the Top 60 of total offense in yards-per-play.
Looking closer at the numbers, MSU seems likely to struggle a little in the passing game, but looks to be able to put on fair numbers. As for the running game, MSU might be able to muster close to 4 yd/carry, which in all honestly would look pretty good. If MSU can hit that number, the offensive balance should be enough to win. My computer’s pick of a 28-24 looks pretty good, although I might say 24-21 is a bit more likely.
That all said, this assumes that the more random aspects of the game all cancel out. That means that MSU cannot loose the turnover battle, special teams battle, red zone efficiency battle, or bone-headed error battle badly and still expect to win. But, that can be said of any of the 78 teams playing in Bowl Games this year. It may not by a fashionable pick, but I like MSU to finish 2019 Happy over the Holidays.
That does it for now. Until next time, Go State, Beat Wake Forest!