- Terra Molengraff/Daily
By Matt Slovin, Managing Editor
Published November 2, 2013
EAST LANSING — According to a statistical analysis conducted by FBSDriveStats.com, a difference of a yard of starting field position amounts to an advantage of .06 points per drive.
More like this
This seems negligible, at least before considering the massive advantage Michigan State held over Michigan in field position Saturday, and how that helped translate into a 29-6 Spartans victory that was close for all of a half.
The Wolverines’ drives began, on average, at their own 24-yard line. That lent zero favors to an offense facing its toughest task of the season in what is likely Michigan State defensive mastermind Pat Narduzzi’s strongest unit in his time in East Lansing.
To make Saturday’s game competitive — and make no mistake, the Spartans’ biggest win over the Wolverines since 1967 was nowhere near competitive — Michigan probably would’ve needed to begin each drive at midfield.
But even that might not have been enough against the nation’s top-ranked defense. Following an interception by junior defensive back Raymon Taylor, the Wolverines set up shop at the Michigan State 41-yard line. Though they trailed by 10 at the time, which in this game felt like a three-score deficit, the turnover could have changed the game completely. Best-case scenario, it results in a touchdown and suddenly Michigan is right back in the game. At the very least, it should’ve ended in a field goal, cutting it to a one-possession game.
Instead, it became the worst-case scenario. The Wolverines’ offense had been moving backward all game, which left the team shell-shocked after moving the ball with hardly any resistance against Indiana in its last game.
And even given a rare short field, the trend continued.
Michigan State brought the pressure on redshirt junior quarterback Devin Gardner, who had no place to go on an option call to begin the drive and lost five yards. Two plays later, each resulting in one of the Spartans’ seven sacks on the afternoon, the ball had moved from the Michigan State 41 back to Michigan’s own 38.
Forget that outlier drive — and Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges would surely prefer that you do anyway — and the Wolverines’ average starting field position becomes their own 18-yard line.
Now let’s revisit the .06 points per drive that teams sacrifice with every yard of starting field position lost. The Spartans began their drives, on average, at their own 35-yard line. For reference, in 2011, one of the years of the aforementioned statistical analysis, the biggest discrepancy between a team’s starting position and its opponents was 15.9 yards, showing just how big Saturday’s field position differential was. It’s no coincidence that NCAA-leading field position team, Boise State, went 12-1 in 2011.
Ignoring the miserable drive that netted negative 21 yards, Michigan State had a 17-yard edge in the field-position battle. According to the statistical analysis, done by a better math student than I, that difference equates to an advantage of about a point per drive. Each team held the ball 13 times in Saturday’s game, suggesting that Michigan cost itself about two touchdowns with its field position.
Not all of the blame for that falls on the Wolverines. On three occasions, Spartan punter Mike Sadler pinned Michigan inside of its own 10-yard line. There’s nothing the Wolverines can do about that, except be thankful they only have to see Sadler one more time before he graduates.
But on the nine other drives that began inside the Michigan 35, the Wolverines shot themselves in the foot. Poor starting field position meant little opportunity to move the ball on likely the best defense they’ll face all year. Drives were killed before they truly began.
After the game, the Spartan Stadium scoreboard told you that 13 points wouldn’t have made up for what Michigan coach Brady Hoke called a lack of execution by his team. The Wolverines didn’t lose this game because of the field-position battle alone.
But any time a math whiz tells you you’re spotting the other team 13 points worth of field position, don’t feel good about your chances.
Slovin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MattSlovin.