Monday, January 25, 2021

The Dantonio era: Defense above all

May 18, 2020
<p>Head Coach Mark Dantonio walks out of the tunnel with the team before the game against Central Michigan on Sept. 29, 2018 at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans defeated the Chippewas, 31-20.</p>

Head Coach Mark Dantonio walks out of the tunnel with the team before the game against Central Michigan on Sept. 29, 2018 at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans defeated the Chippewas, 31-20.

Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

Mark Dantonio abruptly retired this spring, ending his 13 year career as head football coach at Michigan State, with a legacy that will be remembered for its distinct brand of football.

Dantonio's teams featured a stifling defense that was the priority in nearly every season he coached. Dantonio's offenses, though, lagged behind the strength of his defenses. The success of Dantonio's teams rested completely on his defense most seasons.

Here is MSU's rank in opponent's points per game in every season since 1980, with Dantonio's seasons at the helm highlighted in green.

In seven out of eight seasons from 2011 to 2018, MSU posted a top 25 ranked defense in terms of preventing opponents from scoring (scoring defense), including four seasons in the top 10.

That run includes a Rose Bowl win in 2013, a Cotton Bowl win in 2014, and a College Football Playoff berth in 2015 where the Spartans fell to Alabama. That kind of defensive excellence was unparalleled in the 20 years of MSU's history prior to Dantonio, with those teams only having one top 25 defense ('99).

The only coach in recent MSU history with even a close comparison to Dantonio's run is George Perles, who coached from 1983-94. Perles had a run of three top ten scoring defenses ('87-'89) with a Rose Bowl victory, too ('87).

However, Dantonio's best scoring defense was better than Perles' best (third and fifth, respectively), and Dantonio's teams were far more consistently ranked in the top 25 (7 times) than Perles' (4 times).

That prowess, though, was limited to one side of the ball.

Below is MSU's rank in points per game, rather than opponent's points per game in the same time period.

Dantonio coached only one top 25 scoring offense in his tenure (2014) and his second best scoring offensive team was the one he inherited in 2007 at rank 31.

The rest of Dantonio's offenses range from middling to bad, with five teams in the bottom 40 offenses — including the last four teams he coached.

This weird combo of elite defenses and ineffective offenses is better shown by yardage — rather than scoring. Good defenses help bad offenses score by giving them better field position, and bad offenses hurt good defenses' ability to prevent scoring by giving the opponent better field position.

Team offense and defense yardage rankings only go back to 2000 on Sports Reference, so that's all the data we have. Looking at yardage, like below, Dantonio's defenses actually look better than when we look at scoring.

Since 2011, Dantonio only coached two teams without a top 25 defense by yardage, and those teams ('15 and '16) were 26th and 31st ranked, respectively.

While Dantonio's defenses shine brighter when we look at yardage instead of scoring, his offenses only look worse.

Dantonio only ever coached three offenses inside the top 50 by yardage — one being the team he inherited in 2007 — and seven of his last eight teams ranked in the bottom half by yardage.

Plotting the rank of Dantonio's teams' offensive yardage rankings against their defensive yardage rankings paints an especially stark picture of how Dantonio's teams played.

The lower-right quadrant of this graph shows teams with a high defensive rank but a low offensive rank. It doesn't take a keen eye to see that's where nearly all of Dantonio's teams lie on the graph.

All but four of Dantonio's 13 teams had a top 50 defense with an offense that ranked outside the top 50, but that's painting with a wide brush. The lower-right corner shows a clearer picture.

Five different teams that Dantonio coached featured a top 20 ranked defense with an offense that didn't crack the top 80 by yardage. Particularly brutal is the 2018 team, which featured the 11th best defense but the 14th worst offense.

The clear outlier on this graph is 2014, which had the 8th best defense and the 11th best offense by yardage, but that's not the team we'll focus on.

Let's talk about the crowning achievement of Dantonio's tenure, his Rose Bowl winning 2013 season. The team finished third in the AP rankings, and it was a Dantonio team at its best.

For starters, this team was the best one defensively that Dantonio ever coached. The Spartans were the second ranked defense in the country by yardage, and third best by scoring.

Below is every run defense in 2013, sorted from least run yards allowed per game to most.

Only three teams allowed fewer than 100 yards per game. One was MSU.

Now here is every pass defense in 2013, sorted from least pass yards allowed per game to most.

Only four teams allowed fewer than 170 pass yards per game. One was MSU.

The Spartans had the second best run defense and the third best pass defense in all of college football. But what's amazing about this team isn't just how good their defense was, it's how little help the defense had. The offense on this Rose Bowl winning team was awful for a team of this caliber.

Not only was the Spartans' offense not elite, it was in the bottom half. The Spartans were plainly terrible at moving the ball, especially for a team as good as they were.

The other bars in red are the other nine of the teams that finished in the Associated Press top 10. Five of those teams ranked in the top 15 by offensive yardage, and even the second worst offense in the AP top 10 was the University of Oklahoma's 52nd ranked offense. The Spartans' offense finished just 81st by yardage, the worst by a long shot of any top 10 team.

That the team won a Rose Bowl seems like a miracle, but this is a Dantonio team at its best. There are plenty of examples of Dantonio teams gone wrong. For that, let's look at the 2018 team.

This team, like most of Dantonio's teams, featured an elite defense — the 11th best by yardage.

This team's biggest strength though, was its run defense specifically. The 2018 Spartans had the best run defense in the country, by quite a margin.

The Spartans led the next best run defense by 17.3 yards per game, and the 10th best by nearly 30. Running against the 2018 defense was near impossible.

Despite their unstoppable run defense, the team had a pretty big weakness. This team could not score.

This proved to be a pretty big problem since — you know — scoring more than your opponent is how you win a game of football. The Spartans were the fifth worst scoring team in football, and only Rutgers was a worse power conference team at scoring.

Despite their inability to score, the 2018 Spartans still won seven games, and found themselves in the Redbox Bowl against Oregon — the 25th best scoring offense in the country.

The bowl game that transpired, despite Oregon's usually high-powered offense led by Justin Herbert, was one of the biggest snooze-fests in recent memory.

The first half had 15 possessions: 12 punts, a turnover on downs, an interception, and a kneel-down to enter halftime. The score was 0-0 at the start of the third quarter.

MSU predictably only scored two field goals, but actually led 6-0 at the start of the fourth quarter. Of course, even the best defenses can only hold out for so long without real support.

After forcing 10 straight punts to start the game, the Spartans' defense finally gave in. Oregon scored the only touchdown of the game for a 7-6 final score: An Oregon win.

This is a Dantonio team at its worst. A defense that can hang with the best — smothering any offensive momentum — but an offense that can't even muster enough points to win low scoring games.

For better or for worse, the Dantonio era is now over. MSU has gotten used to knowing what to expect: An elite defense and an offense that hopefully doesn't drag its feet too much to win games. But next year, a new coach comes to town in Mel Tucker.

The kind of play we'll see from his teams is unknown, as Tucker only has one season as a collegiate head coach under his belt. If NCAA football plays this fall, MSU may see a new brand of play after 13 years of one relentless style of play: Dantonio's way.

All statistics not otherwise cited from Sports Reference


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