So A+ work!
in town for free camps
Unrelated but never unrelated (h/t @smartfootball)
Ranking things is fun, or at least so BuzzFeed tries to tell me every freaking day of my life. And just like any prediction, rankings that attempt to predict the future are typically a fool’s errand. But we are fools, so ON WITH THE PREDICTING.
Trying to project year-to-year development in college football is tricky at best. But we can also try extrapolate by asking two relatively simple questions: (1) were they good at the thing last year, and (2) how many of the people who did the thing last year will be back this year?
The question of the day is this: which Big Ten team will have the best run defense in 2014?
This part is easy. There are many ways to break down how effective various run defenses were last year, and while none is perfect, together they give a pretty comprehensive picture. A few of the key measurements:
Yards per carry (sacks removed) - Pretty basic. When the opposing offense tried a run the ball, how far did they go?
YPC (w/o sacks)
Rushing Defensive S&P+ ranking – A fancy rejiggering of statistics based on outcomes for every running play a defense faces.
Rushing S&P+ (nat’l rank)
Adjusted Line Yards – A breakdown of yards per rush compared to what would be statistically expected, and then adjusted for level of competition.
Adj. Line Yards (nat’l rank)
And taking the Big Ten rankings for the various stats together, you get the following rough composite order. Being higher is better and being lower is worse (which you would have known anyway based on the teams at the top and bottom):
So 2013 defensive front performances look to shake out into a few tiers:
Answering the question "how many starters from the front seven return?" is a little trickier. Take Michigan for example: how many defensive starters did they lose? They lost Jibreel Black and Quinton Washington, but weren’t they kind of the same guy? Do you count that as two starters lost, or one? In a way, it doesn’t matter, as we’re just trying to get a sense for what various teams lost, not necessarily to quantify it. However, to give a very rough estimate of the kind of production everyone is losing, I included the percentage of the team’s total tackles accounted for by guys I deemed to be departing starters from the front seven.
Denicos Allen is gone. Clearly MSU will now be terrible.
The obvious caveats. The first is that tackles are an inexact proxy for quality. A mediocre inside linebacker will usually make more tackles than a top-flight defensive tackle (Nebraska LB David Santos made 87 tackles. Penn State DT DaQuan Jones made 56. Jones was first team All-B1G and a 4th round draft pick. Santos was terrible and was replaced by a freshman mid-season). However, we’re doing qualitative analysis with a quantitative kicker, not the reverse, so it’s helpful information that isn’t vital to our thesis. The second caveat is that the front seven aren’t the only people involved in run defense. Solid safety play is a big deal.
So, here’s where we are:
How good in 2013?
Returning starters (Front 7)
% of tackles by lost starters
|Penn State||Pretty good||5||16.8|
They run the gamut from returning everyone (Indiana) to returning no one (Wisconsin).
A pattern emerges
You may notice that the better defenses are the ones that lose more people. This makes intuitive sense; defenses with more seniors are, all things being equal, better. Of the four defenses we labeled as “MSU” or “Pretty Good,” three (MSU, Iowa, and Wisconsin) suffer serious losses, and I’d argue those were the three best run defenses last year.
Michigan returns all of the major pieces of a run defense that was fair-to-good. Other than getting shredded by OSU for 393 yards at 8.5 YPC, they didn’t surrender more than 170 yards or 5 YPC in any of their other games. Add a healthy Jake Ryan, and if the defensive tackle play is good Michigan looks primed for a big year.
There is no advanced stat that appropriately values “beat running back to death with quarterback”.
I love a good Rutgers joke as much as anyone (you know what’s a good Rutgers joke? Rutgers), but they actually had a solid run defense last year. They had the third-best YPC average (albeit against weaker competition), and they have some solid talent in the front seven with Darius Hamilton, WLB Steve Longa, and MLB Kevin Snyder. Granted, the run defense might just look good because Rutgers’ pass defense is so unbelievably bad, but such is life in Piscataway.
Like Rutgers, we like to make Maryland jokes, but the run defense was pretty solid, and they return their entire front seven. Darius Kilgo and Andre Monroe anchor their 3-4 defense and do an excellent job of keeping linebackers clean. If they can stay healthy (never a guarantee at Maryland these days), they will be very good again.
Much like Michigan, Penn State had one implosion of a defensive game (also against Ohio State) and generally held up very well otherwise. You may recall 27-for-27 as a thing that happened. They lose DaQuan Jones, but they return C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes. If MLB Mike Hull can avoid that always-troubling 37th major injury, Penn State could contend for top honors, though depth remains a concern.
Penn State reacted well to subtlety
State lost both starting defensive tackles, uber-productive (and TOTALLY NOT SUSPICIOUS IN ANY WAY) MIKE Max Bullough, and Denicos Allen. But I’m not an idiot, and the last thing I’m going to declare is that Michigan State will be taking some giant step back. The internet remembers such stupid declarations and revisits them. In the last 6 years, MSU’s rushing defense S&P+ rating (in chronological order) was #28, #23, #31, #5, #2, and #2. They have finished as the best rushing defense (in terms of YPC) in the Big Ten the last three years. Shilique Calhoun isn’t a great run-defender, but Marcus Rush and Taiwan Jones are pretty good, and… yeah. Again. Not an idiot.
Iowa loses their entire linebacking corp, along with their 322 combined tackles. The remaining linebackers on the roster had 29 tackles last year. Combined. Howeverm Iowa returns almost all of the best defensive lines in the conference, including two of the best defensive tackles in Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat. Iowa’s worst defensive rushing performance in the last six years was roughly on par with Michigan’s performance last year, and they have been a top-30 rushing defense almost every year. Ferentz has zombie powers, so it could happen.
The 2013 Wisconsin Badgers had a very good starting front seven. But so did the ’85 Bears. And those two groups have something in common: none of them will be lining up for Wisconsin in 2014. The Badgers didn’t just lose nominal starters, either: Chris Borland alone accounted for an estimated 793 tackles per game. They return SOME production along the DL in Konrad Zagzebski and Warren Herring, but this is almost entirely a reclamation job. Wisconsin doesn’t have a history of dominant rush defenses either; their average S&P+ rush defense form 2008-2012 was #33 in the country, and their average Big Ten rank in YPC over that time was a shade better than 6th in the conference. Unless Gary Andersen is a wizard of some kind, regression beckons.
Hey, look, it’s Wisconsin’s front seven.
Nebraska has the opposite problem Wisconsin had. The Huskers bring almost everyone back, but the guys they bring back weren’t very good last year. Nebraska was really good at getting to the QB last year (2nd only to OSU), which combined with a soft schedule to make their raw yards-per-carry numbers look somewhat decent. But remove those sacks or take anything other than a surface glance, and Nebraska wasn’t good on the ground. Randy Gregory is a hell of a pass rusher, but he’s not great against the run. It’s unlikely Nebraska will be in the conversation at the end of the year.
Hey, they return a lot of guys. Lloyd Christmas dot jpg.
Teams that weren’t good last year and have to replace significant portions of those not-good defenses
Remember when they were ranked last year?
Thieran Cochran is good. The rest of Minnesota is not good.
Gave up over 250 yards in 7 different games. Only held one power conference team under 4 YPC. Gave up 29 rushing TDs. Was bad.
They had a good YPC average, but the advanced statistics say they were somewhere between bad and abysmal. They only lose one starter, but that starter (Ryan Shazier) made 144 tackles and 23.5 tackles for loss. They return theoretically one of the best lines on the country, but how good can it be if it was so bad against the run last year? I am perplexed.
My monkey-choosing-mutual-funds stab at the 2014 sack-free YPC rankings:
So A+ work!
don't you really have to look at the front 8 returning starters for State? Their YPC average is so good because they can throw their corners on an island for large chunks of the game. If their corners are good then so will be their rush defense...
Their run defense is predicated on that flawless quarters defense that leaves their linebackers free to CHHHHYYYYAAAAAARRRGGGEEEEE and almost always has a safety available in run support. They'll be just fine.
But aren't they replacing half of that secondary? Again, I feel like I'm always needlessly contrarian about MSU around here because I really do think they have a good team, but history is not filled with teams replacing half of their defense and being just as good the next year, especially if the replacement players are moderately-regarded recruits.
They are really replacing 1 guy in the secondary, at the #2 corner. Trae Waynes who still has 2 years of eligibility is projecting as a 1st round draft pick most places (that would be the 2nd 2 star Dantonio has turned into a early draft pick in back to back years) if he decides to leave early, moves over to Dennard's role as #1 corner. They bring back Drummond who is projecting as a 2nd round draft pick as safety.
RJ Williamson is probably their 2nd safety - he who is a junior and had 44 tackles last year (compare to our 2nd safety who is he who we have no name for and he who has 2-5 tackles maximum). If Williamson is beat out it will be by one of their biggest recruits a few years ago - a guy named Demetrious Cox who is a 4 star, top 200 type player. The 3rd guy in that competition is one of the players who had the best spring but is young - Jalyn Powell - not a super recruit but apparently ripped it up in the spring, pushing the 2 older guys. Their question mark is their 2nd corner where a bevy of "athletes" are competing. So yeah they will be fine.
Questioing if MSU will reload on defense is akin to questioning if UM bball will reload on wings/guards. They just will until this staff leaves.
Their only other major loss in the front 7 is Max Bullough as they dont have an experienced replacement. Denicos Allen was the other major loss at OLB but they have a like replacement who could turn out better in Ed Davis (he ripped both UM and OSU last year as a backup). They lost their starting tackles but aside from Jerel Worthy a MSU tackle mostly is tasked with "obliterate run game" and they rotated about 6 guys last year so they will have experience.
Remember MSU copied Wisconsin. Redshirt almost everyone...then sprinkly player in as they go and by junior senior year they get a ton of playing time and already walk in with experience and are 21-22 years old. Their depth chart almost copies Wisconsin's in that the 2 deep is full of guys in their 4th and 5th year in the program.
and your common sense rationalizations!!!
Waynes is sticking at FCB, rather than rotating over the BCB. Typically, MSU has rotated guys from field to boundary (field has more safety support, less run responsibility), but they felt more comfortable with one of the other guys to come in at BCB. Waynes has his own issues, and IMO, is not as good as Dennard, though he's a bit better athlete and has better length. He does not have the functional strength Dennard had in press and gets turned on double moves a bit.
MSU also runs a 2 safety nickel, and do so on many third downs. From this, they often run their blitz package, with a cover 3 behind it. This means that the two safeties are the primary tackling players in this package, and their typical cover 4 puts and emphasis on safeties making tackles as well, so that number is inflated by scheme a bit.
A lot of MSU guys talk up Ed Davis, because he came in in limited reps and showed well. But remember, that was a limited role in those limited reps. Lots of which was because he is a good, quick, strong blitzer. But he has other parts of his game to work out.
I still think MSU will be good, but it won't necessarily be a completely smooth transition. My guess is they'll still look great at times, but be more susceptible to giving up big plays than they were last year.
I happened to have just watched a boatload of MSU film and EVERYTHING depends on their corners being able to press and play man in their scheme. Losing any of those guys, whether to eligibility, graduation, or injury brings an unknown into the equation. So yes, I could see the deep ball being a bigger problem this year. That being stated, who is the great throwing QB in the Big Ten that can hurt them?
Losing Bullough is a gain in my opinion. Vastly overrated. Losing #28, don't know his name, however is a big loss. Great college player.
Thanks SC - I meant Waynes takes over as #1 corner rather than follow a WR around. We'll see if he is better or not - I sort of think Dennard is a bit overrated and got away with a lot of "handsy" stuff that will be PI in the NFL. He got beat by a freshman Western Michigan player a few times but their QB was so bad they couldnot exploit it a lot.
And yes their system is based on good QBs of which the Big 10 lacks. So the system is perfect for the Big 10. The Pac 12, Big 12 and SEC generate a lot more serious NFL prospects nowadays. I watched the Iowa MSU game last year and the Iowa QB didnt really have the arm strength to throw an out pattern past 15 yards - it was weird. So combine that with their "physical" play and a dearth of NFL talent at the QB spot (the Big 10 probably has 2 legit QB prospects, and 1 plays for MSU -the other was a freshman last year) and it's a good solution. And makes me scratch my head why Mattison is so fearful of playing press corners.
All that said until proven otherwise I pencil in MSU at a top 15 defense every year until Dantonio leaves. Tressel and Saban both said Dantonio has a great eye for defensive talent and I compare it to Beilen - they can find prospects that are overlooked and can fit their systems. They seem to take a lot of athletes who are not perhaps "awesome" HS football players and find ways to utilize them. Defense is more about athleticsm, awareness, quick twitch, strength, leverage etc than specific ball skills so it makes sense how they focus on more raw athletes in HS and still find a way.
Iowa was very similar in terms of always being top level on defense with Norm Parker and they did not have the same level of athletes that MSU gambles on and seems to find and develop. When Norm left, the Iowa defense fell off a bit (but has recently recovered). Last year's MSU defense was truly special but that group had a great mix of old guys and NFL type players who were underlcassmen (Rush, Waynes, Drummond, Jones, Calhoun). And a lot of those senior leaders last year were likewise playing key minutes on the 2012 and 2011 defenses which were not elite but very good. They have built something very good over there on defense.
I don't get the Max Bullough joke. Forgive me, for I have blocked out 2013.
He was mysteriously suspended for the Rose Bowl and no reason was ever given, but it was rumored to be due to steroid use.
Thanks. I hope remembering that doesn't bring back the rest of it.
They have more than "concern" over depth on the d-line and lb. PSU's 247 site lists 3 guys at DT over 280 lbs. Austin Johnson, Juco Tarrow Barney and Freshman Antoine White (3-star, 87 on 247). Zettel was moved inside and his latest listing is 274.
With Kline out, I don't know who the back up to Hull is, freshman Troy Reeder (3-star, 87 on 247). They're probably going to start sophomores on the outside at linebacker.
Penn State's strength on D is in their rushing defensive ends and secondary.
Agreed M1jjb. I was about to make a similar post until I saw yours. PSU's front seven will take a step back this year. Just don't have enough bodies at DT and LB. They lost their stud DL coach to OSU. And they still have a couple holes in the secondary, which means they will have difficulty cheating safeties up against any team that can pass. PSU has a garbage schedule so that will make their defense look better than they really are. Their defense is fortunate to miss some of the B1G's power-rushing teams like Iowa, Wisky, and Minny next year.
Based on the rankings in this post, I'd switch Iowa and PSU. Even though they lost their LB's, Iowa will be difficult to run on with their DL. I was impressed with that group late last season, and they all return. Iowa will have LB's running clean.
Because in the light of day, I should really have Iowa ahead of Penn State. Penn State will be somewhat overmatched in the interior, but I do like their linebackers (perhaps more than many people).
The only thing Wisky has going for it is that it won't face Wisconsin's rushing offense. Wisky plays a 3-4 and their starting defensive ends are listed in the 260 range. Steele has Landisch as a 2nd team All B1G lb. We'll see.
I know --- Michigan game and all --- but as a PSU fan I'm sort of stunned there are any metrics whereby Penn State qualified as having a "good" rush defense last year. Guess my perception wasn't really statistical reality.
DT depth will be a major problem in 2014. I do like Junior DT Austin Johnson quite a lot though. Expect him to really emerge in 2014.
"I'm sort of stunned there are any metrics whereby Penn State qualified as having a "good" rush defense last year." - You must not have watched the UM-PSU game last year.
I would certainly take 2nd best run D in the conference behind MSU.
They have a ton of exceptional athletes, especially on the line, who look exceptionally poorly coached. They're good at releasing the Kraken on opposing QBs (or would be, if their secondary wasn't melting down half the time), but run defense is about sound fundamentals, and athleticism only makes up for that so much.
Good analysis. The other thing UM has going for it that will help the running game is depth and talent at CB. In general, if you can cheat safeties, you get TFL's. Of course, that has been a big key in MSU's success - reliable DB play allows Narduzzi to get aggressive up front.
I wouldn't count out Singletary or the Danimal. Hell, Dent probably could have sacked Gardner last year...
If we can be the #2 rushing defense in the conference, we'll have a shot at winning the conference. That would be shut-down run defense, and I'm confident our pass defense will be at least in 2012 form, which would put us near the the best in the B1G. Add marginal improvement to the offense, and you have a B1G contender.
It's hard to say what makes a good d-line, rushing defense, sacks, QB hurries, ect. But, one that I know is that OSU's d-line talent is a litlte scary. I am not looking forward to our o-line having to deal with Spence, Bosa, Washington, etc. I'm not too impressed with the back 7, but the front 4 is gonna be nasty.
OSU definitely should have had a better defense last year. Their offense never put them in bad situations, and they have a lot of talent on paper. They currently lack the stud in the middle of the DL to clog up the running lanes. Their back-seven was also undisciplined and arguably poorly coached in '13. OSU has a couple new defensive coaches this year who will be influential, so it's hard to predict what we'll see in '14. Their DE's can be all-world (and Bosa was terrific as a FR), but if the DT's are only so-so, teams will be able to run on them.
I don't if we'll be the #1 rush defense but I think UM will have the #1 overall defense in the conference.
MSU loses more starters but their system is more mature overall.
Mattison's defense was decent despite being ridiculously young, and as a result he played a "bend don't break" defense that sometimes, unfortunately, broke. It was inconsistent, but sheesh, look at the 2013 roster and marvel and the senior:freshman ratio. I'm amazed that unit kept us in games at all.
Mattison is geeked this year because his starters all come in with significant playing time. While MSU operates with the luxury of having a loaded system where some players might not see significant playing time until their 3rd year due to depth, Mattison's players were tested with trial by fire so they're due for a HUGE leap.
I still give MSU the edge because they just have too much going for them -- the faces will change but their coaches have had that D running on all cylinders for several years now, but you shouldn't have to compare us to MSU to be excited about this group.
#2 feels a bit high just because I'm still worried about the tackle positions, but top 1/4 in the league should be expected. It'll be interesting with Franklin going to PSU - Vandy had a decent rush defense last year, but the SEC's mediocre offenses probably helped a bit. But the recruiting limitations are starting to be felt, and depth looks to be low along that line. I think they'll be fine, but I could also see the bottom fall out a bit.
I'm not worried about the DTs. The starters will likely be Pipkins and Henry and we have guys like Godin, Wormley, Hurst and Glasgow rotating in. Mone enrolled early and is a mountain (a mountain with poor conditioning, but who cares he'll play maybe 10 snaps a game).
Our starting DL will be 2 4th year players and 2 3rd year players, with lots of options behind them. That doesn't worry me.
Likewise, especially if (a) Pipkins comes back healthy early and (b) Wormley comes inside as a DT. I think there are enough guys now that we can have a nice rotation for those 2 inside spots. There are also "depth guys" like Godin and Glasgow who can give a breather. Hurst seemed to have some bowl hype but we'll see on him.. I dont buy hype anymore until I see it on the field. But I think this position surprises to the upside.
I am a lot more worried about that 2nd safety spot and the fact Wilson has to be protected in bubble wrap - any injury to him and we have zilch experience in the safeties. It doesnt seem like the coaches are giving any consideration to moving an extra corner out to safety, which I am worried might bite us. I'd like some experience back there.
Further extrapolation suggests running the ball on offense will be dreadful for UM. We already know the line is young and inexperienced, now we see that based on this list they will face all of the top six teams that aren't themselves, and neither of the worst two. Clearly the run defense is significantly better in the East division. I'm guessing Melvin Gordon ends up a Heisman finalist.
Everyone is simply assuming that Michigan State is going to have a very good defensive line. Dinehart (BTN) has them ranked second. I'll grant that their ends are second only to OSU in the B1G. But, I think there's room for skepticism on the inside with Damon Knox and Joel Heath pencilled in as starters. Now, maybe Knox is bettter than I can tell as stats for a nose are always an iffy indicator and State doesn't rely on those guys generating measurable production. But, as far as I can tell, Heath didn't even play last year.
I'm even more skeptical over Ohio State's linebackers. Curtis Grant is still benefitting from his 5-star status. There are 7 returning Mikes who had better production than he had (JMFR, Hull, Rose, Ellis, Snyder, Monheim & Wilson). Perry I think is going to be good at Will, but I'd be shocked to see that a rFR former high-school quarterback (Lee) excels at OLB this year. Sure, he's athletic and might be really good down the line, but I'll believe it when I see it. I'd note that apparently Trey Johnson isn't beatting him out, which I think says more about TJ than Lee. McMilan may deserve all the hype, but 220-lb freshmen isn't a recipe for success on the inside.
Dinehart has PSU 7th in his DL rankings, concluding with, "Depth is pretty good, considering Penn State's circumstances." He has Michigan 5th behind OSU, MSU, Iowa and Nebraska. He consistently underrates Maryland and Rutgers. My final argument for Dinehart is brain damaged is that he rates Michigan's LBs 4th behind Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State.
MSU is pretty loaded at DE so they took Joel Heath, packed on 30 lbs (he is now 295 lbs) to add quickness inside and he is now a DT.
Lawrence Thomas who was MIA most of last year with injury (5 star out of Detroit) also will be like a new player for them. They have been screwing around with him, playing him at LB, FB, and who knows where else but he seems to be a DT/DE now - he is 280ish so could play either depending on situation.
Behind the 2 guys you mentioned they have a RS JR and RS SR. Again, they are very experienced and have "man strength" - they play 21-22 year olds versus a lot of 19-20 year olds.
And yes stats are difficult for DTs if your last name is not Suh.
In other posts on this here blog, you have admonished M fans for valuing stars over production. And yet here you do exactly that in deference to Sparty. It's sucked seeing them improve over the last several years, but to now assume they have superpowers is Emo. And admitting you're Emo does not excuse your being Emo. Thomas has done nothing in several years, his 5* status should mean nothing to you, based on your own prior arguments.
The only guy I mentioned having a star out of a bevy of players I listed was LT. The reason is because he is one of the few 5 stars on either team (there are seven 5 stars between the 2 teams, he is 1 of the 7). He is going to be a backup for them, I am not saying FEAR LT, HE WILL DOMINATE EVERYONE. In fact LT has sort of been a Will Campbell type for them -a nothingburger thus far. He is just another player in their rotation - a deep rotation. Everyone else I mentioned for MSU I didnt say a thing about their high stars... in fact some of their best players are 3 and 2 stars. I have no idea how many stars Heath, Ferguson, etc even have.
There was not a signifcant dropoff in their team when their DTs rotated in and out - which they do frequently. And that is a spot on their team they did lose some key starters. So I am just pointing out they have a lot of players - regardless of stars - who are having impact on a college football field on their DL - I have no idea on the stars on any of them outside of Calhoun (3) and LT (5).
Earlier I talked about their safeties and I mentioned a high 4 star Cox they have - but he has not done anything on the football field yet. So I listed the lower rated guy with 44 tackles as their first option since he has done something. Etc. I am more about production on a college football field than starz.
When M fans want to be excited and optimistic and mention stars, you chastise because the players haven't proven themselves yet. When you build your fear-mongering Sparty post above, you use stars to add to the mongering even though said player hasn't proven himself yet. It's a contradiction
With MSU, I think it typically comes down to the DB's. If the CB's continue to blanket/rape WR's and the safeties continue to switch effortlessly between coverage and run support, MSU will keep rolling. MSU had good front seven players last year, but they were not all studs. So I don't think Narduzzi needs a Jerel Worthy to have a great D.
Are you going to do a passing defense one too? That would be greatly appreciated. If you do, are you going to count every player? 9 players? Excluding the Dts's?
reminded me of something. 9 guys in the box and we'd still try to run the ball against it!
While Borges was in Ann Arbor, neither Denard or Devin were good at checking out of bad plays into something that has a chance of working. For whatever reasons, adjustments at the line rarely happened. We all wailed and gnashed our teeth about this. I hope Nussmeier fixes that problem. He used to be a quarterback, so he understands that it part of the job description. I don't remember hearing about him using a short leash with AJ McCarron.
WIth Nuss, there is hope. Another reason to feel better about 2014.
Nebraska was horrible at rush defense to start the year (mainly, Wyoming and South Dakota St), and that's what drags them down. But if you look at how they actually played on the field, they turned into a solid group toward the end of the year.
Their last 5 games:
Michigan - CENSORED
MSU - 48 att, 168 yards, 3.5 ypc (averaged 4.28 ypc, 174 ypg on season)
PSU - 44 att, 140 yards, 3.86 ypc (averaged 4.17 ypc, 174 ypg on season)
Iowa - 44 att, 155 yards, 3.52 ypc (averaged 4.21 ypc, 180 ypg on season)
Georgia - 43 att, 96 yards, 2.23 ypc (averaged 4.55 ypc, 170 ypg on season; were very hurt by then).
They held their last 5 opponents to below average numbers by a fairly significant margin.
Several local personalities engage in great debate on this topic in a future (and presumably to-be-published-at-some-point) installment of Draftageddon. Someone tries to make the case that Michael Rose's insertion into the lineup was the turning point, using the stats you cited above.
My response was that they did so against the #6, #7, #8, and #11 rushing offenses in terms of YPC, and then a Georgia team that was basically an ASPCA commercial by then. Michigan was a train wreck, and MSU actually had a pretty decent day on the ground (Langford went for a season-high 151 yards and 3 tds on 32 carries) that was obscured by random statisical stuffs.
They were BETTER, but I don't think I'd say they turned a corner.
...but I suspect they're not. As someone with a keen eye on my hometown Huskers, the idea the Michael Rose was somehow the turning point makes me chuckle. The defense did improve mightily over the course of the season, but to my eyes it was due to a lot of incremental improvement by a bunch of different people, not a big step forward by Rose.
That said, MIKE is a tremendously important position in Pelini's defense, as that position is responsible for a lot (all?) of the play-calling. Given that, it's certainly possible that a young player like Rose could improve markedly in his on-field leadership (which I wouldn't be able to see easily), without improving his own play to the same extent (which I would be able to see). I hope it's true that Rose did represent a turning point, but I don't know that it's very likely to be true.
In any case, I expect NU to end up somewhere around #6 in this particular set of rankings. Better, but not world beaters. (Yet.)
There they are again
remove sacks, you should remove QB scrambles as well.