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Bend But Don’t Break: Spartans Defense Must Improve In November

For the first time in six years, the College Football Playoff rankings feature Michigan State in one of the top four spots. Although many of the players shared they wouldn’t be paying much attention, the fan base is ecstatic. Four games still remain for the Spartans, but the fact that the selection committee is holding their win over Michigan at a high standard, is big for their postseason aspirations.

However, the rest of their schedule is no walk in the park, with Ohio State and Penn State still on deck. If they wish to keep their spot in the playoff, they have to make some adjustments. Mainly on the defensive side of the ball. MSU might have beaten the Wolverines, but for the large majority of the game they were getting whatever they wanted on offense. The Michigan State secondary allowed a subpar quarterback to have a career day and once again struggled to get off the field. If Mel Tucker wants to create some November madness, his defense has to tighten up.

By The Numbers

The toughest portion of the Spartans schedule not only was saved for the final four weeks of the season, but takes place in the coldest month on the college football calendar. Maryland, Ohio State, Purdue, and Penn State are home to the top four passing offenses in the Big Ten. They also happen to be the next four foes for Michigan State, which unfortunately has the worst passing defense in the conference. Frigid weather might call for teams to run the ball more, but the Spartans might not be so lucky.

The defensive side of the roster for MSU has a playmaker at every level. Jacub Panasiuk has turned himself into a lethal pass rusher in his senior season, Cal Haladay looks to be a solid linebacker for seasons to come, and of course Xavier Henderson is among the best safeties in the country. But the group has struggled to get off the field on a consistent basis. Opposing teams average just under 25 first downs per game with 15 of those coming through the air. That also happens to be another category this team finishes last in along with total passing completions and passing yards. Michigan State has lost the time of possession battle in five of their eight victories. A mark that could be worse, although those five games all came when playing a Big Ten team.

Through eight games, the MSU defense has allowed a conversion rate of 40% on third down and 65% on fourth down.

It isn’t that defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton has done a bad job this season. Most recently in the win over Michigan, the Spartans limited Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum, their two best offensive weapons. They may have allowed Cade McNamara to have arguably the best outing of his career, but MSU forced the Wolverines to kick four field goals, with all of them being inside the 25 yard line. Relying on offenses to stall out when space on the playing field starts to shrink closer to the end zone isn’t the best game plan, but it is something this team has had good luck with. Throw in an average of 1.8 turnovers per game, with a majority of them coming during clutch time, and you have a Michigan State defense that has done just enough to get by.

Plan Of Action

At a glance, it seems the Spartans play a version of prevent defense when it comes to the pass. They are more than happy with letting receivers catch the ball as long as they don’t let up a lot of yards afterward. But even the best defenses are at risk of letting up big plays. For example, the first drive of the game for Michigan, saw Andrel Anthony streak across the field for a 93 yard score. Michigan State would be gashed by many crossing routes throughout the entire contest, and have been for most of 2021.

So how can Scottie Hazelton change the tendency of his defense from ‘bend but don’t break’ to stout and strong? First, continue to pressure quarterbacks and force turnovers. MSU came away with a victory at Indiana a few weeks ago mainly because they stole the ball three times and sacked Jack Tuttle thrice as well.

It also wouldn’t hurt if the Spartans called more blitzes. Of course that means less players drop back in pass coverage, but quarterbacks more often than not are less successful when rushed, even though receivers may be open. The blitz can even come from the secondary, which has reached home a few times for Michigan State. Xavier Henderson, Ronald Williams, and Chester Kimbrough, all play defensive back and all have at least one sack this year.

Mel Tucker has no problem with getting his players to rally around him. However, these last four games may not go as well as the first eight if MSU relies on holding their opponents to field goals. With high octane offenses like Maryland and Ohio State on the horizon, it’s time for the defense to play its best football. At the same time Tucker and his staff need to coach at their best as well. In conclusion, there is still a lot standing in between the Spartans and the College Football Playoff.

Follow Alex Mayer on Twitter for more MSU Football Content: @almay_99

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