Stopping the run is something Michigan State prides itself on.
Going into Saturday's matchup against Central Michigan, the 21st-ranked Spartans are No. 1 in the nation in run defense, allowing just 32.7 yards per game, which is 31.8 yards fewer than 2nd-ranked San Diego State.
“That’s just, hopefully who we are, by technique,” defensive ends coach Chuck Bullough said in a news conference to reporters Sept. 26. “That’s all it is, is technique. Keeping your shoulders square. If you’re watching on TV and it’s a background view of the defense you should see all their numbers if it’s a run. That’s just who we are and that’s coaching technique. Nothing should change that way.”
Defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk said the defense's success in stopping the run starts with communication on the defensive line.
“I’m talking to my man Ray (defensive tackle Raequan Williams), talking to Kenny (Willekes) and all the other d-ends and d-tackles,” Panasiuk said after practice Sept. 25. “No matter who’s on the field, we’re always communicating with each other, and that’s upfront and in the back end. So I feel like that gives us a big push up the middle, and that’s why we’re getting into the face of the quarterback.”
By taking on double teams inside, Panasiuk, Williams, Naquan Jones and Gerald Owens have also opened up the pass rush, as seen Saturday when the Spartans had five of their nine sacks this season.
“We got some big boys inside now,” Bullough said. “That always helps the defensive ends, because they can’t come out and double you. We all work together. And then they gotta go out and try to block Kenny, and that gives them a little bit more one-on-ones. So they play off each other.”
And spearheading the pass rush is defensive end Kenny Willekes, who was one of four players to record a sack against the Hoosiers.
The key for Willekes’ early success: footwork.
“Last year, I didn’t have a very good getoff in my footwork,” Willekes said. “I was stepping with the wrong foot sometimes. Coach Bullough has helped me enlarge my toolbelt with a lot more pass-rushing move and got me attacking more, instead of last year when I was just running down the middle of guys and putting my hands on guys, and not really doing much.”
Willekes' footwork was something Bullough, who’s in his first season as MSU’s defensive ends coach, noticed when he got on campus.
And Bullough said Willekes has picked up the technique seamlessly.
“Whatever you tell Kenny, he’s gonna do it,” Bullough said. “He’s gonna work on it and he’s gonna get it done. We gave him some new footwork stuff and some new pass-rush techniques, and then he took it to heart and works on it daily. He’s one of the hardest-working players I’ve ever been around.”
While Bullough has been in East Lansing, he said he’s worked with the defensive ends on being better ball disruptors, something he said “doesn’t happen overnight.”
Right now Bullough said he’s still in the “brainwashing process” — changing his players’ attitudes when they rush the quarterback.
“They see a quarterback and they just want to sack him,” Bullough said. “You got to be able to brainwash them to where they’re thinking about where’s the ball at. So they’re picking it up. It’s a progression but this is the progression every school I’ve ever been at in 12 years … it takes time. It takes time.”
While Willekes is imposing his way on one side, defensive ends Jack Camper, Drew Beesley and Jacub Panasiuk are on the other.
Camper, who's listed as a starter along with Panasiuk, switched from tight end to defensive end in spring, but missed some time due to a foot injury. Which Bullough said changes how he teaches the position to Camper compared to his other defensive ends.
“Kenny you can give a thousand (pieces of) information and he’s gonna process it, which might confuse Jack,” Bullough said. “So I always got to tell him, ‘OK, Kenny can listen to this. Jack, don’t listen to what I’m saying right now because I don’t want you to get confused.’ You gotta know your audience.”
When the entire defensive line puts pressure on the quarterback or stuffs the run, it allows linebackers to make plays, linebacker Joe Bachie said.
“It makes my job easy when Raequan and Mike are playing great,” linebacker Joe Bachie said. “I can run free.”
And if the defensive line can keep opening gaps for the linebackers, stop the run and have an effective pass rush, the Spartans can force interceptions and add to the five picks they have this season, which is tied for 19th in the nation.
“They say, ‘The best pass coverage is the pass rush,'" Willekes said. “It’s been a huge focus for us all offseason. Since coach Bullough’s been here, he’s helped us at the DE position immensely. Just as a team, we know we need to get more pressure on the quarterback. And if we can do that, it will make us an elite defense.”
Update on injuries
When asked if running back LJ Scott is day-to-day or good to play against CMU Saturday since Scott didn’t practice or play last week against IU, Dantonio gave contradicting responses.
“Well, a little of both,” Dantonio said at his weekly news conference Sept. 25. “I expect him to play. Maybe day-to-day. He may be out there today or he may not be.”
However, Dantonio said he doesn’t think cornerback Josiah Scott’s (unspecified left leg injury) season is in jeopardy. Dantonio announced Josiah’s injury during MSU’s Media Day Aug. 6.
“I expect him back,” Dantonio said.
Bullough said Wednesday defensive end Dillon Alexander (unspecified right foot injury) practiced Tuesday for this first time this season and is a game-time decision.
“[We'll] see how he does today, see how he feels,” Bullough said. “That’ll be just a progression of how he feels.”