Monday, June 1, 2020

How good can Michigan State's defense be this year?

August 31, 2019
<p>Redshirt senior defensive end Kenny Willekes (48) celebrates after recovering a fumble during the game against Tulsa at Spartan Stadium on Aug. 30, 2019. The Spartans defeated the Golden Hurricane, 28-7.</p>

Redshirt senior defensive end Kenny Willekes (48) celebrates after recovering a fumble during the game against Tulsa at Spartan Stadium on Aug. 30, 2019. The Spartans defeated the Golden Hurricane, 28-7.

Photo by Matt Schmucker | The State News

Michigan State's defense didn't know how dominant they were Friday night. Well, at least not until the end of the game. That's when linebacker Antjuan Simmons took a look up at the board and noticed how many rushing yards Tulsa had.

"We didn’t know until we looked up in the fourth quarter and it was like, ‘Oh, wow,'" Simmons said.

Six sacks, 13 tackles for loss, 80 total yards and negative 73 yards later, No. 18 Michigan State's defense made history. No other defense in MSU history had given up that little in rushing yards.

"They are a really good defense. We knew that coming in," Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith said. "We knew we couldn't take steps back and shoot ourselves in the foot, and that's exactly what we did. We shot ourselves in the foot too many times. When you let a good defense get up on you like that, they are going to pin their ears back and come after you. That's exactly what we let them do."

MSU's defense looked as dominant as ever in the 28-7 win in the Spartans' season-opener Friday night. The Spartans lived up to the billing as being of the best defenses in college football this season. But, Simmons says there wasn't anything they were doing differently.

"We are just out there playing, having fun," Simmons said. "We're all doing our jobs, playing within a system, not doing too much and it goes to show that if we do our jobs ... good things will happen for us."

The Spartans controlled almost every aspect of Friday night's game while they were on defense. Kenny Willekes and Raequan Williams lived in Tulsa's backfield. So did Mike and Jacub Panasiuk. Joe Bachie shot gaps with blazing speed, leading to a team-high seven tackles.

"We're going to put more people at the point of attack and in a lot of ways, our linebackers are going to fit properly when our defensive linemen are dominant," Dantonio said. "I think they handled the line of scrimmage and we tackled well. ... I thought we tackled very, very well."

MSU's defense showed Friday night it is as good as ever — maybe better. That was what, Bachie said, the group is hoping for, to be better than last season. If Friday's opening win was any indication, MSU's defense has a chance to be even better.

Historically better.

"The goal is always to be better, we trained ourselves to strive to be better," Joe Bachie said. "We knew their game plan inside and out from last year. It was kind of the exact same matchup with it. We were very confident out there, and we were calling out some plays. It helps you play faster. Once you get a couple big plays, it starts to roll and that's what happened tonight."

Turnover Trio 

Antjuan Simmons sat in the media room answering questions about his strong defensive performance. He finished with six tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack and an important interception.

That’s a lot of production to be proud of. But, he knows there is something defensive ends coach Chuck Bullough is going to rip him about. 

On Simmons’ sack, he could have had a strip-sack, but he didn’t punch through. 

“I know he's going to be mad at me about that,” Simmons said.  

It’s a technique that’s part of Bullough’s ball disruption defensive program that he brought to MSU last season. It emphasizes created turnovers and getting the ball back while on defense. 

Needless to say, one game into year two, Bullough's ball disruption system is making great strides.

MSU's defense was flat-out dominant against the Golden Hurricane, holding Tulsa to negative 73 rushing yards, which set a new school record that had stood since 1950. Take out the negative 73 yards rushing from sack accumulations and fumble yards that were lost and Tulsa's running backs still ran for a total of negative one yards.

On top of that, the Spartans collected six sacks, 13 tackles for loss, forced a safety and — most important to Bullough — created three turnovers.

"I felt that we played very confidently on defense," Kenny Willekes said. "We've seen a lot of young guys step up, a lot of guys getting pressure on the quarterback, a lot of guys creating turnovers. Those are two big areas that we emphasized in the offseason."

The first came when a botched snap sailed over Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith's head before it was chased down by Kenny Willekes. Willekes then combined with fellow captain Raequan Williams for a strip-sack that resulted in Willekes' first career touchdown.

"It was pretty cool to score my first touchdown, shout out to my dog Raequan. He punched it out for me right into my arms," Willekes said. "Thank you, Raequan, for my first touchdown. It speaks to our chemistry on defense and how much work we put in, in the offseason."

And then came Simmons' pick when he fell back in coverage to undercut one of Smith's passes.

“I kind of just looked it down, just made a play on the ball," Simmons said. "That's pretty much all it is." 

Last season, the Spartans forced only 23 total turnovers — 14 interceptions and nine fumbles – and have emphasized getting that number to grow by practicing running to any loose ball that they see. They accomplished just that Friday night thanks to ball disruption.

"Coach Bullough brought in that system, get the ball, ball disruption," Mike Panasiuk said. "Hopefully it does play out and it keeps going forward, and we keep getting those turnovers and those touchdowns."

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