With under a minute to go before halftime, Western Michigan was knocking at the door of the end zone again. No. 19 Michigan State held a 28-7 lead, but the Broncos just recovered a fumble by Connor Heyward and drove inside the 5-yard line.
Someone on the Spartan defense needed to make a play. So, sophomore safety Xavier Henderson stepped up.
WMU tight end Brett Borske cut into the middle of the field on a post route and quarterback Jon Wassink thought he found his target for a touchdown. Only, he didn't see Henderson undercut the route.
Henderson recorded his first-career pick at a crucial time that could've changed the landscape of what would be a 51-17 win for the Spartans.
“Huge play in that sudden change to keep all points off the board," Defensive Coordinator Mike Tressel said after MSU's win. "That was huge because that's going right into halftime and that could completely flip the script, especially when they get the ball to start the second half."
At the time, Henderson's interception was not only big for Michigan State's confidence and holding on to their 21-point lead, but for his own as well. The Broncos targeted Henderson on their scoring play when Wassink connected with Giovanni Ricci for a 15-yard touchdown.
"He didn't have the right leverage, I think, on the touchdown," Head Coach Mark Dantonio said. "He had the right leverage but the guy ran an angle route back inside on him and he didn't have help from the middle field safety or what we call the rat, which is the underneath free player."
Henderson said he had to have a quick memory after that play to give himself a chance at redemption. That came two WMU drives later.
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“I thought Xavier continues to play well; he's a true sophomore," Dantonio said. "The game isn't too big for him, he can rise up to the occasion and he can play well under the lights.”
Henderson said that the transition from spring ball to camp is when things started to slow down for him. As the boundary safety this season, Henderson has some big shoes to fill. Former Spartan Khari Willis manned that spot of MSU's defense last year. Well, he's with the Indianapolis Colts. And so far, Tressel said that Henderson has done an admirable job of the transition from Willis.
"Xavier has done a great job of picking that up," Tressel said. "He’s going to give up a play here or there, we all do in the back-end, but he understands football. He can anticipate plays and we’re really impressed where he is after two games."
Henderson finished tied for a team-high seven tackles along with his interception. With the Spartan defense's effectiveness against opposing running backs, Henderson said he knows the secondary will be tested throughout the season.
But for him, that's what makes playing defensive back so fun. It gives Henderson a chance to step in big spots — like he did against the Broncos.
“Its fun playing defensive back knowing you have dudes like Raequan (Williams) and Kenny (Willekes) up there and Mike Panasiuk," Henderson said. "That whole front is ridiculous, so are those linebackers. So you know you are going to get balls thrown at you and that just puts you in positions to make plays.”
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