Monday, September 27, 2021

Missed tackles, bad angles and more; Michigan State's defense getting away from its principles

October 6, 2019
<p>Ohio state running back J.K. Dobbins (2) evades freshman cornerback Kalon Gervin (18). The Buckeyes defeated the Spartans, 34-10, at Ohio Stadium on Oct. 5, 2019. </p>

Ohio state running back J.K. Dobbins (2) evades freshman cornerback Kalon Gervin (18). The Buckeyes defeated the Spartans, 34-10, at Ohio Stadium on Oct. 5, 2019.

Photo by Matt Zubik | The State News

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Following No. 25 Michigan State's 34-10 loss to No. 4 Ohio State, senior defensive tackle Raequan Williams was asked where the game ranked for him on the disappointment level.

His answer?

"Probably top two," Williams said.

What's number one?" the reporter asked.

"2017, here, if you can believe it," Williams said.

Yep, that's definitely believable.

Michigan State lost that game 48-3, the largest deficit it has had in its history playing against the Buckeyes. And though the Spartans looked somewhat competitive for at least a quarter Saturday night — they actually found the end zone for the first time against OSU since 2016 — there are a lot of similarities between the two games that gave Williams strong reasons to have them right at the top of his disappointment list.

For the second consecutive week, Michigan State's defense got gashed by an opposing offense. Michael Penix Jr. and the Indiana Hoosiers collected 356 yards and scored 31 points against MSU's top-10 defense last Saturday. The Buckeyes went for more — 173 yards more to be exact.

Ohio State's offense, led by sophomore quarterback Justin Fields and junior running back J.K. Dobbins, passed the half-century mark against the Spartan defense, gaining 529 yards of offense.

885 yards and 65 points in two games. Ouch.

That's far from the defense that, though helped by sacks and bad snaps, held Tulsa to a school record negative 73 rushing yards in its opening-night win. Or the defense that held Western Michigan to 67 yards rushing on 27 carries. Or the defense that held Arizona State to less than 150 total yards before Jayden Daniels' final-drive magic. Or the defense that completely smothered Northwestern to help the Spartan open conference play with a dominant win.

How did the Buckeyes find holes in MSU's defensive schemes?

296 of Ohio State's yards came in the second quarter alone, as the Buckeyes gained the second-most yards in a quarter in the last 15 years.

Out of the 529 yards, 323 of it came on the ground — the second-most rushing yards allowed by Michigan State in the Mark Dantonio era.

Second only to 2017's game against the Buckeyes. Ohio State racked up 335 yards on the ground that afternoon.

Whether it is the offensive schemes that have caused MSU's defense some fits or not, this isn't the same Spartan defense that was so dominant through the first month of the season.

And on key plays against the Buckeyes Saturday night, there were some noticeable flaws that allowed Ohio State to bust out explosive plays.

Take Fields' second touchdown pass of the game as an example. The Buckeyes held a 10-7 lead over Michigan State and drove down into Spartan territory, looking to put up more points.

On first-and-7, after a downfield holding call wiped away a 13-yard run by Fields, the sophomore quarterback dropped back with ample amounts of time to seek out a receiver and waited until tight end Luke Farrell found a soft spot in MSU's defense at the 5-yard line.

First, the Spartans failed to generate pressure on this play. When MSU forced the Buckeyes into three consecutive three-and-outs to open the game, its defense was flying into the backfield — both on the edge and from the linebacker position. But on this play, the pocket forced Fields to take a couple steps to his left, and then he had a clear look of downfield.

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When Farrell made the catch, Spartan linebacker Joe Bachie had a chance to bring him down immediately. He instead went for the ball, allowing Farrell to drag forward a couple of extra yards. And by the time Josiah Scott and Tyriq Thompson where there to help finish the job, Farrell had lunged over the goal line.

17-7, Buckeyes.

“I had bad instincts," Bachie said, following the game. "I know the one time I tried to strip it … they scored a touchdown to the tight end on that play. ... We always go for the ball. It’s nothing new going for the ball, it’s just that one play sticks out in my head.” 

There were some defensive flaws on Dobbins' 67-yard touchdown scamper as well, turning a modest 10-to-15-yard gain into a back-breaking score.

On a read play, Dobbins found a crease on the right side of the offensive line. Michigan State safety Xavier Henderson ran in the direction of the open hole on the left, and by the time he tried to recover, the sophomore had to dive at Dobbins' legs to try to bring him down.

Once Dobbins got into the open field, Scott was able to track him down at the MSU 20-yard line. But, instead of going for the tackle, he opted to punch the ball out instead. Needless to say, it didn't work, and Dobbins gave Ohio State a 24-10 lead, which was more than enough to finish off the Spartans.

“I thought Josiah could have hooked and swatted the guy," Dantonio said. "Need to make the tackle first, then go for the strip. That's the way we teach it. He just tried to make a play. He had the ability to run him down, so he ran him down, but you gotta make the tackle. You have to secure the tackle and make them snap the ball again.” 

There were numerous other instances where an MSU defensive player missed a tackle to spring an explosive play for the Buckeyes Saturday night.

If this is a simple fix or officially a major problem remains to be seen, but the Spartans don't have a lot of time to find out which is which.

MSU travels to Madison, Wisconsin next week to play Heisman Trophy-hopeful Jonathan Taylor and the eighth-ranked Badgers (3:30 p.m. ET, 2:30 p.m. CT, BTN).

And if Michigan State wants a chance at upsetting the Badgers and avoiding a two-game losing streak, it starts with getting back to those dominant defensive principles.

“I know guys made mistakes, everyone made mistakes," junior linebacker Antjuan Simmons said. "So, we gotta watch the film, get better and come ready to go because we have a big one next weekend. And we definitely can’t duck our heads down and feel sorry for ourselves.” 

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