For over a decade, Michigan State football had the same formula on defense: stop the run, press coverage out on the edge, aggressively blitz, and run the 4-3. The Spartan defense has been known as one of the best units in the nation under former Head Coach Mark Dantonio.
Now it’s a new age, as power has transitioned to the Mel Tucker staff. Scottie Hazelton has taken over the defensive coordinator spot that has been held by a few notable figures in current Pittsburgh Head Coach Pat Narduzzi, MSU defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett and MSU safeties coach Mike Tressel.
With a lack of depth at the linebacker position and relatively open rotation of players in the secondary, Tucker and the defensive staff opted to go with a 4-2-5 scheme on defense.
Despite allowing 38 points to Rutgers in Saturday’s loss, the defense was able to have some success in slowing down the Rutgers offense. The five defensive backs were able to hold Rutgers starting quarterback Noah Vedral to 169 yards passing, including an interception from junior cornerback Shakur Brown, who was slotted in as the nickel corner in the 4-2-5.
The seven turnovers on offense were ultimately a killer for the Spartans and put the defense in a tough situation throughout.
“It is tough, but football is a tough game, and we pride ourselves on being tough players,” junior safety Xavier Henderson said. “That’s a challenge that we like to step up to. We were able to hold them to a field goal on a couple of them. I think they got to the end zone on some of them, but it is a pride thing. It's a toughness thing, and we know we got the offense's back, and they got our back.”
The turnovers weren’t the only problem for the defense in this one either. At times, the MSU defense was caught flat footed and out of position, allowing big gains in the run and passing game.
“We have to do a better job of tackling. Obviously, we were in position to make some plays and didn't make them,” Tucker said. “In coverage, we have to make sure that we stay on top and don't give up big plays in the passing game. We’re going to have communication on our defense. We are going to give calls and get calls, and we will make checks. We’ll do things. As long as guys are lined up when the ball is snapped and they know what their assignment is, then we should be OK. It is going to be more about the execution when the ball is snapped.”
Brown in the secondary was surrounded by sophomores Chris Jackson and Kalon Gervin out on the edge at cornerbacks, and backed up by safeties Tre Person and Henderson.
Linebacker Antjuan Simmons led the linebacker pack with Noah Harvey playing beside him in a middle linebacker type role. The defensive line was filled out with seniors Drew Beesley and Jacub Panasiuk as the defensive ends, then Naquan Jones and Jacob Slade filled the interior at defensive tackle.
Tucker and Hazelton, even with Rutgers' high tempo, were constantly rotating players at each position, which resulted in a lot of snaps for players like safety Michael Dowell and defensive end Jack Camper.
Henderson is one of the few returning starters from last year’s defense. In the game, Henderson did a bit of everything by dropping back in coverage and lining up in the box to rush the quarterback or attempt to stop the run.
“I think the biggest difference between the defense this year and last year is how we keep our leverage, how we leverage the football and how we try not to let it outside of us,” Henderson said. “I think the defense last year was made to bounce things outside and not let anything inside, and we did a great job of that last year, not letting the ball run inside on us. This year, we want to lever it up and not let it run side to side and come make plays on the ball inside out. Today we didn't do the best job of that, and that's something we got to work on coming up.”
Simmons started as one of two linebackers against Rutgers, racking up 11 tackles and three tackles for loss. Simmons was able to play more to his skill set in the new scheme, aggressive at the line of scrimmage and using his speed and agility to fly to the ball to stop the run or rush the quarterback.
“I think we've embraced it well,” Simmons said. “We're playing hard. We're running everything they're sending into us. There are no issues. There are no disagreements or anything like that. Whatever they send in or call, we're going to run it and have the right attitude.”
The 4-2-5 requires some extra communication, especially in the backfield. Henderson appeared to be directing a lot of the action happening in the secondary. Despite a few plays where the defense was caught flat footed, Henderson feels the communication throughout the defense went smoothly.
“I think it was fluid,” Henderson said. “I think it was clean, and that's something we work on during practice. Just like Coach Tucker said, their tempo was something we were a little concerned on, so we really practiced hard on getting substitutions on and off the field. We were able to do that today. We were able to get the call and really communicate the call throughout the defense on the field. I thought it went well today, and I don't think there were too many missed assignments, hopefully not. We will watch the film and see, but the communication is a big part in making sure everyone got their assignment.”
Tucker felt confident in the communication and their ability to substitute through the game.
“Obviously, our guys have learned our scheme, and communication is a big part of playing defense,” Tucker said. “I thought our guys communicated. We were able to substitute. We were concerned about the pace of play and how fast they were able to go, but we were able to get lined up and get in position to make plays.”
For Simmons and the Michigan State defense, they’re already looking forward to building on the things that went well into their next game against rival Michigan.
“We have a lot of room for improvement,” Simmons said. “We're going to come back next week like a completely different team. We have to clean up our play. We shot ourselves in the foot a lot today, a lot. We really have to clean up our play. Play smarter, play harder, play with an edge, bring energy. We started off flat, that’s why things got out of control on us quick, but we kept fighting and we were able to stay in the fight. We just have to clean up our play, make plays and play harder.”
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