Michigan State’s offense, and more recently the special teams, have been the headliners for the 2021 season so far. The offense is finally explosive with playmakers at running back and wide receiver, and the special teams unit has done its job with mistakes few and far between.
But, Michigan State’s defense has played well too and it has sort of fallen under the radar. Through four games, the Spartans have not given up more than 21 points, which came week one at Northwestern. Since then, MSU has surrendered 14, 17 and 20 points, respectively. That’s good for 33rd best in the country with 18 points per game.
They have given up yards, 396.5 per game to be exact, but have excelled at keeping opposing teams out of the end zone with just nine offensive touchdowns conceded and seven forced turnovers. It has been all about bending but not breaking and getting timely stops for Defensive Coordinator Scottie Hazelton’s defense.
Senior safety Xavier Henderson has been the leader of the defense and the MSU secondary. He and fellow safeties Angelo Grose and Michael Dowell have done a splendid job of keeping the ball in front of them and limiting any big plays. Henderson has also made highlight-reel plays like his one-handed interception against Youngstown State as well as getting down and dirty, demonstrated by his whopping 17 tackles last week.
“Before the season, I told our guys I think this team is only going to go as far as the secondary can take it,” Henderson said. “The offensive line, Payton’s (Thorne) been doing a great job obviously and Kenneth (Walker III) has been really good, but if we are giving up explosives in the back end, we are not going to have a chance to win games.”
The quality of the opponent is a factor in the team’s defensive success, though. Northwestern, Youngstown State, Miami, and Nebraska have all had disappointing offensive seasons, but part of that is credited to MSU.
However, the Spartans will face their toughest defensive test yet with Western Kentucky coming to town Saturday night. The Hilltoppers utilize a high-powered air raid featuring a boatload of pass attempts. Graduate student quarterback Bailey Zappe gets the ball out quickly and it has worked as Western Kentucky is 14th in the country averaging 41.7 points per game.
“It will be a nice challenge for us,” Henderson said. “We haven’t really seen a team pass it around like these guys can do. Miami threw it a lot against us but these guys are more four wideout personnel rather than a tight end. They can do a lot of different things.”
So, how does MSU disrupt the powerful Western Kentucky offense? Hazelton said it starts with pass rush and disguising coverages and blitz packages.
“If you can get there upfront and you can get a guy to look at something and not know exactly what it is for a second because that is the thing that is hard,” Hazelton said. “He gets the ball in his hands and if he knows what you are in he is just going to spin it and get rid of it and then you got to tackle when the ball is out and you got to tackle and hold them to as few yards after the catch as you can. But if you can confuse him once and get a hit on him and get a sack or disrupt his timing somehow, it is the best way to get to it.”
In terms of timing in the schedule, MSU’s matchup versus Western Kentucky could not have come at a much worse time. For the most part, the Spartans have done a good job of staying relatively healthy on all phases, but they will be without a few pieces defensively due to injury and the transfer portal.
Graduate student defensive end Drew Beesley, one of the team’s best pass rushers, left last week’s game early in a boot and appears unlikely to play Saturday night. Cornerback Kalon Gervin and linebacker Chase Kline, who both played their fair share of snaps in 2021 and have provided quality depth for a team that loves to rotate players in and out, both entered the transfer portal and are no longer on the roster.
“I think that is always difficult, but realize that is some of the purpose of playing so many people upfront so that they have that experience,” Hazelton said. “Really with football, that’s how football is and you got to be able to say ‘next man up’ and let’s get a guy ready and let's get a guy who will be able to do that job.”
Redshirt senior defensive end Jacub Panasiuk is already a regular starter but is coming off of his best performance in green and white. With two sacks, seven tackles and a forced fumble against Nebraska, Panasiuk was named Pro Football Focus’ National Defensive Player of the Week.
The Spartans will need one of the non-regular impact players to step-up and one of those guys could be defensive tackle Simeon Barrow. The redshirt freshman opted out in 2020 but has seen his role increase steadily in 2021. Against Nebraska, he recorded a career-high seven tackles to go along with half of a sack.
“He was really light last year,” Hazelton said. “He was not eating right because of all those things that happened. It was a hard year on him. Since we have been back for real, he has really excelled at all those areas and those things start in the offseason. His work ethic, him building himself back up to being a bigger, stronger player, and then adding that up to what he could do before with his speed stuff, I think that that is where it really started.”
He shares the defensive tackle position with redshirt sophomore Jalen Hunt and redshirt junior Jacob Slade, but strong play in the trenches from Barrow could be the key to stopping Western Kentucky’s mighty offense.
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