Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Michigan State offense up for the challenge of hard-nosed Michigan defense

October 27, 2021
<p>Redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne scrambles with the ball. The Spartans found a way to hold on against the Hoosiers with a 20-15 win, scraping to their first 7-0 start since 2015 on Oct. 16, 2021.</p>

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne scrambles with the ball. The Spartans found a way to hold on against the Hoosiers with a 20-15 win, scraping to their first 7-0 start since 2015 on Oct. 16, 2021.

Photo by Devin Anderson-Torrez | The State News

For the most part, Michigan State’s offense has been able to move the ball with ease all season long. Junior running back Kenneth Walker III has been the heart of the offense, running himself into a potential Heisman Trophy and sophomore quarterback Payton Thorne has been steady while throwing numerous accurate deep balls to take the top off the defense. An offense like this has not been present in East Lansing for a while.

The Spartans’ offense, which is averaging 34.3 points per game, has been a key reason for MSU’s 7-0 start. However, No. 8 Michigan State will face its toughest defensive test yet as No. 6 Michigan comes to East Lansing on Saturday as both teams hope to move to 8-0. 

Fourteen point three. That is how many points the Wolverine defense is surrendering per game. Yep, you read that right, 14.3. If it were not for Georgia's historically good defense that averages just 6.6 points per game, 14.3 could be good enough to be the best in the nation, instead of where it currently stands at No. 2.

The Michigan defense is balanced. Rather than excelling at stopping the run or stopping the pass, the Wolverines do both things well. Both of Michigan’s run and pass defense rank in the top-25 in the country, allowing just 116.6 yards on the ground and 182.4 yards in the air. 

Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker acknowledged just about every single aspect of Michigan’s defense that has led to such great success. 

“They are solid,” Tucker said on Monday. “They play with good technique and fundamentals up front. They are stout in the trenches and they are very coordinated with their coverages and they play really hard and they run to the ball. They are opportunistic in terms of forcing takeaways and things like that.”

The balanced approach is highlighted by two players: UMich senior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and junior defensive back Daxton Hill. Both Hutchinson and Hill likely will be selected in the 2022 NFL Draft, but have seen differing projections. Hutchinson is more clear as a near-lock to be a first round pick, and has most recently been mocked as high as the second overall selection by CBS. On the other hand, Hill’s projections have been a bit more volatile, with mocked selections ranging from the first round to the third round. 

Keeping Hutchinson in-check will be a must for the MSU offense and for an offensive line that, at times, has struggled to keep a clean pocket. Despite just five sacks on the season, which is tied for 32nd in the country and falls half of a sack behind Michigan State redshirt senior defensive end Jacub Panasiuk, Hutchinson is a do-it-all player. That is why he has earned the top PFF grade (93.3) in the country for defensive ends.

“He’s an NFL guy. I am not gonna sugarcoat it,” Michigan State senior tight end Connor Heyward said, who will be one of the blockers charged with trying to slow Hutchinson down. “But, we face NFL guys every week. We are one of the best conferences in the country. I think he does a really good job of using his hands. He has a motor like Kenny Willekes.”

Additionally, the Wolverines brought in a new defensive coordinator, Mike MacDonald, before the season that can be attributed to Michigan’s defensive stubbornness. MacDonald joined Michigan after being a defensive coach for seven years with the Baltimore Ravens, most recently a linebackers coach from 2018-20. 

“They are a good defense,” Thorne said. “Watching them on film, they do a lot of good stuff. They got a lot of good players as well. They are going to be a tough team to play and we are excited to get going against them.”

Michigan State’s offense has really only gotten stuck in the mud twice all year. The first came in the second half against Nebraska, but a late fourth quarter punt return for a touchdown by redshirt junior wide receiver Jayden Reed forced overtime and an interception by junior cornerback Chester Kimbrough set up a game-winning field goal. In the very next game, the MSU offense bounced-back, lighting up Western Kentucky for 48 points. 

The second offensive sputtering came in MSU’s most recent game versus Indiana. In the first half, the Spartans accumulated just 57 yards of offense, but trailed by just two points at the half thanks to a pick-6 by redshirt freshman linebacker Cal Haladay. Michigan State's offense came out of the locker room revamped, scoring a field goal and then a touchdown on two of its first three possessions of the second half, leading the way to a 20-15 victory

Now coming off of a bye week, Michigan State was given extra time to prepare for its biggest game yet. Instead of the weekly routine of preparation, players and coaches were able to take the extra week to step back and do more evaluation and assessment than usual. Whether or not they admit it, the bye perhaps may have come at the perfect time for MSU to do some extra studying of the tenacious Wolverine defense. 

“It’s obviously good to have a bye week in the middle of the season, not too early, not too late,” Heyward said. “But, in the middle, it kind of gets some guys, the nicks and bruises, get them back, and also to build depth at other positions ... The more guys that can go out there and produce, the better team we will ultimately be.”

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