Michigan State did not get off to the start they wanted in Saturday’s 31-13 win at Rutgers.
Starting with the ball, the Spartans drove down into Rutgers territory. But after getting stopped on third down, Michigan State Head Coach Mel Tucker wanted to take a risk by running a fake field goal, instead of attempting a mid-range kick from graduate student kicker Matt Coghlin. It failed miserably and the Scarlet Knights took some of that momentum right to the throat of the MSU defense.
Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Simeon Barrow sacked Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral for a nine-yard loss, setting up a third and 18. The Scarlet Knights converted on a 19-yard reception and from there they marched all the way down the field. Vedral had the second big play of the drive where he rumbled up the middle of the field breaking tackles left and right for a 33-yard run finally being brought down from behind by sophomore defensive end Jeff Pietrowski.
Missed tackles were the theme of the defense in the first half. They could not wrap up. It was sloppy execution that led to Rutgers scoring 13 points in the first half and perhaps there could have been more.
The first half absence of starting linebacker Cal Haladay, who was forced to sit out the first half as punishment for a targeting call last week, was a big loss. Sometimes things are not appreciated until they are taken away, and that was the case with Haladay.
Redshirt junior Ben VanSumeren took Haladay’s spot as the starter while redshirt senior Noah Harvey rotated in the mix with a sprinkle of freshman Ma’a Gaoteote. Overall, they were fine. Harvey particularly struggled in pass coverage and VanSumeren’s presence was rarely felt with just one tackle on the afternoon.
So when Haladay, the team’s third-leading tackler, made his triumphant return to the game in the second half, the defense was all of a sudden dialed in. On the second play from scrimmage of the quarter, Haladay recorded his first tackle of the game. He was flying around the field, clearly with some sort of chip on his shoulder after the questionable targeting call. The Spartan defense was disciplined, physical, and made tackles they missed in the first half, resulting in zero third quarter first downs for the Scarlet Knights and zero total points in the second half.
“We had a number of three and outs there and he plays hard,” Tucker said. “He knows the defense. He knows where he’s supposed to be. He can play fast and he’s a tackler. It's always good when the productive players, they're able to go out there and play.”
Haladay seemed to elevate the game of his defensive teammates too. Redshirt freshman cornerback Marqui Lowery played his first significant snaps on Saturday, taking the place of true freshman Charles Brantley who did not play. He played relatively well for the little experience he has, but the performance from sophomore safety Darius Snow was encouraging. Snow quietly had a fantastic day leading the team in tackles with 10 while six of those were solo tackles.
“We were able to get him (Lowery) going because he had been a little banged up,” Tucker said. “Obviously, you see his ability to cover and things like that. He's got the balance and body control. He's a willing tackler.”
As good as the MSU offense has been like it was today with four extremely explosive plays, the defense deserves good credit for the 6-0 start too. Besides surrendering 31 points to a talented Western Kentucky defense last week, the defense has been consistently sound with few hiccups. The “bend don’t break” scheme is working, especially at the level that the Spartans have been able to put up points.
However, with the schedule getting tougher soon, Michigan State likely will need to make some adjustments. With matchups versus three AP top-10 teams (Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan) still in the future, some of those field goals will probably start turning into touchdowns, putting a kink in the “bend don’t break” motto.
“Football is not a game of perfect,” Tucker said. "We just want to reach our full potential and we know that we haven't done that yet.”
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