When Ohio State moved down the field and scored with just one incompletion and then followed that up with a 77-yard touchdown pass from redshirt freshman quarterback CJ Stroud to junior wide receiver Garrett Wilson, it was clear the MSU secondary, and the entire team for that matter, would be in for a long day.
Not only was the OSU three-headed wide receiver monster of Wilson, senior Chris Olave, and sophomore Jaxon Smith-Njigba predictably troublesome, it was amplified by horrendous secondary play. Countless completions from Stroud to the Buckeye receivers had nearly five yards of separation between the nearest defender, like this one which gave OSU a three possession lead in the first quarter.
Or this one to make it 42-0 midway through the second quarter.
Now in those two instances, there probably was not much the pass rush can be blamed for, given how quickly Stroud got rid of the ball. It was lack of speed and safety help in the first one and likely a miscommunication in the second one.
Problem is, the Michigan State secondary has been torched really all season long, but even more so as of late. The Spartans now surrender 339.9 yards per game through the air, 30 more than the next team and easily the worst mark in the country. It is a pretty big reason why MSU has dropped two of its last three games.
Besides improving the secondary itself, which at this point feels like a tall task given some of the injuries and lack of depth, the Michigan State pass rush could be a short-term cure to slowing down opposing passing attacks.
After all, the front seven is the strength of this defense, led on the edges with redshirt senior defensive end Jacub Panasiuk, graduate defensive end Drew Beesley and sophomore defensive end Jeff Pietrowski. Panasiuk and Pietrowski are tied for the team lead in sacks at 5.5, while Panasiuk leads the team in quarterback hits with nine and Pietrowski leads the team in forced fumbles with three. Beesley has played in just seven games due to an injury suffered against Nebraska, but sits not too far behind with 3.5 sacks.
The logic of it is quite simple. With a tenacious pass rush, the quarterback gets pressured and must get rid of the ball earlier. That leaves the corners with less time in coverage and less opportunity for receivers to break free.
“We are going to focus on having rush and coverage working together,” Beesley said. “Coach (Mel) Tuck(er) and coach (Scottie Hazelton) have been on our butts about that this week so far, just having the defense work together.”
Those three, Panasiuk, Beesley, and Pietrowski, are the heart of the Spartan pass rush and the engine that keeps it going. Michigan State defensive line coach Ron Burton said the key to getting consistent pressure on the quarterback comes with winning one-on-one battles.
“We didn’t do it well last week, but the ability to win your one-on-ones and the opportunity that presents itself in the passing game is there,” Burton said on Tuesday. “We just have to be able to win the opportunities we have in the game and that’s what it is all about ... We are working on that. We worked on that again today, but it is not like we haven’t done it. We just have to consistently do that all the time.”
On the interior, generating additional pressure up the middle could be just what could make the difference. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Simeon Barrow has been MSU’s best interior rusher, but has yet to play in a game since his targeting ejection early in the second half at Purdue.
Over the last two weeks, Burton has been forced to dig into the Michigan State depth in the trenches, with redshirt junior Dashaun Mallory and redshirt sophomore Maverick Hansen both becoming part of the rotation at defensive tackle.
“He (Hansen) has not had much of a dropoff without Simeon being there,” Burton said. “We miss Simeon, but I’ll tell you what, those guys have come in and really filled in when necessary at that position. It’s always good when you have other guys that can play, including Dashuan Mallory, who has had a lot of experience here.”
Penn State has a talented and experienced quarterback in redshirt senior Sean Clifford, who likes to use his legs too. Keeping him contained and uncomfortable could be a huge help for the MSU secondary, especially as they are tasked with stopping another uber-talented, future NFL receiver in senior Jahan Dotson.
“I could have gotten two sack opportunities against him last year and I still have a little sour taste in my mouth about that one,” Beesley said.
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