All year long, the Michigan State defensive identity has been relatively the same: they bend but never break. For the most part, they let the opposing offense drive down the field and either hold for a field goal or force a turnover. Then, the MSU offense will come onto the field and outscore the other team. Touchdowns over field goals. Seven points over three points.
But, that strategy failed miserably on Saturday, with the Spartan defense surrendering 40 points, en route to a 40-29 loss to Purdue in West Lafayette. For a scheme like that to work, the secondary must be in tack, and it was in shambles all day long.
Despite all the points by Purdue, MSU made things interesting when they cut the lead to eight points with 5:03 to play and one timeout remaining in Michigan State Football Head Coach Mel Tucker’s pocket. With a three-and-out, or even just a timely stop for that matter, the Spartans could get the ball back with a chance to tie the game.
Instead of pounding the ball on the ground like many teams would, the Boilermakers stuck with what had gotten them to 37 points at the time: the passing game. Even though it was not necessarily an aggressive play call, Purdue's fifth year quarterback Aidan O’Connell tossed a screen pass to his right to junior running back King Doerue. Doerue turned it up field, crossed over the giant ‘P’ at midfield, and carried for a massive 46-yard gain.
Continuing to go through the air, Purdue marched down to the MSU 12, was held to just a field goal, but the 11 point lead with 41 seconds left and no timeouts ultimately sealed the upset victory.
“What we needed to do, we needed to go three-and-out on defense is what we needed to do,” Tucker said after the game. “I had three timeouts and I started taking timeouts but we weren’t getting them stops. Sometimes you have to stop. I mean, you gotta get a stop."
Freshman Charles Brantley, who certainly earned extended playing time after his game-sealing interception last week against Michigan, and junior Chester Kimbrough both got the start at outside cornerback. Typically, we have seen a steady rotation between the cornerback group throughout the game, but that was not the case on Saturday. It was not until some bumps and bruises and glaring struggles in the second half that other cornerbacks started to get into the mix.
Kimbrough was the first to see the bench in the third quarter, but it was only short lived. After he flipped a Purdue wide receiver near the sideline that resulted in an unnecessary roughness penalty, Kimbrough hobbled over to the MSU bench holding his lower back.
On the next drive, Michigan State was lined up in zone coverage. Purdue junior wide receiver David Bell found a soft spot in the defense, shoved Brantley aside, and took it up field for a 50-yard gain. Containing Bell was a problem all game for the Spartan secondary as he hauled in 11 catches for 217 yards and a touchdown.
“I think he’s got strong hands,” Michigan State senior safety Xavier Henderson said. “That’s one of the things I really noticed about him. He makes good plays. He has a good release off the line of scrimmage. He’s a good player.”
A few plays later, Brantley stayed down on the field and ended up missing some time too. Both eventually returned to the game, but it was apparent that neither one of them were at 100%. In their separated absences, senior cornerback Ronald Williams entered the game after not playing during the first half. After the game Henderson revealed that Brantley was dealing with a shoulder injury while Williams was nursing a back injury.
Those three, Kimbrough, Brantley and Williams, have been the top three cornerbacks that MSU defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton has leaned on for a good portion of the season. Nobody, except perhaps sophomore safety Darius Snow who made 13 tackles, provided an answer to stop O’Connell, who completed 74% of his passes for 536 yards and three touchdowns.
“They have some good players,” Tucker said. “They got a good quarterback. And we lost some one on one battles out there. That’s what it really comes down to.”
The Michigan State secondary felt like a position group of depth in the beginning of the season, but that is now starting to come into question. The cornerback depth took a blow earlier on when redshirt junior Kalon Gervin entered the transfer portal. Additionally, freshman cornerback Marqui Lowery, who had seen more snaps after Gervin’s departure, did not play Saturday.
Perhaps the most concerning part for MSU though, is that this is not the first time the Spartan secondary has been in a rut. Masked behind junior running back Kenneth Walker III’s five touchdown performance against Michigan, was the leaky Michigan State secondary that allowed a career day for Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara.
While one loss does not completely derail the season, it is certainly a big blow. However, they still have a chance to reach the Big Ten Championship and perhaps even the College Football Playoff. In order to do so, the secondary has to be better with the competition only getting stronger. Asking the offense to put up 40 points is not going to cut it.
“We’re gonna be sick when we watch this film,” Tucker said.
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