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Column: Michigan State’s defense is putting a firm ceiling on the program

September 19, 2022
<p>Head coach Mel Tucker watches the field during the Spartans&#x27; 37-33 win against the Wolverines on Oct. 30, 2021.</p>

Head coach Mel Tucker watches the field during the Spartans' 37-33 win against the Wolverines on Oct. 30, 2021.

It took just three games for Michigan State to get its first reality check of the season.

In the primetime slot on ABC, the Spartans were embarrassed by the unranked Washington Huskies in a 39-28 beat-down and knocked out of the AP Top-25.

Redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne had a strong night, tossing for 323 yards with three touchdowns. Sophomore wide receiver Keon Coleman also wowed, popping off for 116 yards and a pair of touchdowns. 

Ultimately, neither of those performances could make up for what was an astoundingly bad night for the defense -- namely, the secondary. Led by quarterback Michael Penix Jr., Washington shredded the Spartans with 397 yards through the air. MSU's corners were way out of their depth in man coverage situations and the secondary as a whole struggled on nearly every down. 

This is not the first time defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton's defense has been embarrassed on primetime television.

It took a few months for MSU's defense to hit rock bottom in 2021. It was a chilly November day in Columbus, when the No. 7 Spartans came to visit No. 4 Ohio State. OSU's C.J. Stroud had a near-perfect day, finishing with 432 yards and six touchdowns on route to a 56-7 curb-stomping.

After a season that, up to that point, had felt downright miraculous, the disastrous 56-7 loss to the Buckeyes felt like a dose of reality. The talent gap had finally reared its ugly head, especially on defense. 

In many ways, Michigan State’s loss to Washington felt very similar. Sure, the game wasn't nearly as lopsided (this team actually showed signs of life in the second half), but it left MSU fans with that same feeling: Michigan State is not quite ready to deal with the top teams in college football. More specifically, Michigan State's defense isn't ready to compete with the best teams in college football.

And this time, it happened against Washington, a team with a brand new head coach and a program that has been trending downward -- perhaps until Saturday night.

Ohio State has won the Big Ten with substandard secondaries in the past (back in 2020, the last time the Buckeyes won the Big Ten, they finished with the worst pass defense in the conference, giving up 304 yards per game). Oklahoma made it to a couple of playoffs with atrocious pass defense (the Sooners made it to the playoffs in 2019 with the worst pass defense in the FBS).

As it stands, Michigan State is nowhere near those two programs. Tucker has been impressive on the recruiting trail so far, but it's nothing compared to what the Sooners and Buckeyes have been doing for years now. To make up for a secondary like this, MSU would have to have blue-blood roster depth -- and that's just not the case. Until Michigan State starts consistently notching four and five-star recruits, the program's ceiling for success will be capped by the defense.

"Everything we want in terms of the Big Ten is still on the table," junior wide receiver Tre Mosley said after Saturday's loss in Seattle.

That may be true on paper, but the Big Ten has some talented quarterbacks and lethal receiving cores. Michigan State fans don’t want to hear it, but JJ McCarthy looks legit (albeit against lesser competition).

Ohio State’s Stroud is living up to the hype thus far and his wideouts are still excellent (plus he has a history of tearing apart the Spartans).

Sean Clifford and Penn State just put up 41 against Auburn. Purdue's Aidan O'Connell put up 500 yards against the Spartans last November.

Maryland's Taulia Tagovailoa can sling it too.

Penix gave this defense fits, just imagine what the best of the Big Ten will do. 

Thorne could have an amazing game. A receiver could have an excellent night. But if the defense can’t stop a nosebleed, none of those performances really matter -- at least in the wins/losses column. 

It’s up for debate whether Michigan State’s secondary issues are a result of personnel or scheming. In all likelihood, it’s a combination of both. What’s not up for debate is the fact that Michigan State cannot win a conference like the Big Ten with such a massive flaw.

Tucker has made it clear that he expects Michigan State to compete for titles. Championship caliber programs don’t win chips with the worst pass defense in the FBS. Until MSU fixes its issues on the backend, Tucker’s goals will be nearly unreachable.

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The Spartans have a ceiling for success, and it’s tied directly to the defense.


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