Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Improving and undermanned Michigan State defense forces upset win at Illinois

November 6, 2022
<p>Sophomore linebacker Ma’a Gaoteote (10) and redshirt senior linebacker Ben VanSmuren (13) celebrate after gaining possession of the ball in a game against University of Illinois at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 5, 2022. The Spartans beat the Fighting Illini with a score of 23-15. </p>

Sophomore linebacker Ma’a Gaoteote (10) and redshirt senior linebacker Ben VanSmuren (13) celebrate after gaining possession of the ball in a game against University of Illinois at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 5, 2022. The Spartans beat the Fighting Illini with a score of 23-15.

For a stretch, Michigan State’s defense was one of the primary reasons for the team’s bitterly disappointing season. Especially against Washington and Minnesota, a majority of the unit failed to show much of a pulse or make any sort of impact. 

On a windy Saturday afternoon in Champaign, things finally seemed to come together for the Spartans’ defense. 

“Credit to our defense, they were outstanding all day,” redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne said.

Week after week, the unit seems to be slowly but surely getting better. 

Last weekend, MSU’s defense performed valiantly, forcing five field goals in a classic “bend don’t break” style. A couple of weeks prior, the unit showed glimpses of excellence against the Wisconsin Badgers. Against Illinois, the unit had perhaps its most complete performance of the season since shutting out Akron in September.

“I give (defensive coordinator/linebackers coach) Scottie (Hazelton) and our defensive staff a lot of credit for continuing to develop our defensive players and work through our injuries,” Head Football Coach Mel Tucker said.

Getting back fifth-year senior safety Xavier Henderson and redshirt senior defensive tackle Jacob Slade back from injury has certainly played a part in that improvement. However, that’s not the only reason the unit looks miles ahead of where it was a month ago. 

The counting stats against Illinois weren’t especially impressive. Illinois racked up 441 yards of total offense – 288 through the air and 153 on the ground and made State fans sweat with a potentially game-tying drive in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. 

But situationally, Michigan State’s defense was excellent. 

Illinois attempted six fourth-down conversions on the night. The Illini successfully converted on just one of those attempts — and that came on the final drive of the night. 

“That was really key to the game, getting off the field and letting our offense work,” sophomore linebacker Cal Haladay said.

The first fourth-down stop for Michigan State set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. On the very first play of the game, Thorne tossed an interception at the MSU 41 line, handing great field position to the home team. 

Illinois marched right down the field with a handful of chunk plays, seemingly poised to take an early 7-0 lead off of the turnover. 

However, the drive stalled out at Michigan State’s three-yard line. After three straight runs combined for a meager one yard gain, the Spartan defense forced an incompletion and Illinois turned the ball over on downs. 

Just like the Spartans did against the Wolverines a week ago, the unit tightened up near the end zone. On four trips up to the red zone, Illinois came away with points just once. 

“Things don’t always go our way, but we always find a way to tough it out in the end,” fifth-year senior linebacker Aaron Brule said.

What’s perhaps most intriguing about Saturday afternoon’s upset is that Michigan State put up this performance while extremely shorthanded. 

Following last weekend’s embarrassing incident in the player’s tunnel of the Big House, Tucker announced the suspension of eight players that were involved. Every single one of those players were members of the defense and they weren’t just underclassmen or depth players. 

Junior safety Angelo Grose has played plenty of snaps this season (especially when Henderson was injured) and senior linebacker Jacoby Windmon has been one of the best players on the team. 

Plus, there were still some lingering injuries throughout the lineup. Junior defensive end Jeff Pietrowski and senior defensive end Kris Bogle are just a couple of the important members of the defense that were absent against the Illini. 

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Despite missing so many players, the defense was able to stand tall and do just enough to secure a victory.

“We had some dudes out and some dudes hurt too,” Henderson said. “The guys that got to play made the most of it.”

It wasn’t just the starters over-performing that drove the fantastic defensive performance. The players that stepped up into starting roles played, for the most part, very well. 

“I’m glad they stepped in the way they did,” Haladay said. “They were really key today.”

Brule was especially noticeable. Making the most of his time in a more featured role, the Mississippi State transfer finished with five tackles, a sack and 1.5 TFLs. 

Redshirt sophomore defensive end Avery Dunn also put together a quietly nice game, finishing with three tackles, a TFL and a quarterback hurry.

After a rough showing to start the season, down so many players and with all the noise of the week, the stars seemed aligned for a defensive collapse from Michigan State. But thanks to a good game plan from Hazelton, some great plays in critical moments and stellar showings from younger, more inexperienced players, the unit was able to persevere and force the upset.

Sitting at 4-5 with just three games left on the schedule, Michigan State still needs a pair of wins to ensure a bowl bid. For that to happen, the defense needs to continue its upward trajectory — especially with so much roster attrition.

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