Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Michigan State defense finally showing signs of life with bowl eligibility on the line

November 10, 2022
Sophomore cornerback Charles Brantley (0) fights off University of Illinois player during first half of a game at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 5, 2022. Spartans beat the Fighting Illini with a score of 23-15.
Sophomore cornerback Charles Brantley (0) fights off University of Illinois player during first half of a game at Memorial Stadium on Nov. 5, 2022. Spartans beat the Fighting Illini with a score of 23-15.

Only about a month ago, Michigan State defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Scottie Hazelton was not a particularly popular person in East Lansing. Sitting at 2-4 without a win against a power five opponent, the Spartans were imploding fast, and a good chunk of the blame rested on the defense’s shoulders. 

Fast forward a few weeks and Michigan State has won two of its last three, now at 4-5 on the season — not great, but better.

Perhaps most importantly, the defense is no longer losing games for MSU. For all the bashing that Hazelton took through the first half of the season, the defensive coordinator has made legitimate changes and has some of the younger, less experienced players on the team playing solid ball.

“I think it's some of the experience that the guys got earlier in the season,” Hazelton said about the unit's improvement. “Getting a couple guys back always helps too.”

Of all of the reasons for the defense's recent upward trajectory, the most obvious has to be the return of some essential starters. Topping that list is fifth-year senior safety Xavier Henderson

Out for multiple weeks after suffering an injury against Western Michigan Week 1, Henderson’s presence was desperately missed in the secondary. He’s not just a great talent, he’s also a key leader that facilitates communication in the backfield. 

The return of redshirt senior defensive tackle Jacob Slade has also been a major boom for a unit that has faced plenty of attrition all year. 

“When Slade got back and when X (Henderson) came back, you can start to see more productivity, defensively, overall,” Head Coach Mel Tucker said.

Slade hasn’t been the only one that has missed time along the defensive line. In fact, the unit was so banged up heading into last Saturday’s matchup against Illinois that defensive tackles and underclassmen made up a majority of the line. Despite being thrown into such an uncomfortable situation, the Spartan defenders performed admirably. 

“Right now, we’ve got some guys that usually play D-tackle and nose tackle playing D-ends, and they’re doing a really good job,” fifth-year senior linebacker Aaron Brule said. 

After making just one appearance in 2021, redshirt sophomore defensive end Avery Dunn took a good number of snaps against the Illini, racking up three tackles, a TFL and a quarterback hurry. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Derrick Harmon also produced in a more featured role on the defensive line, notching three tackles, .5 sacks and .5 TFLs.

To make matters worse for a defense already struck by injury, eight defensive players were suspended following the fight in Michigan’s tunnel. Two of the most painful losses were junior safety Angelo Grose and star senior linebacker Jacoby Windmon, both regular members of the lineup (Grose played a hefty number of snaps while Henderson was injured). Despite that added trouble, MSU’s defense stood tall against the Illini. 

“It was great to see how the guys responded to that,” Hazelton said. “They did a good job embracing the adversity.”

With plenty of snaps played prior to Saturday’s game against Illinois, the Spartans’ depth players were ready to answer the call and fill-in the bevy of missing players. 

“There is a learning curve for those young men who played a lot early, and as they get more reps they continue to get better,” Hazelton said. “They understand what we’re doing and what they’re supposed to be doing, and how to communicate.”

Freshman safety Jaden Mangham is one such player that benefitted from plenty of reps earlier in the season. After Henderson was hurt against WMU, Mangham was part of a rotation that attempted to fill his spot in the secondary.

“Mangham’s got a bit of experience as a true freshman” Hazelton said. “He’s out there making plays for us and showing what he can do now.”

He finished with three tackles (one solo) against the Fighting Illini. 

It wasn’t just underclassmen that showed up against Illinois. Perhaps the best example of a depth player stepping up when called upon was Brule. Without Windmon in the lineup, the Mississippi State transfer took significantly more snaps, with very positive results. He finished with five tackles, a sack and 1.5 TFLs. 

“Brule’s been getting better the entire season,” Hazelton said. “When he’s in he’s made some plays. He’s earned the right to get more snaps.”

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The Spartans’ improvement on defense isn’t just a result of improved depth/youth players or getting back the likes of Slade and Henderson, although one could argue that those are the biggest reasons. Hazelton has made schematic changes in last few weeks.

Last week, MSU played dime on 22.6% of its defensive snaps. Before that, the Spartans hadn't played dime all year until utilizing it 3.8% of the time versus Michigan. With more reps and experience across the roster, MSU’s defensive coordinator seems more comfortable with unique looks on defense. 

“What we are now is different from what we were at the beginning of the season because a lot of those guys got a lot of reps and got experience,” Hazelton said.

With all that being said, Michigan State’s defense is still not great. Giving up 426.7 yards per game (tied for 105th in FBS), the unit still has major issues giving up chunk yardage and letting opposing teams grind out drives and control possession. MSU still ranks outside the top 100 in both opposing passing yards and third down defense amongst FBS teams (103 and 110, respectively). The rushing defense is also subpar, sitting at 94. 

However, after an abysmal first few weeks, it's important to see that the defense hasn’t collapsed entirely. It’s finally showing signs of life. And there’s one area where the defense is actually quite good: red zone defense. 

As it stands, Michigan State’s red zone defense ranks 45th in college, letting opponents come away with points just over 80 percent of the time. “Bend don’t break” sounds a bit like some basic football jargon, but it is truly an apt description of what MSU’s defense has been doing of late.

“We have a lot of confidence in our red zone defense,” Brule said. “First out, we don’t want to let them down there. But if we do, we do expect to come off the field with a field goal or less.”

More than three-quarters of the way through the season, it’s clear that Michigan State will not come close to the heights it reached last season. However, making a push to a bowl game after such a horrid start would mean something, even if it doesn’t match fan or preseason expectations.

“We’ve still got games to win, and we want to finish this season very strong,” Brule said.

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