Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo, Angelique S. Chengelis and Matt Charboneau talk about Michigan State's win over Michigan and what's ahead for each team. Detroit News
East Lansing — As Michigan State was busy becoming a perennial Big Ten contender over the last handful of seasons, there was one constant — the Spartans were always a good defensive team.
In some seasons they weren’t good, they were great. From getting after the quarterback to stuffing the run and creating turnovers, Michigan State was a defense that made life uncomfortable for opposing offenses in the Big Ten and beyond.
Then 2016 happened. And in a season where not much went right, it was the defense that struggled mightily. The Spartans were in the bottom half of the conference in several defensive categories and none stood out more than the 11 sacks, 10 fewer than the next closest team in the Big Ten.
But fast forward to 2017 and five games in, the Michigan State defense looks a lot more like a Michigan State defense. The Spartans are second in the nation in passing efficiency defense and fourth in total defense. The turnover margin has flipped in the last two weeks – seven forced turnovers to none for the offense – and the sack numbers are way up as Michigan State has 13 sacks through five games, notching four on two different occasions.
Why the turnaround? Coach Mark Dantonio believes it’s simple – fundamentals.
“When I go and watch or self-scout ourselves, I watch ourselves play against these five teams we played against, I see what I would call clinic quality tape, which is just like you draw it up, just like you want it,” Dantonio said. “I see people playing square, being in a good football position, being in a dominant position, basically winning their respective challenges up front. The linebackers playing square, secondary supporting.
“I see guys running the football and see the way it's drawn up on the board. That's a tribute to our coaches, like I said before, how hard we're playing, what we're trying to do. Our players are trying to do what they're coached to do.”
They’ve been doing it nearly every week this season, even in the lone loss to Notre Dame when 21 Irish points came off three Michigan State turnovers, one an interception returned for a touchdown.
And as No. 21 Michigan State (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten) gets set to take on Minnesota on Saturday night, it’s the fundamentals that are pushing the defense. That and the fact none of the Spartans want to be the one singled out during film sessions.
“It's a total unit thing,” co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “We need all 11 to execute. We put on the film, guys don't want to be the one not executing. When things happen, we say ‘Is it them, or is it us? Is it them making a play or did we just screw up?’ Nobody wants to be that guy. We've really been focused on that. Everybody's doing their part, their job, trusting the defense, trusting each other, and we're able to get the job done.”
While the sack number have jumped and Michigan State remains one of the best in the country against the run – the Spartans are allowing 97.2 yards a game, 12th-best in the nation – it’s the turnovers that have really helped in the last two games.
Before Big Ten play began, the Spartans had just two turnovers on a pair of interceptions. But they had an interception and recovered a fumble in the win over Iowa before getting three interceptions and two fumble recoveries last week against Michigan.
“It’s been a big thing for us focusing on the turnovers,” junior linebacker Andrew Dowell said. “We’ve emphasized it more in practice, do a lot more drills to get overs and it’s paying off.”
Continuing that against Minnesota (3-2, 0-2) will be a challenge considering the Gophers have lost just six turnovers this season.
But the Spartans believe the overall improvement of the defense is helping to take the ball away.
“It’s very important. It’s critical to winning and is something we talk about all throughout camp, and coach D is always talking about it,” Barnett said of creating turnovers. “Sacks is another, third down efficiency, stopping the run. A lot of things we talk about constantly. We put lot of focus on it, and our guys are starting to make it happen.”
Minnesota will do its best to keep Michigan State from controlling the game defensively as the Gophers have protected the ball and allowed just one sack all season.
But the Spartans believe it starts with them, no matter the opponent.
“We've been talking all year, even before the season started, it's not about them, it's about us executing,” Barnett said. “If all 11 execute, then we give ourselves a chance to win. If all 11 execute each play -- not nine, not eight -- but all 11 every play, then we'll give ourselves a chance to win, regardless of who we're playing. We've been focusing on us as opposed to the opponent this year.”
Michigan State at Minnesota
Kickoff: 8 p.m. Saturday, TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
Records: Michigan State 4-1, 2-0 Big Ten; Minnesota 3-2, 0-2
Line: Michigan State by 4