Michigan State still smarting from defensive drop

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is adamant — his defensive scheme and personnel are just fine.

While last weekend's loss to Ohio State was far from a perfect night, it's been hard to argue the success Michigan State has had. Entering this season, the Spartans were a top-six defense three straight seasons and entered last weekend in the top 10 in the nation.

But 568 yards and 49 points later, questions are being asked and being magnified as Michigan State's other loss (46-27 at Oregon) was another struggle.

"Our kids have confidence in what we do," Narduzzi said. "We have got to make plays, and that is what it comes down to."

The loss to the Buckeyes was one of the few times Narduzzi's defense found itself unable to make plays. There were stretches against Oregon where Michigan State played well defensively, but that didn't happen at any point against Ohio State.

And while the secondary took plenty of heat for some of the big plays it allowed, many issues started up front.

"When it came down to defending the pass, it all comes down to the D-line because it starts up front," defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. "If we can get home faster, there is less opportunity for them to get the ball. We have to shed our blocks and make more opportunity for our linebackers to come downhill and make plays."

Calhoun managed half a sack, but most of the pressure from the front came in the first quarter. After that, the Ohio State offensive line was in control.

It wasn't something defensive line coach Ron Burton, in his second season, was used to seeing.

"Our guys have to be consistent," Burton said. "You can't be one play on and one play off. You have to do it consistently throughout the game. That's what it's all about. You want a consistent defensive line because of their offensive line and we wanted to play that way.

"You're surprised with those things, but you find out what was the weakness, what happened, and make the change and go from there."

Burton said there were issues with gap assignments as well as technique and he even suggested the defensive linemen could have used more rest. The Spartans typically rotate players up front regularly, but this season, Calhoun and Marcus Rush have rarely come of the field while tackles Joel Heath and Lawrence Thomas have played the bulk of the snaps.

Calhoun, however, said he never felt winded and the idea of moving in younger players along the line now that it appears a shot at the conference championship is lost isn't necessarily the next step.

"When you try to prepare for championship-type games, you want to get your best four out there and go as long as you can," Narduzzi said. "That's always been our philosophy and if I'm Shilique Calhoun, I don't want to come off the field and we don't want to take him off field. Your top four are better than your top eight."

That doesn't mean other players won't get a shot the next three weeks, starting Saturday at Maryland. Redshirt freshman Demetrius Cooper could see more snaps at end while junior Damon Knox and freshman Malik McDowell continue to push at tackle.

Coach Mark Dantonio praised McDowell for his play against Ohio State, and Burton agreed.

"He did some good things the three series that he played," Burton said. "Very consistent in the last one that he was in. Definitely he improved."

Regardless of which players see the bulk of the playing time, however, Burton is convinced they'll get back on track.

"You want them to respond," he said. "It's all about trying to win. That's what we're working on. They've always been good at that and that's what we're expecting to do in getting ready for Maryland. We want to go out and win and consistently they have responded."

Michigan State at Maryland

Kickoff: 8 p.m. Saturday, Byrd Stadium, College Park, Maryland

TV/radio: Big Ten/WJR

Records: No. 12 Michigan State 7-2 (4-1 Big Ten), Maryland 6-3 (3-2)

Line: Michigan State by 12

Did you know? It's the first meeting between the teams since 1950 (Maryland 34-7)