Spartans' mission: Corral Indiana gunslinger Lagow
East Lansing — To say Michigan State will have its hands full Saturday at Indiana might be an understatement, specifically for the defense.
The Spartans will be short-handed, missing at least junior linebacker Jon Reschke (ankle) and possibly fifth-year senior linebacker Riley Bullough (shoulder). And trying to contain the second-rated offense in the Big Ten will be challenge — even at full strength.
The Hoosiers are averaging 516.7 yards per game, 334 passing. They’ll play up-tempo, challenging the depth of each team they play, and it’s been difficult for the Spartans to handle over the years, including in 2015 when a late barrage turned a tight game into a 52-26 blowout.
Junior college transfer Richard Lagow is at the helm, and he leads the Big Ten in passing yards and is second in passing efficiency (158.7).
“He makes it happen,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “He’s a big, tall guy. He throws the ball very well. They’re the same football team they’ve been in terms of asking him what to do.
“(Indiana coach) Kevin Wilson has a very good system. It’s a very well-run system. He’s had a lot of success with it. He plays within the system. I think that’s what all great football players do, play in the system.”
No. 17 Michigan State (2-1, 0-1 Big Ten) will have a better chance of handling that system if it can create some sort of pass rush. Through three games, the Spartans have five sacks and are well off the pace of last year’s 37.
Some changes have been made up front with freshmen defensive ends Josh King and Auston Robertson playing last week, but the Spartans still are expecting more from every player along the defensive line.
“How you generate pressure is continue to beat one-on-ones,” defensive line coach Ron Burton said. “That is the key to the game and that opportunity presents itself to all of the defensive linemen as well as the linebackers. That’s a part of the game on a weekly basis, you winning your one-on-ones and that’s how you generate pressure and you got to take that as an individual.”
One player who is getting more attention than most is junior defensive tackle Malik McDowell. Facing nearly constant double-teams, McDowell has eight tackles, 11/2 for loss.
“When you’re a good player you’re going to attract attention,” Dantonio said. “Just got to stay the course. He’s playing extremely hard. Just keep making plays, keep playing.”
McDowell insists he’s not letting it all frustrate him.
“That comes with football,” McDowell said. “You want that tag as one of the best defensive linemen, you’ve got to be willing and know the double-teams and triple-teams are coming.”
Getting some help for McDowell could alleviate some of that attention.
King and Robertson are a move the Spartans hope addresses that. They however, also need more from players like Demetrius Cooper and Gabe Sherrod on the end and Raequan Williams and Kevin Williams inside. As linebacker Ed Davis works toward 100 percent, he can add an element to the pass rush as well.
They’ll also keep moving McDowell around, putting him on the end and adjusting where he lines up each play.
“We are going to continue it as you’ve seen the last three weeks,” Burton said. “He has the ability to play inside and out and he continues to disrupt guys and has the ability to attack all offensive linemen. That’s the key thing for us, so he has the ability to play against each and every one of the offensive linemen, and then one-on-ones.”
Pressure isn’t the only issue for the Spartans defense.
Staying fresh will be as important as anything against an Indiana team that won’t waste any time getting the snap off.
“They come fast,” Dantonio said. “You don’t know whether they’re snapping the ball in 12 seconds or 30, but they’ll be prepared to snap it in 12. Substitutions, playing fresh, staying focused, that’s the name of the game.”
Burton said the defensive line could play as many as 12 players while the defensive backs will be rotated significantly, as well. The linebackers will be tested most, especially considering the injuries at that position.
It’s nothing new to the players who’ve been around, but it will be a rude awakening for some of the younger players.
“They’re gonna get ready (fast),” Jones said. “Game experience, that is the only way to really explain it if you’ve never been in there. They’ve never been to Oregon or never played against Indiana, but once the game starts and they’re in, they’re gonna be in the groove of things. It’s definitely a learning experience for them and we just make sure we bring them along.”