Michigan State showing much-needed progress on the pass rush

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Stopping the run has never really been a problem at Michigan State.

What’s been missing the last couple of years, however, is any sort of consistent pass rush. After recording five sacks, officially, in last week’s victory at Indiana, the Spartans hope that aspect of the game is starting to look like it has in the past.

“We've stopped the run effectively,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said this week, listing off the things his team has done well. “We've tackled well. We're starting to pressure the quarterback more effectively.”

Michigan State's Andrew Dowell (5) and Kenny Willekes have been key in stepping up the Spartans' pass-rush game.

It’s been a point of emphasis for the Spartans ever since managing just 11 sacks two years ago as the season fell apart quickly and Michigan State finished with just three victories. There was a bit of a bounce-back last season as the Michigan State checked in with 28 sacks.

But the Spartans — who enter Saturday’s matchup against Central Michigan with nine sacks in three games — are seeking dominance, much like they have produced over the years. They had 45 sacks back in 2011 and had 32 in the Rose Bowl season of 2013. They recorded 42 sacks in 2014 and followed that with 37 in the playoff season of 2015.

“They say the best pass coverage is a pass rush, getting a sack,” junior defensive end Kenny Willekes said. “So it’s been a huge focus for us all off-season. Since Coach (Chuck) Bullough has been here, in the spring he helped us at the D-end position immensely. But just as a team, it’s been that we know we need to get more pressure on the quarterback and if we can do that it will make us an elite defense.”

If they get to that elite level, there’s no doubt the presence of defensive ends coach Chuck Bullough — the former Spartans linebacker in his first season on Dantonio’s staff — is making a difference. But having Willekes is vital.

The former walk-on has become one of the most disruptive linemen in the Big Ten. He earned third-team All-Big Ten honors last season as a sophomore by recording 14.5 tackles for loss, including seven sacks and has continued the production this season, recording five tackles for loss with three sacks.

The 6-foot-4, 260-pound Willekes is quick to credit Bullough.

More: View from the other side: Michigan State vs. Central Michigan

More: Detroit News predictions: Michigan State vs. Central Michigan

“Last year I was not very good with my get-off and I was stepping with the wrong foot sometimes,” Willekes said. “Coach Bullough has helped me enlarge my toolbelt he would say, a lot more pass rush moves and attacking more instead of last year I was pretty much running down the middle and putting my hands on guys and not doing much.”

Bullough understands he has something special, pointing out his exceptional flexibility while calling him the “one of the hardest-working players I’ve ever been around.”

The key for Bullough and defensive coordinator Mike Tressel is finding the other end. A shoulder injury has slowed sophomore Jacub Panasiuk while redshirt freshman Jack Camper, who got his first start last week, continues to transition from tight end.

“The whole group — my D-end group — is just a bunch of hard workers,” Bullough said. “It’s so easy to coach them. They always just work hard. They’re all capable. We just gotta figure out what situations to put them in as we go throughout the season.”

As important as the ends are in the pass rush, they’re not the only ones making a difference. Linebacker Andrew Dowell had two sacks last week while linebacker Brandon Bouyer-Randle moves into the end spot in Michigan State’ Delta package, the defense they use in passing situations.

Add in the penetration defensive tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk have been getting as well as backups Naquan Jones and Gerald Owens and the entire unit is creating pressure.

“Oh yeah, we got some big boys inside now,” Bullough said. “That always helps the defensive ends, because they can’t come out and double you. We all work together. And then they gotta go out and try to block Kenny, and that gives them a little bit more one-on-ones. So they play off each other.”

It helps that Michigan State is the No. 1 rushing defense in the nation, allowing just 32.7 yards a game. It helps the Spartans to make opponents one-dimensional and allows them to go after the quarterback when necessary.

“I feel like we have a brick wall up front with Raequan and Mike in the middle then our linebackers coming downhill and filling there’s not a lot of places to run the ball, so you’ve got to throw,” Willekes said. “That’s something we want to continue to build on. We want to stay No. 1 and we pride ourselves on. Being No. 1 now is a big deal, but we’ve got to continue to get better so we can stay there.”

Central Michigan at Michigan State

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV: FS1/760

Records: Central Michigan 1-3, Michigan State 2-1

Line: Michigan State by 29


Twitter: @mattcharboneau