Michigan State tackle duo keeping offenses bottled up together
East Lansing — While the Michigan State offensive line needs improvement at the point of attack, the defensive interior has found a way to push it.
Push it real good.
With a nod to their namesake 1990s hip-hop all-girl trio, a pair of Michigan State junior defensive tackles from Illinois — nicknamed by teammates “Salt and Pepper” — are making things difficult for opposing offenses.
Raequan Williams of Chicago's west side and Mike Panasiuk of the Windy City’s western suburb of Roselle are anchors of an MSU defense that leads Football Bowl Subdivision in rush defense, but faces a tough test Saturday at No. 8 Penn State (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten).
Like most things throughout the week, Williams and Panasiuk will take it on together.
“When they walk in, they’re together. When they sit down at the table in the meeting room, they’re together. When they’re out after practice, they’re together,” defensive line coach Ron Burton said Wednesday. “We enjoy that.”
Penn State’s rush attack, led by running back Miles Sanders and quarterback Trace McSorley, ranks second in the Big Ten and 12th in FBS at 261.2 yards per game. The Spartans are allowing 33.8 yards per game on the ground.
McSorley, in particular, brings a multi-faceted challenge to the Spartans (3-2, 1-1) in the homecoming game at Beaver Stadium.
The senior has gained 9,727 yards of total offense in his career (11th in Big Ten history) after netting 461 yards in 27-26 loss to Ohio State on Sept. 29 before a bye week.
“McSorley is really a triple threat out there,” Burton said of the quarterback, who had a career-high 175 rushing yards against the Buckeyes in first-year offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne’s run-pass option system.
Williams and Panasiuk helped contribute to containing Nittany Lions star running back Saquon Barkley to 63 yards last season in the Spartans' 27-24 victory.
This year, the juniors have added strength to bottle up opposing offenses, Burton said.
“Everybody wants to develop the finesse game, but the game is truly with the power inside,” said Burton, who started 15 games at linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys in 1988, part of a four-year NFL career. “I think that’s what’s been more consistent with those two guys is the use of their hands and playing with power regardless of run or pass.”
Williams has six tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks and threepasses defended this season. Panasiuk has added three tackles for loss, a half-sack and an interception.
Offensive line coach Mark Staten can just look at the setting of his unit’s meetings for evidence of Michigan State’s injury concerns.
“When you’re having your position meetings in the training room, it’s not a good sign,” Staten said. “We get a guy back this week, but we lose a guy.”
On Saturday, the MSU line will be without guard David Beedle (left arm), while guard Kevin Jarvis is listed as questionable (ankle) after missing two straight games. Junior left tackle Cole Chewins has been limited all season but is listed as the starter for Saturday.
Junior Tyler Higby, who has played left tackle, is now listed on the depth chart as the starting left guard, replacing Beedle.
The Spartans have used five different starting combinations on the line this season and will employ a sixth Saturday.
The line could not help running back Connor Heyward convert a fourth-and-one from the MSU 11-yard line late in Saturday’s 29-19 loss to Northwestern.
“What happened with that is we just didn’t get the push that we needed,” Staten said. “Because of Beedle being out, we had to make a change, and we didn’t get the point of attack push on the kick, we didn’t get the drive we needed and it didn’t work like it has in the past.”
Other key contributors out with injuries include senior running back LJ Scott (ankle), who has missed three straight games with an ankle injury; sophomore wide receiver Cody White (hand); and sophomore cornerback Josiah Scott (knee), who hasn’t played this season.
The Land Grant Trophy is at stake between the pioneer land-grant institutions.
Michigan State has the trophy after last season’s 27-24 victory on a Matt Coghlin field goal at the buzzer, pulling ahead in the series lead, 16-15-1.
Both schools were founded in 1855 and were prototypes for which the land-grand system was patterned.
Matt Schoch is a freelance writer.