Short-handed Michigan State defense flexes its muscle in Green-White game
East Lansing — The Michigan State defense wasn’t at full strength on Saturday, but that hardly meant they were not dominant.
That’s been the norm for the Spartans for the better part of the last 10 seasons and it was again in the annual Green and White game as the defense — the Green team — was in control much of the afternoon and beat the offense — the White team — 42-26 in a modified scoring system.
“I loved the way we performed,” fifth-year senior defensive tackle Raequan Williams said. “I loved the energy we brought to the spring game. I am very content with the way we played. I'm also excited about the young defensive tackles. They went out there and balled out. They had fun and looked good. It felt good to see them play like that as a veteran.”
The Spartans were without a pair of starters — fifth-year senior defensive end Kenny Willekes and junior linebacker Antjuan Simmons. Willekes is rehabbing from the broken leg he suffered in the Redbox Bowl and Simmons was among a couple of players that coach Mark Dantonio said were “nicked up.” But that did little to affect the Spartans on defense as they forced four turnovers — two interceptions and two fumbles.
The first interception came on an outstanding play from junior cornerback Josiah Scott. He went up and pulled a deep Brian Lewerke pass away from receiver Brandon Sowards, who didn’t get up to battle for the ball.
“I hope they continue to play like that,” Dantonio said of the defense that was 10th in the nation in total defense last season and No. 1 against the run. “We play a lot of press coverage, we play a lot of quarters coverage, and a lot of man coverage so that's not earth shattering, people know that about us. The windows are going to be tight to throw the ball into. I thought Josiah Scott made an outstanding play, really made a couple of outstanding plays.”
The Spartans added another interception late in the game when redshirt freshman defensive end Zach Slade picked off a screen pass thrown by Rocky Lombardi and returned it 44 yards.
“We practice screens a lot,” Slade said, “and I felt the tight end put some light pressure on me and I started dropping a little bit and the ball came right towards me.”
Senior linebackers Joe Bachie and Tyriq Thompson were solid for the first team, collecting six tackles each, while redshirt freshman linebacker Chase Kline led the Spartans with eight stops. Junior defensive end Jacub Panasiuk added seven stops while sophomore cornerback Shakur Brown had three pass breakups.
“It was good,” Bachie said of the defense’s performance. “It was good to see our young guys in at the end of the game, that's been one of our goals all spring and for this year, so it was good to see some young guys step up a little bit. We had a couple guys get dinged up a little bit, so that's always tough to see in a spring game, but they're going to be alright. Overall, I think the defense played well.”
Backfield in transition
With LJ Scott off to the NFL, the running back battle seems to be open for the Spartans, even with leading rusher Connor Heyward back for his junior season.
Heyward was one of five backs who got seven or more carries on Saturday. He ran it seven times for 24 yards and caught a screen pass that he took 50 yards for a touchdown.
“Spring is the time for everybody to get better,” Heyward said. “This spring was a little different with the offensive changes, different offensive schemes and terminologies. I think this spring was helpful not only just the running backs, but the whole offense.”
True freshman Anthony Williams carried nine times for 26 yards while sophomore La’Darius Jefferson had nine attempts for 24 yards. redshirt freshman Elijah Collins had seven carries for 23 yards while sophomore Weston Bridges gained 17 yards on seven carries.
“I think one of things we want to look at is who can we hand the ball off to 200 times,” Dantonio said. “Who is that person? I keep asking that question as I go. You see some spurts from different guys. I think Anthony Williams gives you a guy who reminds me a little of Jeremy Langford. I thought Connor Heyward hit a big one on the screen, no question he can catch the football. I think Elijah Collins has done some things, I think La'Darius is a big powerful back, Weston got in there some too.
“Again, I think that's a work in progress to be quite honest with you. They've had good moments and we've run the ball more effectively this spring.”
In addition to playing without Willekes and Simmons, sophomore defensive end Jack Camper and redshirt freshman linebacker Edward Warriner were not dressed and did not play. Junior wide receiver Cam Chambers and fifth-year senior left tackle Cole Chewins were dressed but did not play.
Outside of Willekes, Warriner and Camper, who each had been out for most of the spring, Dantonio said the others were “nicked up.”
During the game, junior linebacker Dante Razzano broke his arm and redshirt freshman Jeslord Boateng, who started in place of Simmons, suffered a leg injury, though Dantonio said Boateng “should be OK.”
With Chewins held out, junior AJ Arcuri started at left tackle. He was joined on the offensive line by fifth-year senior Tyler Higby at left guard, junior Matt Allen at center, junior Kevin Jarvis at right guard and junior Jordan Reid at right tackle.
Junior Luke Campbell saw time at both tackle and guard while sophomore Blake Bueter also got plenty of snaps at center as the Spartans try to take a big step on the offensive line.
… Junior Drew Beesley started in place of Willekes at defensive end.
… Fifth-year senior Josh Butler started at corner as he continues to lock down the spot left open by Justin Layne, who left for the NFL. Redshirt freshman Kalon Gervin flashed at times, too, while Brown also played well.
… Sophomore Xavier Henderson started at safety, proving he’s taking over for the graduated Khari Willis.