For someone who might not know much about Mark Dantonio’s football pedigree, it wouldn’t take long to figure out where his heart lies.
“I like stopping people,” the Michigan State coach said. “There’s no question about that.”
Of course he does. As a player, Dantonio was a defensive back, and as he began his coaching career it was almost always on the defensive side of the ball. He moved his way up the ranks working in the secondary at places like Akron, Youngstown State, Kansas and Michigan State under Nick Saban before becoming the defensive coordinator at Ohio State in 2001, helping the Buckeyes to a national championship in 2002.
That led to his first head coaching job at Cincinnati followed by the move to Michigan State before the 2007 season. Now, entering his 13th season leading the Spartans, there’s a clear identity to his teams — they’re gonna make life miserable for opposing offenses.
“I think you play to your strengths,” Dantonio said, “and right now that’s a strength of ours so that needs to be as good as it’s been.”
There’s little argument the strength of the Spartans heading into 2019 is its defense. Last season, Michigan State led the nation in rushing defense, allowing only 77.9 yards a game on the ground. The Spartans also ranked No. 8 in scoring defense (17.2 points per game) and 10th in total defense (303.2 yards per game).
But ask anyone on the defense — from Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the year Kenny Willekes to All-Big Ten first-team linebacker Joe Bachie — if those numbers will be good enough this season and the conclusion is clear.
“You know, if you sit back and appreciate what you've done too much, then you get complacent,” said Willekes, who had 20.5 tackles for loss in 2018. “That’s not who I am as a person. We went 7-6 last year. So the journey has been fun, but at the end of the day, we have goals as a team. Those are my most important goals. That's what I'm focused on right now, getting back to winning the Big Ten championship.”
To do that it’s clear, Michigan State’s offense needs to take a significant leap from last season when it ranked among the worst in the nation in scoring.
But the defense isn’t shirking its responsibility. The Spartans ranked 62nd in the nation in passing defense last season and they know they need to do a better job getting after the quarterback, finishing last season with 28 sacks. Improving on that number, they believe, leads to more turnovers and more points.
“We can get a little more pressure on the quarterback,” Bachie said. “I can see our defense taking off that way, that's going to create a couple more turnovers. We always talk about turnovers and we want to be game changers. We want to take one the other way for six, we want to score defensively. … I think if we can get one or two of those early in the year, maybe a snowball effect can happen.”
When that snowball is rolling, opponents get overwhelmed.
While the Spartans have consistently performed under Dantonio, no defense overwhelmed quite like the 2013 team. That year, the Spartans ranked in the top three in the nation in four categories, checking in at No. 2 in rushing and total defense and third in scoring defense and passing defense.
The Spartans believe they have what it takes this season to match that.
“Those are the guys that came before us, guys that we look up to,” Willekes said. “We watch the film on those guys, we strive to do that. When you have big shoes to fill from guys that came before you that were dominant, you got to live up to their legacy.”
Whether the defense takes that leap remains to be seen, but Dantonio knows if it doesn’t it won’t be for lack of effort.
“I like our guys because they get their hands dirty,” he said. “They’re not satisfied with where they’re at.”
Does that mean this defense is among Dantonio’s best?
“That’s what the statistics would say,” Dantonio said. “I think a lot of it depends on can you stay healthy and how you go through the process. I don’t ever anoint a defense at the beginning of the season, but if you look at last year’s defense, I think we were as good as any defense we’ve had.”
Only three starters are being replaced from last season and nearly everyone likely to take over has had extensive experience. Josh Butler is a fifth-year senior taking over for Justin Layne at cornerback while fifth-year senior Tyriq Thompson and juniors Brandon Bouyer-Randle and Antjuan Simmons are back at outside linebacker in place of Andrew Dowell. At safety, highly regarded Xavier Henderson will likely step in for Khari Willis.
That experience has the Spartans expecting big things.
“I can't wait to see this,” defensive tackle Raequan Williams said. “We just we have so much like chemistry with each other and means everything. We all went through the fire together, so it isn’t like one of us don't know how it feels to not know what's going on or something like that.”
It all adds up to Michigan State’s 2019 defense potentially being on the verge of doing something Bachie called “special.”
“We want to leave our mark on something,” Bachie said. “We want to be one of the better defenses that ever came through Michigan State and we want to be talked about years down the road about how good we were. Those are always the goals and aspirations for almost every team, but we believe we can really achieve that and try and go win a Big Ten championship this year.”