Joe Bachie, Kenny Willekes and Raequan Williams talk about the 2019 season David Guralnick, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Michigan State’s defense was struggling in practice, giving up yardage, uncharacteristically retreating. And Joe Bachie, the star senior linebacker, was loving it.
“The offense was scoring on us, driving the ball on us, which is a great thing to see,” Bachie said. “Not for us, obviously, but for them, to get their confidence back up. (Brian Lewerke) is healthy, you can see the ball comes out of his hand differently, he’s got that zip on it, good spin.”
Hopefully for the Spartans, that’s more than just spin. We know how good this defense can be, perhaps as good as any in the country, good enough to keep them in every game. But no defense is good enough to carry a broken offense, which is why Michigan State went 7-6 last year, which is why any glimmer of improvement is greeted with cheers, and optimism is percolating again.
The offense has to be better, obviously, ranked 116th in total yards last season, and the improvement must come from within. Mark Dantonio shook up his staff, moved Brad Salem to offensive coordinator, and returns nine starters, including most of the injury-ravaged offensive line. Lewerke’s right shoulder appears to be healed, and so might his confidence. We shall see, as even Dantonio described his offense with one cryptic phrase: “It will be a question.”
Here’s the flip side, maybe the unfair side: Somehow, the defense has to be even better. It returns eight starters to a group that led the nation against the run and was No. 10 overall. It’s loaded with talent and experience, with seven senior starters, led by Bachie and defensive end Kenny Willekes.
As dominant as Michigan State’s defense was, it recorded only 28 sacks, 63rd in the country. It posted a scant turnover margin of plus-one. It wrecked opposing run games but didn’t wreak its trademark havoc on quarterbacks. And in the early days of training camp, that is precisely the focus — to stir (stuff) up again.
“Look back at the big years Michigan State has had, we were plus big-time in turnover margin,” Bachie said. “That’s what we gotta improve. Maybe get a couple of scores on defense. I think we’ve had one the past two years, and that was against Bowling Green (in the 2017 opener). So it’s time for us to get another score, that’s for sure.”
'One of the best'
That’s one emphasis, and coordinator Mike Tressel talked about getting more players to the ball to increase the chances of a fumble recovery. Turnover margin is partly due to happenstance, but when the Spartans were dominating from 2013-15, they were plus-13, plus-19 and plus-14, and guys like Shilique Calhoun were returning fumbles for touchdowns.
Willekes is the prime candidate to do that, leading the team with 8.5 sacks last season and topping the Big Ten with 20.5 tackles for loss. The defensive line — Willekes, Raequan Williams, Mike Panasiuk, Jacub Panasiuk — prides itself on stuffing the run, but might have to surrender some of that turf to get after the quarterback.
Jacub Panasiuk lost 15 pounds for the expressed purpose of gaining explosiveness.
“Going out there and not being in shape, you can’t go four or five plays at 100 percent, you start at 100 and slowly go down,” Jacub said. “I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to play the run as well at 245 (pounds), but that hasn’t changed. Improving my pass rush is my key point to work on.”
And like most members of the defense, he looks to Willekes, a former walk-on who blossomed into an All-American. “Blossomed” actually isn’t the right word because that makes it sound like it happened naturally, not through maniacal work.
“Kenny’s become such a good pass rusher, it’s scary right now,” Jacub Panasiuk said. “He sets a standard for the rest of our D-line, and everybody wants to not only become a Kenny — who doesn’t want to be Kenny Willekes? — but we’re just all trying to get up to his level of play. I believe we can be one of the best D-lines in the country, but if we come out thinking that, it can definitely go in the wrong direction if we’re just too confident.”
Maybe that’s why it was good to see Lewerke, the senior quarterback coming off a woeful, injury-riddled season, and the offense have some success in practice. Hunger and humility do not have to be mutually exclusive, and the Spartans aren’t shy about their stated goal, to be the No. 1 overall defense.
It’s a lofty ambition generally reserved for powers such as Clemson and Alabama, but in the Big Ten, with few returning starting quarterbacks, there’s hay to be made.
“We’re trying to be the No. 1 defense in the country, that’s our goal each and every day, we talk about it, we work at it,” Willekes said. “There are areas we can improve. Our pass rush up front wasn’t good enough, me included.”
Willekes can be one of the best speed rush guys in the country, and is fully recovered from a broken leg suffered in the Redbox Bowl. The defense lost three starters — Justin Layne, Andrew Dowell and Khari Willis — but was buoyed by the return of Williams, who could’ve opted for the NFL. After missing the first half of last season due to injury, Josiah Scott was dominant, and along with Josh Butler, gives the Spartans a terrific cornerback tandem.
Bachie led the team with 102 tackles but all the gaudy numbers — 77.9 rushing yards allowed per game — don’t mean nearly as much as the nagging one the Spartans are trying to fix.
“Oh God, I can’t wait to get rid of that number,” Bachie said. “(Going) 7-6 for a Michigan State team is very, very underachieving. We gotta get back to winning 10, 11, 12, potentially 13 games. That’s where we want to be at the end of the year. We got big goals, big standards.”
Big opportunities, big challenges, big games on the road. And lots of returning starters, 17 on offense and defense, among the most in the nation.
Because the defense is so good, 10-2 seems reasonable. Because the offense is so uncertain, 8-4 seems reasonable. If one unit can rise without the other slipping, anything is reasonable for these Spartans.