'They're never satisfied': Michigan State's defense driven to be great

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Back when Pat Narduzzi was the defensive coordinator at Michigan State he’d often dust off one of his favorite sports clichés.

“Stats are for losers,” he’d say.

He used it during the early days under Mark Dantonio when the Spartans were building the foundation of their defense and giving up their share of points and yards, and he used it later in his tenure in East Lansing when Michigan State had become one of the best defensive teams in the country.

It didn’t matter to Narduzzi. All that mattered was the result.

To an extent, he was right. Numbers can be manipulated in all sorts of ways. Look at them one way and a .500 team looks great, maybe just a little unlucky. Look at them another and cracks can be found all around an undefeated team.

But sometimes, the numbers simply become too hard to ignore. Try as you might to discount them, sometimes they’re the perfect barometer to how a team is playing.

More: MSU podcast 'Green Room' hosted by Matt Charboneau, Tony Paul

That might be exactly where Michigan State is now as a defense. While the offense has been stuck in the mud for the better part of the last three seasons, the defense continues to be among the best in all of college football.

The elite-level recruits are rare, yet Michigan State’s defensive numbers are just that — elite.

Last season, Michigan State led the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 77.9 yards a game. The Spartans also ranked in the top 10 in total defense and scoring defense, giving up a paltry 17.2 points a game. It was the sixth time under Dantonio the Spartans were among the top 10 in total and rushing defense and the fourth time they also checked in the top 10 in scoring defense.

Kenny Willekes is back to anchor a Michigan State defense that ranked in the top 10 in total defense and scoring defense last season.

Not bad. In fact, some might say great.

Unless you’re Joe Bachie.

“Last year we weren't a great defense, we were a good defense in a lot of aspects,” the senior middle linebacker said. “We had a chance to be great. If you look at our fourth quarters, we struggled a couple times and two games I know off the top of my head, so there's a lot of improvement for us just like the offense. But if we both pick up our game I think that we can be a championship team.”

That last sentence is what matters at Michigan State. It hasn’t been a championship team since 2015, a season before Bachie arrived on campus. It’s something he and his teammates intend to change in 2019, beginning with the season opener against Tulsa on Friday night.

To do that, the defense will need to be great. The fourth-quarter touchdowns will have to be stopped. The turnovers will have to increase, and the Spartans will have to pressure the quarterback.

“We're motivated to be the most dominant group up front,” defensive tackle Raequan Williams said. “We need to be dominant and that's the main goal for the season.”

Be dominant in all aspects and maybe, just maybe, Bachie starts buying this stuff about being great.

“We have to believe it because if we don't believe it, why should anyone else?” Bachie said, almost starting to convince himself. “We're going to come to work every day and we're not going to have ‘We're better than everyone else’ on our minds. We are just going to go out and play just like we have something to prove every day.”

A more Michigan State phrase has rarely been turned. After all, it’s the Spartans that have spent decades trying to prove they belong, and until Dantonio showed up, they rarely did. But once Dantonio took over in 2007, that all changed. It happened gradually, but three Big Ten championships have followed with a trip to the College Football Playoff included along with 10 more trips to bowl games.

Yet, the chip has never disappeared. And why would it? It’s proven to be the winning formula for the Spartans, and as it turns out, it’s also what drives this defense.

It’s a talented group, one that has at least four players — Bachie, Williams, defensive end Kenny Willekes and cornerback Josiah Scott — who are legitimate All-American candidates. Any one of them getting to that point will be an accomplishment as Michigan State hasn’t had a consensus All-American on defense since Darqueze Dennard in 2013.

But more than one All-American? It’s been more than 50 years since that happened. The last time more than one defensive player in a season earned that honor was 1966 when Bubba Smith and George Webster were all consensus All-Americans.

Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie (35) and cornerback Josiah Scott (22) both have a legitimate shot to earn All-American honors this season.

Could it happen this year? Maybe, but these guys haven’t put individual accolades first on the list.

“Success to me is getting to the Big Ten championship and winning it,” Bachie said.

To do that, the Spartans’ defense will need to be at its best, which would mean even better than last season. They’ve spent their share of time this offseason looking at past Michigan State defenses, namely the 2013 group that was top 10 in the four major defensive categories, produced two first-round picks at cornerback and on one afternoon held Michigan to -48 yards rushing.

“That was a focus point for me this summer,” Scott said. “Watching that (2013) defense and seeing how they play and comparing it to us and see how we can get back to that caliber defense, a championship type of team.

“They trusted each other each and every single play. Everyone knew their assignments; they knew the play faster so they could (destroy) it. They knew how to get after it. They knew how to make their opponents fear them.”

The Spartans have done well at striking that fear in opponents, especially the past two seasons as Bachie, Willekes, Williams and Scott played key roles. They allowed just 12 red-zone touchdowns last season, second-fewest in the nation, and eight starters last year earned All-Big Ten recognition.

But complacency doesn’t appear to be a problem.

“That's type of people they are, they're never satisfied,” defensive coordinator Mike Tressel said, recalling a practice early in preseason camp. “We had an inside period that didn't start as well as we wanted it to and Mike Panasiuk is (yelling), ‘We’re live! We're live! There’s only one speed at Michigan State on defense, and it's live!’ I was like, ‘Oh, (shoot).’ I mean, they’re those type of guys.”

Those types of guys know they can get better, but those types of guys also don’t care who’s getting the awards. They’re driven by a possible championship, something they also know only comes if they’re at their best.

“We talk about it each and every day,” Willekes said. “We're chasing a championship and we're trying to go back to Indianapolis, but we've got to win the East first obviously. It's a very stacked division. The Big Ten is, I think, one of the best conferences in college football so it's not going to be easy and we know that. We're trying to work each and every day to find the way to get us back to Indy.”

The way begins Friday night with a defense ready to be great.

“We know in the back of our head that we have a chance to do something special,” Bachie said.

Tulsa at Michigan State

Kickoff: 7 p.m. Friday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: FS1/760

Line: MSU by 23


Twitter: @mattcharboneau