East Lansing – For the better part of the last week, Michigan State’s offense has been poked and prodded, dissected by many and generally criticized.
It’s understandable after the Spartans’ performance in their season-opening victory, a 28-7 win over Tulsa when the offense managed to score just one touchdown and failed, again, to control the line of scrimmage on its way to just 108 yards rushing.
What was nearly lost in that victory Friday night at Spartan Stadium was the fact Michigan State’s defense, expected to be among the best in the country, proved to be just that.
Yes, Michigan State was a facing a Tulsa team picked to finish in the bottom half of the American Athletic Conference, but the level of domination was still impressive. There were three forced turnovers, 13 tackles for loss and six sacks. Michigan State also scored a defensive touchdown and forced a safety while holding Tulsa to a school-record minus-73 yards rushing with minus-1 coming from the two running backs.
Dominating. There was no other way to describe it.
“I think our defense played outstanding,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “A lot of takeaways, very difficult to run the ball on, very difficult to pass the ball on, really covered all the bases.
“We had nine three-and-outs, seven sacks, took the ball away from them three times, blocked a punt, safety in addition to that, scored a touchdown. All you could ask for. So they played outstanding.”
Hard to figure out what more a defense could do.
Of course, if you ask defensive coordinator Mike Tressel, you soon find out why he’s been so successful, both as a co-coordinator for three seasons with Harlon Barnett, and running the show himself beginning last season.
“At the end of the first half,” Tressel says without hesitation. “We have a third-down stop and get a late hit on the quarterback. We give them an extra set of downs, and have two more pass interference penalties on the top of that. So multiple penalties in the same drive result in points.”
Forget that they were the only points of the game Michigan State allowed and it was the only time Tulsa managed to move the ball past the 50-yard line.
None of that means much when your goal is to be the best defense in the country. So, when defensive end Kenny Willekes was flagged for hitting the quarterback late on a third-and-8 throw that was incomplete and cornerback Josh Butler was hit with two pass interference calls, Tressel was quick to jump on the opportunity.
“The big thing about that is they get the ball back to start the second half and have an opportunity to double dip,” Tressel said. “It could have all of a sudden gone from a 25-0 game to a 25-14 game and we are reeling. Because of a stupid play, we gave them an opportunity to double dip and really make it a new game.”
The stupid play was from Willekes, and after the game he was upset with himself for the mistake. As for Butler’s calls, one was on an underthrown ball and the touchdown pass was a well-thrown ball into tight coverage.
“He really recovered and got in position to make plays on the ball,” Tressel said. “On the second one, he needs to get his eyes back so he can make a play on the ball. The first one was completely underthrown and inside and it was a little bit of an awkward situation. Sometimes, when they throw them up enough, they might make some plays.
“Again, as far as coachable moments, we need to play the deep ball better.”
Those coachable moments keep the defense from getting anywhere near complacent, something that will be necessary when No. 19 Michigan State hosts Western Michigan at 7:30 on Saturday night.
The Broncos have more weapons than Tulsa, led by senior quarterback Jon Wassink, who threw for five touchdowns last week, and senior running back LeVante Bellamy, who gained more than 1,200 rushing yards last season.
“They can run it, they can pass it,” senior linebacker Joe Bachie said. “As linebackers, they’re going to try to line us up against some of those tight ends they like to throw the ball to, so we’ve got to be ready for that. We prepared hard. It’s just another week. A good offense. (Wassink) is going to be efficient with the ball, so we’ve got to get some pressure on them.”
The pressure in the opener was what the Spartans were shooting for and something Tressel admitted he didn’t see during the moment, but appreciated once he watched the tape of the Tulsa win.
“One of our big goals was pressure on the quarterback and I knew we got after him a little bit, but when you watch the film, I started to realize how consistent that pressure was,” Tressel said. “I started to notice some of the other guys like Jacub Panasiuk or Antjuan (Simmons) as a new starter, how well they played.”
That pressure will be critical on Saturday, though it won’t be foreign to the Broncos. Wassink and Bellamy, along with a handful of other players on the Western Michigan offense, have been in this position having played the Spartans in 2017.
They kept that game close with Michigan State earning the 28-14 victory. If the Spartans defense has anything to say about, the final score won’t be as close this time.
“Obviously it’s good to be able to go back and watch the film of that game, see what we did wrong, what we did right,” Willekes said. “But that was two years ago. We all evolved as players on defense, and I’m sure they all evolved and got much better as well. It’s going to be a different game.”
Added Bachie, “It was a good matchup. It was a bunch of the same guys they had then, it’s a bunch of the same guys that we have right now. It’ll be another fun matchup; we’ve got to come ready to play.”
Michigan State vs. Western Michigan
Kickoff: Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
TV/radio: BTN/760 AM
Records: Both teams 1-0
Line: Michigan State by 17.5