Michigan State prepares for new quarterback, same approach in Arizona State rematch
East Lansing — There’s nowhere to run against the Michigan State defense.
It’s been a calling card of Spartans defenses for the better part of the last 10 years, and after leading the nation in rushing defense last season, No. 18 Michigan State is well on its way to doing it again in 2019. Through two games, the Spartans are allowing minus-3 yards a game on the ground.
In other words, teams are going the wrong way when running the ball. It’s something Arizona State is keenly aware of as it prepares for Saturday’s 4 p.m. kickoff Saturday with the Spartans.
“You are playing a big physical football team up front with seven veteran guys,” Arizona State coach Herm Edwards said. “They play in a conference where everything is contested. Every yard, every pass. They are a heavy-handed team, they play heavy football. They are athletic and play heavy.”
It’s not a great matchup for the Sun Devils. They have a talented, veteran running back in Eno Benjamin, but a young offensive line has yet to spring Benjamin in the first two weeks. Arizona State is averaging just 131 yards a game on the ground.
The equalizer for Arizona State (2-0) has been the play of freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels. In the opener against Kent State, Daniels threw for 284 yards and two touchdowns, and followed that with 304 yards passing and one touchdown against Sacramento State. He’s also run for a touchdown.
For a Michigan State defense that allowed 285 yards and a pair of passing touchdowns in last week’s victory over Western Michigan, corralling Arizona State’s young quarterback will be a focus.
“We know we are going to get challenged, with what we’ve done in stopping the run,” Michigan State defensive backs coach Paul Haynes said. “It’s a challenge that we have to accept. It’s a part of our world. That’s our job description.
“You look at Western Michigan’s game plan, you look at Tulsa’s game plan, you look at everybody’s game plan against us, they are going to challenge us on the edges.”
Both teams have had some success, though most of Western Michigan’s came late in the game when the result was no longer in doubt.
Fifth-year senior Josh Butler has been targeted a few times already, getting flagged for two pass interference penalties against Tulsa while allowing a touchdown pass and drawing another pass interference call in the Western Michigan game. But Haynes sees progress from Butler, who nearly had an interception last week.
“We never over-gripe about the pass interference calls,” Haynes said. “As long as you’re in position and you’re being aggressive, those things happen. … That can’t happen all the time, but he did learn from Week 1 to Week 2 because we knew we were going to get challenged a little bit.
“He had an opportunity for that interception, and he is coming along good.”
Arizona State will be sure to take its shots, as well. And with Daniels also showing the ability to run, it will put pressure on the Spartans’ secondary.
“You can’t take anybody for granted,” Butler said. “We just gotta make plays. He’s probably got his confidence and stuff like that, and he’s apparently got a real good arm. He’s out there for a reason. We gotta go out there and play him like any other quarterback.”
Relying on a young quarterback is a big shift for the Sun Devils. Last season, Manny Wilkins was at the helm. He was a three-year starter who finished his career with more than 8,600 passing yards and 52 touchdowns. He also had receiver N’Keal Harry at his disposal, a dynamic receiver who is now in the NFL.
But Daniels is proving to be a quick study, and it’s not like he doesn't have options. Kyle Williams is back at wide receiver after catching seven passes for 104 yards in last year’s game against Michigan State, and Benjamin is coming off a season in which he rushed for 1,642 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“They still have a lot of playmakers,” Haynes said. “They are talented at wideout. Benjamin is probably the best we have seen to date, as far as the things he can do with the ball in his hands. When you have an electric running back like Benjamin to hand it off to, or throw it to him quick out of the backfield, those are easy reads for him (Daniels) to sit there and do.”
Even with the change at quarterback, Haynes expects to see the same offensive approach from the Sun Devils as last year’s game.
In that matchup, the Spartans held Arizona State in check most of the game before 13 fourth-quarter points allowed the Sun Devils to rally for the win. Michigan State will look to avoid the letdown this time, while understanding what Arizona State will try and do.
“These guys are going to challenge us down the field,” Haynes said. “We know we have to make plays on the deep ball. Week-in and week-out, we stress our fundamentals and technique because that’s what it’s going to come down to.
“It’s not just deep balls, but tackling in space in those one-on-one situations. Getting the ball out quick takes the defensive line out of the game plan. We prepare for that all the time and I think we are going to get that all the time. We have to tackle well in space to stop the quick game. If you let a young quarterback just complete a lot of short passes, he gets comfortable.”