Behind Mark Dantonio's challenge, Michigan State defense pushes for perfection

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — As Merriam-Webster defines it, to be perfect is being entirely without fault or defect.

Few things in life ever achieve perfection, and in the game of football it’s nearly impossible.

Michigan State is third in the nation in total defense, and second in run defense.

Still, it’s what many strive for, including Michigan State’s defense.

“Be perfect,” coach Mark Dantonio said this week. “That's the challenge. Be perfect.”

It surely is the challenge and the Spartans are pushing for it on a weekly basis, including this week at Northwestern. And they’ve come close, allowing just seven points in two of the first three games this season while limiting Tulsa in the opener to a school-record minus-73 rushing yards.

However, as has been stated, perfection is rarely attainable. In last week’s loss at home to Arizona State, perfection was required from the defense as Michigan State’s offense managed to score only seven points. But on the game’s final drive, perfection eluded the Spartans, who gave up a 40-yard pass play when cornerback Josh Butler was beaten by Sun Devils receiver Brandon Aiyuk early in the drive and then allowed Arizona State to convert a fourth-and-13, before eventually scoring the winning touchdown with just 50 seconds to play.

Until that drive that began with 3:34 to play in the game, the Spartans had allowed just 148 yards and yielded only a field goal. But a stumble here and a missed assignment there, and the game changed.

“We gave up one deep ball,” Dantonio said. “One deep ball puts them down on the 25 and that's difficult to stomach because that's — may seem unfair, but, you know, you've got to play every play. … It’s a team game and you can't sit there and say, ‘What if?’ and ‘If only,’ because that separates people and we don't want to separate people. Ultimately, this is a team game. You win and lose together.

“But yeah, you've got to play perfect.”

It might seem like and odd expectation. Everyone knows it’s nearly impossible to play perfect. But the goal, of course, is to be as close as possible.

“It's not (realistic),” senior linebacker Joe Bachie said. “But everyone's gonna try to be perfect. You can't be perfect, but we’ve got to try and be great. We’ve got to be right up there. We know that we can very easily be that if we all come together, we all execute our jobs.”

More often, Michigan State (2-1) is executing defensively. Through three weeks, the Spartans are second in the nation in rushing defense, third in total defense and 12th in scoring defense. They’ve also forced six turnovers, sacked the quarterback 13 times and scored a touchdown.

But it’s the late breakdowns that hurt in the loss, something most teams can get away with. However, as the Michigan State offense continues to have a hard time putting points on the board, that shrinks the margin of error on the defense.

It might not seem fair, but it’s the reality.

Still, the defense isn’t pointing fingers, instead understanding it takes all facets of the game operating efficiently to be successful.

“It’s the ultimate team game,” Bachie said. “You need everyone the same. I don't know what else to say. You need the offense. You need the defense. You need special teams. You need to be perfect everywhere. You need to play well everywhere to be a good team, especially in the Big Ten Conference.”

Some help from the offense would help things. If the Spartans could do better than one touchdown on a consistent basis, the need for a perfect defense would not exist. As it is, Michigan State is 10th in the Big Ten in scoring, thanks to scoring 51 points in a win over Western Michigan in Week 2.

The offensive players see the same stats. They understand they need to pick it up to take some pressure off the defense.

“I mean, they played a perfect game basically until the last drive,” quarterback Brian Lewerke said of the defense’s performance against Arizona State. “That’s not their fault. They shouldn’t have to play a perfect game every time. And the offense has to play better. That’s kind of the story.”

It will be the story again when Michigan State heads to Northwestern (1-1) on Saturday for a noon kickoff. The Wildcats have had the Spartans’ number, winning three in a row as the defense has been far from perfect in those games. Northwestern scored 54 points in 2016, 39 in 2017 and 29 last season. But that hasn’t changed the defense’s quest for perfection.

“It’s not hard at all,” defensive tackle Raequan Williams said of the high expectations. “It’s actually exciting. It makes you want to be perfect. If you’re not striving to be perfect, then what are you striving for? I don’t know if it’s a realistic expectation, but we can strive to be the best we can.”

And is there any added pressure when the coach publicly demands perfection?

“No, definitely not because we got a bunch of winners on this side of the ball,” Williams said. “A bunch of guys that want to be the best they can be. It doesn't terrify us or scare us.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau