Spartans seek players who will 'scratch and claw' their way out of defensive decline

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Mark Dantonio didn’t shy away from it.

Neither did his assistant coaches, nor did his players.

Back before preseason camp began in early August, Michigan State believed big things were in store for the 2019 season.

Michigan State's defense gave up 467 yards of offense to Michigan in a 44-10 loss.

“We thought we'd have a special season,” Dantonio said. “But you have to deal with things as they are. That's what we'll do, that's what I'll do.”

What things are doesn’t resemble anything the Spartans had envisioned. Entering Saturday’s noon kickoff with Rutgers, Michigan State (4-6, 2-5 Big Ten) is looking for its first victory since the end of September and needs two wins in the final two games just to become bowl eligible.

Some of the offensive struggles have been predictable, but as Michigan State soon found itself in a five-game spiral, it was the defense that, surprisingly, was falling apart.

The strength of Michigan State’s team for the majority of Dantonio’s tenure, a defense that was described as “championship level” before the season began, was getting run of the field on a regular basis. It began with the late letdown in the loss to Arizona State and continued as the big boys in the conference began to push the Spartans around.

One after another — Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, Michigan – they all made Michigan State’s defense look ordinary, something it hasn’t been in more than a decade. The Buckeyes ran for 323 yards while the Badgers totaled 222 on the ground and shut out the Spartans. The Nittany Lions didn’t roll like Ohio State or Wisconsin but the Wolverines torched Michigan State for 384 yards through the air.

“We weren’t good this year,” junior linebacker Antjuan Simmons said simply.

No, they haven’t been, and the year’s not done yet.

Linebacker Antjuan Simmons  leads the Michigan State defense with 72 tackles.

Figuring out what happened to a unit that has consistently ranked among the best in the nation and returned nine starters is tougher to determine. Cornerback Josiah Scott has dealt with injuries the last two weeks and linebacker Joe Bachie was suspended before the Illinois game, but the Spartans’ issues began far before that.

Defensive coordinator Mike Tressel saw some of this coming back in August, wondering how the loss of a handful of veterans beyond safety Khari Willis and cornerback Justin Layne, who are now playing in the NFL, would be felt.

“When asked about the returning defense before the year, one of the things I talked about was people didn't understand the value of some of the guys (we lost) that weren't listed as starters,” Tressel said. “Like Jon Reschke and Matt Morrissey and (Byron) Bullough and Grayson Miller. Those are a bunch of guys that were leaders for us and helped make sure everything was always going in the right direction.

“We’ve been working hard to replace those type of guys and like I’ve always said, you have to get 22 starters. It’s been a battle, there's no doubt about it. It's been a battle and we've had some guys out there on the field that have been in positions they hadn't been before, and honestly, we need to handle them better.”

So while the starting lineup has remained mostly intact, it’s the thin depth chart that has hindered the Spartans.

“I think it’s depth of experience, depth of leadership,” Tressel said. “It’s not just playing-time depth but the number of guys within each position room that have been on the field and have been Spartans for a number of years and can show the younger guys how it is.”

The result has been a defense that isn’t as resilient as it has been in the past.

Perhaps the problems began in the third week of the season when Michigan State allowed Arizona State to convert a fourth-and-13 in the final minutes that led to the Sun Devils rallying for the win. Three games later at Ohio State, the defense played well early but couldn’t sustain things the entire game.

“The biggest thing we really pointed to is that we wanted to play our best ball in the fourth quarter,” Tressel said. “If you look at us, we've been really good in the first and third quarters. We haven't been good enough in the second the fourth quarters.”

By the Wisconsin game, things really started to fall apart and got even worse when Michigan State gave up 27 fourth-quarter points in the loss to Illinois.

It’s led to a defense that its coach believes has lost some faith.

“There's absolutely no reason we shouldn't believe in ourselves as dominant from snap No. 1 to snap No. 75,” Tressel said. “Right now when something hits in the wrong direction, all of a sudden there's a little bit of a head-down mentality that we shouldn't have.

“You can go back and look at last year’s film and we did some stupid things and gave up some plays and the thing about it was our guys truly believe that was a fluke. And that's the way it has to be. You can't ever have the mentality, ‘Oh my goodness, here we go.’ You can't play ball that way. We're too good of players for that.”

Michigan State hopes Rutgers (2-8, 0-7) offers the opportunity to get the defense back on track.

Tressel is counting on it, and he’s looking for the players who are eager to be part of a turnaround that begins Saturday.

“We’re going to do what we need to do to win, and yeah, you want to get as many people experience as you can,” Tressel said. “We need to win this ballgame but I’ll also say this, we do feel like we’ve got some young talent and they also know they have to scratch and claw to get good enough to be where we've been. Hopefully the guys that have been around are also feeling that right now, that they need to scratch and claw, because obviously we must have lost a little bit of that somewhere.”

Michigan State at Rutgers

Kickoff: Noon Saturday, SHI Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.

TV/radio: FS1/760

Records: Michigan State 4-6, 2-5 Big Ten; Rutgers 2-8, 0-7

Line: Michigan State by 20.5

Twitter: @mattcharboneau