Spartans know they'll have to 'make plays' against stout Northwestern defense

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

The numbers don’t look good for Michigan State.

If you’re putting together a tale of the tape for Saturday’s matchup with No. 11 Northwestern, those numbers paint a fairly bleak picture. The Wildcats have one of the best defenses in the nation while the Spartans’ offense is among the least productive.

It all adds up what looks like could be another long day for the Michigan State offense, a unit that has managed just seven point in the last two games.

“They're balanced on offense, defense and special teams and are very well-coached,” Michigan State coach Mel Tucker said of Northwestern. “But regardless of who we play it’s going to be about what we do and how we play, how we take care of the football. How we convert on third down, how we run the ball, how our coverage units do on special teams. Do we get a body on a body in the return game and give our returners some room to make something happen?

Jordon Simmons

“And then we need to build on what we did in the second half against Indiana defensively with holding them scoreless. The things that we did in the second half are things we need to do for four quarters. We need to start fast and finish strong. So, we're going to continue to find out more about our team, but it's not just about evaluation now, it's about playing winning football.”

That’s been easier said than done through four games for Michigan State (1-3), which did not play last week after the game at Maryland was canceled because of an increase in COVID-19 cases with the Terrapins. While that week off gave the Spartans more time to prepare for the Wildcats, it didn’t change those cold, hard numbers.

Michigan State is 114th in the nation in total offense, including 124th in rushing offense, 123rd in scoring offense, 118th in time of possession and 99th in third-down conversions.

On the other side of the ball, Northwestern (5-0) is 15th in total defense, 13th in rushing defense and fourth in scoring defense, allowing only 12.6 points a game under defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, who has been with Fitzgerald at Northwestern since 2008.

“They want to make you one-dimensional,” Tucker said of the Wildcats. “Stop the run and then challenge you to throw the ball over their head. That’s worked for them and they’ve done a great job on defense. Their defensive coordinator is one of the best in the business.

“There's no doubt that he knows what he's doing. He's got a lot of seniors that have been in that system and you can see that they've grown through spring ball with the experience they have. And they just don't beat themselves very much. You have to make plays. They’re not just going to give you anything, you have to make plays.”

While Michigan State is contemplating making a change at the quarterback position – redshirt freshman Payton Thorne replaced Rocky Lombardi against Indiana and could get his first start against Northwestern – the key to the Spartans’ offense still begins with running the football.

Or, more aptly, not running the ball.

The Spartans have failed to gain more than 60 rushing yards in three of the four games. They are averaging just 2.2 yards a carry and 73.8 yards a game, a number that’s better than only four other teams in the entire nation.

Much of the heat has been piled on the offensive line, and much of that heat has been deserved.

“You need to impose your will on the other team,” Tucker said, “and you need to move a man against his will in the trenches, which requires strength, technique and fundamentals, and mental and physical toughness, durability and stamina to be able to do that for 60 minutes, four quarters in a game. That’s where we’re looking to improve.”

Of course, Tucker’s not putting it all on the men up front. It’s on the backs to know the play, see the hole and hit it, tight ends and receivers to block, and a quarterback to get the offense in and out of the right plays.

As for who’s carrying the ball, the quest continues to find the right combination there, too.

“Right now we’re probably not going to have just one guy carry the whole load and we never really wanted it to be that way initially,” Tucker said. “We’re going to share the load at running back with those guys.”

Freshman Jordon Simmons and junior Connor Heyward have been getting most of the work while sophomore Elijah Collins, last year’s leading rusher, has seen limited work, as has sophomore Brandon Wright. Sophomore Anthony Williams is out, entering the transfer portal after the Indiana game.

However the running back rotation works and whoever is playing along the offensive line, Tucker knows they’ll have their work cut out against Northwestern.

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort to be able to run the ball efficiently,” Tucker said.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau