Spartans' defense rises to the occasion in red-zone situations vs. Hilltoppers

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Bend don’t break.

It might not be the most exciting defense to watch, but Michigan State played it to perfection on Saturday night as its offense got off to a quick start and the defense did just enough for the 17th-ranked Spartans to earn a 48-31 victory over Western Kentucky at Spartan Stadium.

“Just keep chopping,” safety Michael Dowell said, repeating a phrase use often by coach Mel Tucker. “They get a first down or they get a big play, explosive play, whatever it is, it's about the next play. I think we did a good job tonight doing that.”

Western Kentucky running back Adam Cofield is taken down by the Michigan State defense during the first quarter.

Western Kentucky managed to pile up 560 yards of total offense, including 488 through the air. But by the time the Hilltoppers managed to start getting the ball in the end zone, it was the fourth quarter and the lead was far too big for a comeback.

In the first half, when Michigan State’s offense was clicking, punting just once while scoring six touchdowns, Western Kentucky was getting stymied in the red zone, three times settling for field goals.

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“It was critical because when you play a team like this and they can move the ball it puts stress on the defense,” Tucker said. “And that's why it’s not about yards, it’s about points. To be able to go and hold them to field-goal attempts in the red zone was big for us because when you end up trading field goals for touchdowns, with our offense making plays and on special teams, we were able to open up a lead and that was huge.”

It’s really been the approach of the Michigan State defense all season.

Entering Saturday’s game, the Spartans (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) were 11th in the conference in total defense and 13th in passing defense, allowing 264 yards a game. Those numbers won’t improve after the production from the Hilltoppers.

But Michigan State was allowing only 18 points a game, which was eighth in the Big Ten and 33rd in the nation. That average will creep up some, but the overall play of the defense continues to be exactly what the Spartans need, especially with the offense back in a rhythm.

“I think that it was something that was really important,” Dowell said of keeping the Hilltoppers out of the end zone early in the game. “All week, the defense focused on red-zone efficiency. Just because they get down there doesn't mean that they gotta score a touchdown. If it's a field goal, we see that we took four points away. Defense efficiency in the red zone is something we pride ourselves on.”

Further review

Not all went according to plan on Saturday night.

Late in the fourth quarter, redshirt freshman linebacker Cal Haladay was called for targeting. While the did not launch himself or use the crown of the helmet, he did hit a Western Kentucky receiver in the head with his forearm.

That, apparently, was enough for the initial call and was also enough for replay officials to confirm the call, much to the displeasure of the homecoming crowd.

Tucker said there’s a process to submitting plays for review to the Big Ten and that the Spartans will follow that process. It seems likely Haladay’s call will be one they forward to the folks in Chicago.

“We just go through the process and then we move on,” Tucker said. “That's what we have to do and control what we can control.”

Since the call came in the second half, Haladay will have to sit out the first half of next week’s game at Rutgers.

Extra points

Sixth-year senior kicker Matt Coghlin booted a pair of field goals, giving him 71 for his career. That tied him with Brett Swenson for most in program history.

… There were some notable names out of the lineup for the Spartans, including defensive end Drew Beesley, who injured his right leg last week against Nebraska. Also not dressed were RB Elijah Collins, who missed his third straight game, DE Itayvion Brown and DE Jack Camper. Others out included WR Ian Stewart, TE Parks Gissinger and CB Khary Crump.

… After losing a cornerback — Kalon Gervin — and a linebacker — Chase Kline — in the portal last week, a few new names were in uniform, including cornerbacks Marqui Lowery and Antoine Booth, as well as linebacker Cole DeMarzo.

… With Kline gone, freshman Ma’a Gaoteote got some work at linebacker, breaking up a pass and recording a tackle.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau