Lack of pass rush among MSU defense’s problems

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — With Michigan State in the midst of its first three-game losing streak since 2009, much of the blame has been placed on the offense.

It’s a legitimate problem — the Spartans are averaging 21 points, 12th in the Big Ten, and have scores 20 in their last four quarters at Spartan Stadium.

But focusing just on the offensive woes would be short sighted. As coach Mark Dantonio has said the last couple of weeks, Michigan State’s issues are all-inclusive, and that means a once dominant defense has quickly become pedestrian.

“It’s very frustrating,” junior linebacker Chris Frey said. “It doesn’t happen very often to lose two games in a row, let alone lose three games in a row. I think we just need to get back to basics. We aren’t gonna sit here and quit on the team and quit on the guy next to us. It’s time to start over. Get back to basics and just do what we know to do.”

With Northwestern set to come to town for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday, Michigan State finds itself with numbers that are hard to reconcile for a team that has spent the better part of the last five seasons as one of the top-ranked defenses in the nation.

The Spartans are 12th in the Big Ten in passing defense, 13th in third-down conversion defense, 12th in red zone defense, and 13th in turnover margin, creating seven turnovers.

Probably the most alarming number is the fact they’re ranked last in sacks with five through five games. At that clip, they’ll have 12 at the end of the season, down from the 37 of a season ago.

It’s something that has the entire defense scratching its head.

“We’ve got some guys with ability,” Dantonio said. “Sometimes we rush four. We’re not rushing three that often. Sometimes there’s coverage, there’s coverage sacks. Sometimes there’s not. Sometimes we’re blitzing at times. Zone pressuring. Zero pressuring. Man pressuring, things of that nature.

“We got to get home. We’ve had the guy in our grasps a number of times and he’s gotten out. That’s something that’s got to get fixed, and there’s got to be more production, period.”

There were personnel losses to overcome from last season, though not many expected it to be this drastic of a drop-off. Ends Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas, and tackle Joel Heath are in the NFL. Tackle Craig Evans left, and tackle Damon Knox decided not to play a sixth season.

It’s left the onus on younger, less-experienced players, including junior end Demetrius Cooper and freshman Josh King. In the meantime, junior tackle Malik McDowell is facing nearly constant double-teams.

Co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel believes the pressure is coming, and like the offensive issues, it’s a team effort to get to the quarterback.

“Mainly it is individual battles that need to be won,” Tressel said. “You look at a Cooper for example, he’s a very good pass rusher and hasn’t got home yet. He’s gotten hits, it will come in bunches. Malik McDowell, he’s gotten hits on the quarterback but people are getting rid of the football. It’s a combination of things. If our coverage could make him hold on to the ball for one more count, all of a sudden instead of five it’s 15 sacks.

“But the bottom line is this: Our D-line right now is putting pressure on themselves to get home..”

The return of linebacker Ed Davis could spark the pass rush. Coming back from a knee injury that kept him out all last season, Davis saw his most significant action last week.

Davis said he felt good after his first extending playing time and believes it’s just a matter of time before the defense starts to get to the quarterback.

“It’s surprising to me and we’re not used to that,” Davis said. “We’re used to getting home to the quarterback. But it’s the little things on any play that can slow down a blitz or make you not get there in time. It’s just the little inches. We’re used to a lot of sacks and I feel like in the upcoming weeks we’ll get a lot more.”

That will only happen, however, if players focus on their role, Tressel said. If that happens, the sack numbers will go up, the third-down failures will dissipate, and Michigan State will start finishing games defensively.

“Everybody’s job is critical, and a lot of times what happens when you’re pressing is you don’t sell out to do your job because you’re worried about trying to help somebody else out with their job,” Tressel said. “We need to make sure that we believe our job is absolutely critical and we trust other people to do their job. And then additionally we need to handle adversity better.

“We’ve played very, very, very good football in the first half the last four games, but then when one thing goes wrong we’re not handling that great.”

Northwestern at Michigan State

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

TV/radio: BTN/WJR

Line: Michigan State by 4

Records: Northwestern 2-3 (1-1 Big Ten), Michigan State 2-3 (0-2)

Series: Michigan State leads 37-17 (Michigan State 30-6, Nov. 23, 2013)