Starters' return to MSU 'D' can't stop bleeding

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State got Riley Bullough and Raequan Williams back on Saturday, but it seemed to matter little.

Northwestern's Justin Jackson (21) spins away from Michigan State's Raequan Williams (99) during the second quarter.

Instead of helping bolster a defense that had taken its share of beatings this season, the return of two starters was merely a footnote in one of the worst defensive showings in coach Mark Dantonio’s tenure.

Northwestern overcame slow start to roll over Michigan State, 54-40, on Saturday at Spartan Stadium, handing the home team its fourth consecutive loss and putting up the most points on a Dantonio team in his 10 seasons at Michigan State.

“It's tough because we feel like we're playing hard, that's the tough part,” said Bullough, who had 12 tackles. “It's the little things. We'll get in there and watch film like we always do, but at some point we just have to make plays, and we're not making enough right now. That's really what it comes down to.”

Before Saturday, the most points a Dantonio team allowed was 49 on three different occasions. While coaching at Cincinnati, Dantonio’s team allowed 70 in a loss to Louisville, but poor tackling, inability to get off the field on third down and lack of pass rush has rarely been seen by a Dantonio defense.

“To be blunt it is very disappointing,” senior safety Demetrious Cox said. “We are not meeting expectations right now. A lot of things as a whole didn't go our way, a lot of blown assignments, things like that. A lot of balls didn't bounce our ways.”

Missed tackles on Saturday played a significant role in Northwestern’s 209 rushing yards, not to mention receivers breaking free for yards after the catch.

Co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel was frustrated after the game.

“I'll tell you this, I'm used to seeing in the previous nine years (here) when the first person gets there, even if he's just hanging on, the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth guys that are there just like bam bam bam bam; and I'm not seeing that right now,” Tressel said. “It's usually not just the initial guy that's there, it's the next five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 hats that make you look like a good football team. So, we need to do a better job of that.”

The Spartans are also failing to put pressure on the quarterback, though they did finally get a sack on Saturday, the first since the Wisconsin game. To do that, however, Michigan State relied on more blitzing which exposed the back end.

Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson took advantage by throwing for 281 yards and three touchdowns, overcoming an early interception that was returned for a touchdown by Justin Layne.

It was the type of performance that even took Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald off guard.

Henning: Talent void puts slumping Spartans in dire straits

“Not against Michigan State's defense, no (I didn’t expect to score 54),” he said. “I think Coach Dantonio and his staff do a terrific job, but we had some huge plays offensively today.

“But to be able to run the ball the way that we did today, really great credit to our offensive line, especially those guys up front taking a lot of grief and they understand their role, I think they really stepped up today.”

For Michigan State, it will need plenty to step up. Malik McDowell moved around and played both end and tackle on Saturday and was effective, but he needs help. And in the back end, the consistency has been non-existent.

Getting it turned around won’t be simple.

“The personnel we have is the personnel we have and we recruited these guys and we love these guys and they're some good football players out there,” Tressel said. “So, we need to obviously get better technique-wise and we need to have better attention to detail, that's probably one of the biggest things that we need. Ten of 11 guys being perfect on a play doesn't get it done.

"So, we love our personnel, there's no doubt about it. Those are guys we brought in and they are working hard, but our attention to detail and technique both need to improve.”