East Lansing – Michigan State finally got after the quarterback last week, an aspect of the defense that has been missing for most of the season.
But getting to Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett for three sacks and hurrying him another seven times didn’t come just because the Spartans said they wanted to do so. It came with young players putting in the work.
“I gave us a lot of confidence,” redshirt freshman tackle Raequan Williams said. “We worked at it and worked at it and for several weeks we still hadn’t gotten any sacks. To finally see the quarterback go down against the No. 2 team in the nation is a big lift and just made us more hungry and ready to play Penn State.”
Williams was one of the Michigan State defenders that started to break free against the Buckeyes, hurrying Barrett three times. He and true freshman Mike Panasiuk have started each of the last two games and have started to show that while the defense has had its struggles this season, the experience has been valuable.
“I feel like it comes more with playing with each other more,” Williams said. “Now we’ve been playing with each other more in practice and games, we get a good feel for each other. So Mike knows if I wipe down he comes up and little stuff like that. It’s helped us out a lot and we’re still getting better at it.”
Panasiuk and sophomore end Robert Bowers combined for a sack last week while junior end Demetrius Cooper recorded his first full sack. Linebackers Chris Frey and Shane Jones combined for the third.
The pressure wasn’t limited to sacks, either, as freshman end Auston Robertson had a forced fumble and sophomore walk-on end Dillon Alexander had a fumble recovery and a tackle for loss as the defensive line asserted itself for the first time in weeks.
“It all starts with practice and getting an opportunity to play,” defensive line coach Ron Burton said. “Those guys are hungry and eager and when it was time to put them out there, they were ready to go. They have shown some improvement and that is good to see on game day.
“We have been practicing with these guys a lot and giving them that opportunity in game-time situations. We have seen it in practice, so it is good to see some flashes of what they can do on game day.”
That work in practice has finally started to pay off after the Spartans have suffered through their worst season under coach Mark Dantonio in terms of pressuring the quarterback. Entering last week’s game, they had just seven sacks and had gone three games without one. This comes after Michigan State had 37 sacks in 2015.
There were three starters lost to the NFL from last season, and that has put pressure on Bowers, Robertson, Cooper and freshman Josh King to pick up the slack. Now, with nearly a full season under their belts, the confidence is soaring and they’re looking forward to next season.
“They have built that over this preseason and into the season and given them the chance to be on the field a little bit,” Burton said. “All of the sudden now, they are playing full-time snaps. It is just a test and they are starting to pass it. There is some continued growth in that, but we are overjoyed with the prospects of the future, but the future is this game this weekend.”
Michigan State won’t play in bowl game this season, the first time in 10 years under Dantonio. And while that means fewer practices, it doesn’t mean things will be easy for the Spartans over the next few months.
The coaching staff will almost immediately hit the road recruiting while diving into player evaluation and for the players themselves, the work is certainly to continue.
“A lot of us are leaving on Sunday for recruiting, but we are allowed so many hours during the offseason that we are allowed to spend it with them,” offensive line coach Mark Staten said.
“It hurts because we lose the practices that we would have had for the bowl games. So that aspect isn’t too adequate for us, but we are going to sit down and watch film with them. They better be ready, because our fourth quarter program (winter conditioning) is going to get revved up and it’s going to be old school. It’ll be tough.”