East Lansing — The numbers don’t lie.
When a team forces turnovers, it usually wins.
From 2013-15 when Michigan State was going 36-5 and winning a pair of Big Ten championships while reaching the College Football Playoffs once, it was the best in the conference at taking the ball away from its opponents.
Then 2016 crept up on the Spartans, and as they plodded their way to a three-win season, the turnovers all but disappeared. Michigan State was near the bottom of the conference in turnover margin at -5 while it created just 13 total turnovers, one better than Maryland, which finished last in the Big Ten.
There was a bit of a rebound in 2017 as Michigan State was in the middle of the pack in turnover margin at plus-3. However, the total turnovers were just 14.
Enter Chuck Bullough. The former Spartan linebacker and now defensive-ends coach has introduced “ball disruption” to the defense, a system he said he’s been fine-tuning the last 11 years as an assistant coach at places like UCLA, Syracuse and Eastern Michigan.
“It’s huge,” Bullough said. “I could sit here and have a two-hour discussion about the ball disruption because it’s a finely tuned system that has taken me 11 years to build.”
The focus, of course, is getting the ball out of the hands of the opponent. Through research, Bullough found that more often, the fumbles are coming from the quarterback.
So that aspect is getting emphasized to the defense.
“What we try to stress is that because quarterbacks are looking down the field and they can't watch the pass rush,” Bullough said. “They're still progressing down the field. When you're around the quarterback, you don't want to just get a sack, you want to go get the ball when you get a sack.”
It seems like common sense, so Bullough has developed dozens of drills that fine-tune technique and help the player develop a new terminology and approach to creating turnovers.
So far, the players are buying in.
“He’s got a whole ball disruption clinic,” senior linebacker Andrew Dowell said. “That’s his bread and butter, ball disruption. So, we do new drills and he’s really integrated that into our program.”
Michigan State’s first scrimmage of preseason camp Friday will be the first chance for the defense to see if its extra work and renewed focus on takeaways is starting to pay off. If it does, the Spartans expect to improve on last season’s turnovers numbers specifically, but also the overall performance that saw them finish No. 7 in the nation in total defense and No. 2 in rush defense.
“That’s huge for us,” Dowell said. “It gives us something to build off, but we also know there are things we need to work on at the same time. We didn’t force enough turnovers last year. Coach Bullough has brought in his ball disruption clinic and everything like that. So that’s what we’re focusing on as a defense right now, to take our defense from good or borderline great to really great.
“We have enough skill on our defense to be a point-producing unit, so we should do that.”
They also believe they have the right approach.
“I feel like we are just hard working, hard-working dogs,” junior defensive end Kenny Willekes said. “We’re going to come out every play and we’re going to get after you, we’re going to bring it, we’re going to bring the pads, were going to play violent, we’re going to out-work out, out tough you, every down, every play.”