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East Lansing — When Joe Bachie had a break during preseason camp this month, he turned on some old game tapes.
While others might have relished the break by hanging out in their room or grabbing a bite to eat with teammates, Bachie was busy watching what he believes is the best defense to play at Michigan State. That, of course, would be the unit that helped lead the Spartans to a Big Ten title and a victory in the Rose Bowl in 2013.
“I love watching the ’13 defense,” Bachie said. “I’ve probably watched every game of theirs a couple of times. A bunch of us go through film, especially during camp. When we do it’s usually the ’13 team.”
It’s easy to understand why. That season, the Spartans ranked fourth in the nation in total defense while intercepting 14 passes and allowing less than 100 yards a game on the ground. The unit featured a pair of future first-round picks at cornerback — Darqueze Dennard in 2014 and Trae Waynes in 2015 — as well as a defensive line that featured future NFLer Shilique Calhoun.
But often Bachie’s attention is zeroed in on the center of the defense where Max Bullough manned the middle linebacker spot, the same one Bachie now holds for Michigan State.
What Bachie sees is the type of player he aspires to be.
“He was the quarterback,” Bachie said of Bullough. “He had everybody on the same page. He ran the show. Everybody had confidence in what he was saying out there and I feel we’re pretty confident group. Whether I’m making an adjustment or somebody in the back end is making an adjustment we all have confidence and we have to get to that level (of the 2013 team) and step our game up.”
It helps to have Bachie, who was voted by his teammates as Michigan State’s most valuable player last season when he collected 100 tackles for a Spartans defense that was a second in the nation in rushing defense and helped MSU win 10 games.
Now entering his junior season, Bachie is taking his place among the long list of top-notch middle linebackers that have played at Michigan State. In his 12 seasons at MSU, coach Mark Dantonio has compiled quite a list, beginning with Greg Jones, a two-time All-American (2009, 2010) who ranks third in career tackles at Michigan State.
Jones was followed by Bullough, a third-team All-American in 2013, and eventually Riley Bullough, a second-team All-Big Ten performer for the 2015 MSU team that reached the College Football Playoffs.
Mike Tressel has worked closely with them all. Now in his first season as the sole defensive coordinator, Tressel has coached linebackers since coming to MSU with Dantonio in 2007. He believes Bachie matches up.
“He’s right up there with the best of them, no doubt about it,” Tressel said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to have great leadership in our middle linebacker spot and he fits right in that mold. The other thing that puts him in the same category as the Bulloughs, for example, is he’s an absolute football junkie. He loves the game, he loves contact. He really runs well, has great leadership, so he’s right up there with the best.”
Bachie is in a unique position as No. 11 Michigan State gets set to open the season Friday night against Utah State. Not only can he watch some of those that came before him, he’s on the field with one of the best.
That’s because Chuck Bullough is in his first season as the Spartans’ defensive ends coach. Bullough played for George Perles from 1988-91 and piled up 391 career tackles, including 175 as a senior in 1991. That number still stands as the most in program history.
“I love the challenge and he messes with me about trying to get 175 tackles in a year,” Bachie said of Chuck Bullough. “I’m like, ‘That’s not the game anymore. We’re not running power 40 times.’ But he messes with me like, ‘Yeah, it’s getting passed down from Jones, Max, Riley and now it’s you. What are you gonna do?’”
Bachie could be right. Getting to 175 tackles might be pushing things, but there seems little doubt Bachie will surpass the 100 tackles he had last season.
A lot of that is based purely on Bachie’s ability, but it helps to have defensive tackles Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk clogging up the middle of the line while Bachie gets help chasing down ball carriers from fellow linebackers like Andrew Dowell, Tyriq Thompson, Antjuan Simmons, Brandon Randle and Jon Reschke.
“If he continues to play the way he has, through experience, he’s gonna continue to get better,” Tressel said. “I think he has the ability to make more big plays this year. I think he’s a guy that can create turnovers and he did that last year, but I expect him to have those game-changing plays on the mind a little bit more. But it’s a fine line between making sure you do your 1/11th and try not to do too much and then coming up with those big plays. But I anticipate him making more of those game-changing momentum-type of plays.”
Bachie has done enough to expect he’ll make that jump. If he does, it almost surely means good things for Michigan State this season. If it ends with a championship, he might end up seeing his name move past some of those he’s looked up to.
“He's built a foundation,” Dantonio said. “What he does on that foundation this year, then the next year, will define him.
“I think he has the mindset, skill level, and the intensity to be as good as any of those guys.”