Wojo: Michigan State defense just might be crazy good

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

East Lansing — They want people to believe they’re crazy, not just crazy good, and they’re quite convincing. They have the look, the energy and the attitude, the necessary edge for a Michigan State defense that keeps reloading.

They’re linebackers by definition, back-breakers by nature, joke-crackers by choice. On a Michigan State defense that could be as tough as any in the Big Ten, the fulcrum has shifted slightly. A year ago, the Spartans bent at times, but won their second conference title in three seasons with a mauling defensive line. Before that, they had future first-round picks in the secondary.

Now they have a linebacker corps that’s deep, quick and quirky, rated among the best in the country. Senior Riley Bullough, the latest star from the relentlessly productive Bullough football family, is the centerpiece, alongside juniors Jon Reschke and Chris Frey. But there’s more. Talented Ed Davis should step back in, if granted a sixth year of eligibility as expected, and Andrew Dowell and Shane Jones are rising.

That’s key, because Michigan State lost three-fourths of its defensive line, including big-play star Shilique Calhoun. To compensate, the linebackers will have to make more big plays, and certainly will make people notice in all sorts of unique ways. For instance, the dueling hair-bun competition — Frey grabbed the early lead but Bullough’s long locks overtook him. The tattoo competition — Frey has that covered. The humor competition — Bullough took home the coveted Oil Can Award last season, an actual prize given to the team’s funniest player.

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That’s a real battle, and these are real characters.

“I was kind of shocked when I won it,” said Bullough, the team’s leading returning tackler. “I think it’s the crazy, outrageous things I say all the time in practice and outside practice. People might not think it’s funny, they might think it’s weird. I just try to bring the humor and intensity to it, when people aren’t expecting it.”

For instance, in the midst of an intense drill, Bullough might lighten the mood by randomly shouting an innocuous word. Before the playoff game against Alabama, he playfully Tweeted at Heisman winner Derrick Henry, saying he was excited to face him and “hopefully you don’t think me and (Reschke) are that weird but oh well.”

Henry didn’t respond, except on the field, and the Crimson Tide’s 38-0 rout sticks in the Spartans like a giant splinter.

More disrespect

“I think we’re even hungrier,” said Reschke, from Birmingham Brother Rice. “We’re so disrespected. We’re not supposed to win the Big Ten — we’re never supposed to. What happened against Alabama last year wasn’t us, and we want to prove to everybody that’s never gonna happen again. We’ll never be embarrassed on a football field like that — we’re gonna be the team doing the embarrassing.”

The ol’ disrespect chip might be worn and fading, but fuel is fuel, and Michigan State’s defense rarely lacks enthusiasm and confidence. Of all the remarkable things Mark Dantonio has accomplished in 10 years, the most important was creating an identity and finding guys to fit it. It’s the Spartan Dawg mentality, usually defined by a punishing defense unafraid to throw bodies and barbs around.

With a 36-5 record the past three seasons, it’s no longer a question of sustainability for the Spartans, but how much higher they can go. Even when losing lots of talent, they generally have more ready to go. Malik McDowell is an All-American-type anchor on the defensive line, and youngsters such as freshmen Josh King and Auston Robertson might leap in early. The secondary could be loaded with the return of Vayante Copeland from his neck injury. Davis’ return could be a boon to a defense that ranked an underwhelming 26th in the country last season.

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With plenty of questions on offense, from new starting quarterback Tyler O’Connor to a rebuilt line, Dantonio is expecting emphatic answers from his defense.

“I think we have the players in place to be as good or better than last year,” Dantonio said. “We have some younger guys that need to fill in.”

Dantonio preaches chemistry as much as any coach anywhere, which is why he doesn’t mind bouts of team-bonding craziness. It’s why he unveils fresh slogans, including this year’s relatively simply “Back2Back.”

The Spartans have participated in the College Football Playoff and won two of the past three Big Ten championship games. They’re the only conference team to beat the Buckeyes, and they’ve done it twice. If anyone still underestimates them, you’d think the Spartans would be immune to it, and to some extent they are.

And to some extent they never will be, which is part of their strength.

Nothing for granted

“The way the culture is here, Coach D always has the constant reminder — don’t forget where we came from, don’t forget when we were little brother,” safety Demetrious Cox said. “We kind of take it personally, just knowing they always do kind of put us in the backseat.”

The edge doesn’t get rounded off, certainly not among the wild-mannered, wild-maned linebackers. And they make no apologies for the focus of their fire.

“I had a great teacher, Max Bullough, showing me the ropes,” Reschke said. “He quickly got me to understand it’s a mental game, and you gotta be the craziest person on the field playing linebacker. … Coach D keeps that fuel going, and (strength coach Ken Mannie) does a great job too. They have different tactics and sayings, but the bottom line is, they teach us to hate Michigan, and it brings our play to another level.”

Did anyone really think that would go away just because the Spartans have delivered vicious vengeance upon the Wolverines seven times in the past eight meetings? They mention their rival and their driving force without any prompting, and that’s how they keep the heat on. It’s not complicated, really. Talent without motivation is a waste, and for several years now, the Spartans have touted plenty of both. From their tight-knit, loose linebackers on out, their defense should be nasty again, and it’s not crazy to say it.