Over the last decade, Michigan State has been more known for their outstanding defenses than their offense, particularly during the Dantonio/Narduzzi era of “No Fly Zone” defenses. However, heading into the 2022 season, their defense, especially the pass defense, was a major question mark for the Spartans. The 2021 season was HC Mel Tucker’s breakthrough season after striking gold with a number of impact transfers, but this is still a team that is rebuilding its foundation with championship aspirations in mind. There are many new faces and roles on the depth chart and staff, and their match up against our Huskies will be their first real test of their reshuffled defense.
As I mentioned, the Spartan defense is still trying to rebuild back to their shutdown defenses in the Dantonio heyday, but there are a lot of schematic similarities to those defenses that should also be familiar to UW fans as well. HC Mel Tucker and DC Scottie Hazelton run a 4-2-5 defense with heavy Quarters (Cover 4) influences on the back end. 4-2-5 is their nominal base personnel, but like UW, the EDGE players play a mix of hand-down and two point stances and with various body types rotating through those positions. At LB, the Spartans play a more traditional MLB along side a rangier SAM linebacker who will typically play to the passing strength of the offense. Their nickel DB is similar to our Husky position and plays a hybrid strong safety/slot corner role with a sizeable role in their run support.
As far as actual schemes and play calling, Tucker has had to adjust his defensive philosophies at Michigan State as his rebuild has evolved. Having come up through the NFL and Saban/Smart coaching ranks, Tucker has historically preferred multiplicity in his coverage schemes with a sizeable pressure package. However, understanding that his roster lacked the talent to match up in man coverage against their Big Ten opponents, or having a sizable number of transfers who didn’t have the time to learn a complex scheme, Tucker pared down his playbook to focus on Quarters and Cover 3. These two coverages gave him the flexibility to pivot between 1-high and 2-high shells, and they were zone-based schemes that could be installed quickly but also had more complex variations that could be installed down the line. The quick and dirty versions were the classic spot drop zone schemes where players had land marks to drop back to and they would try to cover space. UW runs the more complex pattern match version of these zone coverage schemes where zones help to assign coverage match ups, but the coverage techniques themselves are more similar to man coverage. Regardless of which version a defense installs, a strong pass rush is absolutely necessary for these coverages to be effective.
Key Players & Personnel
Unlike UW’s last two opponents, the Spartans don’t release a depth chart, but that doesn’t stop us from getting a good idea of their key players (it would’ve been a lot harder last week against Portland State). The best-known player on the MSU defense early this season is, in typical Mel Tucker fashion, a transfer. EDGE/LB Jacoby Windmon is making a name for himself early this season with a nation-leading 5.5 sacks. Windmon was an All-MWC selection last year, but he’s taken his game to a higher level this season. His explosive first step and excellent bend made his dip-n-rip pass rush move almost unstoppable through their first two games. However, playing on the edge at only 6-2 and 230lb has made him an easy target in the run game.
Windmon isn’t alone on the defensive front for MSU. DT was considered one of the deepest and most talented position groups on defense by some during the offseason. With Simeon Barrow, Maverick Hansen, and Jacob Slade all returning as significant contributors from a top 25 rushing defense, this group should be stout yet again.
A big component of MSU’s strong run defense was also their LBs. Similar to DT, this group is talented, experienced, and deep. Cal Haladay was the Spartan’s co-leader in tackles (96 total tackles) last year on his way to a freshman All-American selection. Darius Snow was right behind Haladay last year with 87 total tackles from his nickelback position, but after showing his physicality last year, he has made the transition to full-time LB. Despite being a reserve last year, senior former transfer Ben VanSumeren has gotten a lot of action this year as a starter at LB alongside Haladay. Against Western Michigan, VanSumeren logged 11 tackles (nearly his season stat line for 2021).
The back end of the defense is where there were the most question marks heading into this season. Despite having a solid rushing defense, MSU’s defense got a bad reputation for being porous because their pass defense gave up a horrific 324 passing yards per game last year. Tucker and the staff attacked the problem area head on this past offseason by landing Georgia transfer CB Ameer Speed. Speed was good enough to make regular appearances on a talented UGA team, but he’s been relatively unchallenged in a larger role for the Spartans. At 6-3, 210lb, Speed will be the DB tasked with the toughest coverage assignments. Given UW’s deep rotation of big WRs, Speed will have a tough test this week.
Michigan State’s defense will be our offense’s first real test of the season, and although they have quality talent throughout their defense, their overall scheme and execution to date will leave opportunities for our passing attack to exploit. We should have the advantage in skill position talent, and pass protection being the strength of our OL works to our advantage in this match up. If we can keep Penix clean in the pocket, our offense should be able to keep up the momentum against the Spartans.