Has Michigan State football developed championship-level defense?


Is Michigan State football finally developing that national championship-caliber defense?

Before the start of the 2015 season, it looked as if Michigan State‘s defense had a chance to be better than its 2014 version. Without a doubt, the strength was going to be the front seven. A defensive line anchored by All-American Shilique Calhoun, Lawrence Thomas, Joel Heath and a more experienced Malik McDowell had Michigan State fans salivating.

Must Read: Michigan State Football: All-time Spartan team

The only question mark on the defense was the secondary, specifically the corner spot vacated by first-round NFL pick, Trae Waynes.

Then the injury bug found its way inside the Duffy Daugherty building.

Oct 25, 2014; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans cornerback Darian Hicks (2) reacts to a play during the 1st half of a game at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Preseason All-Big Ten linebacker Ed Davis, who led the team in production points last season, tore his ACL in a non-contact drill in fall camp.

Cornerback Darian Hicks, a starter last year, was slowed by mono for most of fall camp and the first half of the season.

First year starting cornerback Vayante Copeland, who drew comparisons to Darqueze Dennard from players and coaches, was lost for the season after breaking his neck on a tackle against Oregon.

Starting defensive tackle Joel Heath missed time with an ankle injury sustained against Central Michigan.

Starting senior safety RJ Williamson missed the rest of the regular season after tearing his bicep against Purdue on Oct. 3.

Darian Hicks, who had just recovered from mono, suffered a concussion the following week against Rutgers and missed the next three games.

Safety Montae Nicholson, while not injured, was benched for his poor play following the Rutgers game. Another safety, Mark Meyers, was suspended for half of the season after being charged with an OWI following the Oregon game.

All of this chaos resulted in Michigan State starting freshmen safeties Khari Willis and Grayson Miller on the road against Michigan.

The constant upheaval on the defense stunted its growth and chemistry. It finally caught up with them on a chilly night in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Nov. 7. The Spartans’ defensive line struggled to gain a pass rush and contain the run while cycling through multiple defensive backs, including true freshman Tyson Smith and wide receiver Monty Madaris.

Nov 7, 2015; Lincoln, NE, USA; Michigan State Spartans linebacker Jon Reschke (33) and defensive end Evan Jones (85) stop Nebraska Cornhuskers running back Imani Cross (32) at Memorial Stadium. Nebraska defeated Michigan State 39-38. Mandatory Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State gave up 39 points and was burned for nearly 500 yards of offense, including 320 through the air. The Spartans, usually stout against the run, gave up 179 yards on the ground. Clinging to a five-point lead with 55 seconds left, Michigan State allowed Nebraska to drive 91 yards for the game winning touchdown in just 38 seconds.

The loss, while painful at the time, lit a fire under Michigan State that had been lacking for most of the season.

“Then a whole switch changed. The guys changed from thinking we were going to be the best defense in the country because everybody was going to do their job to decide that we’re going to be the best defense in the country because we’re going to dominate people’s tail,” co-defensive coordinator Jim Tressel explained to the Detroit Free Press.

Through the first nine games of the season, capped by the Nebraska loss, Michigan State’s defense was fairly pedestrian as evidenced by the following averages and corresponding national ranks.

Michigan State defense through 9 games (Where it would rank in the latest team statistical rankings through Dec 16)

Nov 14, 2015; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun (89) during the first half against the Maryland Terrapins at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

  • 372.3 yards per game (47th)
  • 23.9 points per game (44th)
  • 236.8 passing yards per game (85th)
  • 130.8 rushing yards per game (24th)

Following the Nebraska loss, Michigan State’s defense elevated its game to a new level, somewhat reminiscent of the 2013 Rose Bowl defense. In its last four games, two of which came against top 5 opponents, Michigan State’s defensive stats were phenomenal.

Michigan State defense over the last four games (Where it would rank in the latest season team rankings through Dec 16)

  • 276.8 yards per game (4th)
  • 12.5 points per game (1st)
  • 185 passing yards per game (19th)
  • 91.8 rushing yards per game (4th)

The improvement is quite remarkable. This impressive turnaround was the result of more than just renewed effort and focus – though that certainly played a huge role.

It all started with the Maryland game when cornerback Darian Hicks returned to the starting lineup from a concussion. The return of Hicks allowed Demetrious Cox to move back to safety, his more natural position.

Oct 17, 2015; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans safety Montae Nicholson (9) tackles Michigan Wolverines wide receiver Amara Darboh (82) in the third quarter at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Safety Montae Nicholson responded well to his mid-season benching and over the last several games began playing like the type of player everyone thought he would be before the season. Michigan State went from having two true freshmen starting at safety against Michigan, to having two talented and experienced players in Nicholson and Cox back in the starting lineup just three games later.

Cornerback Arjen Colquhoun, the starter opposite of Hicks, slowly turned into the best cornerback on the team over the season and snagged two interceptions in the last four games. Hicks, paired with Colquhoun, gave Michigan State a solid set of corners that it so desperately needed all season.

The return of Joel Heath at defensive tackle against Ohio State strengthened Michigan State’s rushing defense just when it needed it the most.

Against the Buckeyes, Michigan State allowed a mind-boggling 46 yards passing and just 86 rushing yards. Ohio State averages 242 rushing yards per game, ranking 12th nationally. Michigan State surrendered a paltry 14 points, which were a result of turnovers in Michigan State territory.

By comparison, Michigan State was torched by Ohio State last season for 49 points and 568 total yards, including 300 through the air and 268 on the ground. Weather no doubt played a role in this year’s game, but the numbers are impressive nonetheless.

Perhaps its most impressive showing of the season was against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship. Always played indoors in perfect conditions, the Big Ten Championship games have typically been high-scoring affairs.

Nov 21, 2015; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Braxton Miller (5) runs with the ball against the Michigan State Spartans at Ohio Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the game, Iowa was averaging 33 points per game and 204 yards on the ground behind a strong offensive line and a bevy of talented backs.

Michigan State held Iowa to just 13 points and 52 yards rushing.

What seemed to be a liability for most of the season, is now a strength. With Connor Cook nursing an injured shoulder and struggling in the passing game, Michigan State’s defense carried the load to help give the Spartans their 3rd Big Ten Championship in 5 years and a shot at a National Championship in the College Football Playoff.

No. 3 Michigan State is going to need to continue its stellar defensive play in the Cotton Bowl against No. 2 Alabama and its powerful ground attack, led by Heisman trophy winner Derrick Henry. Henry broke the SEC record for rushing yards in a season with 1,986 on an impressive 5.9 yards per carry. Alabama is averaging 208 yards rushing per game, ranking 27th in the nation.

Michigan State’s defensive line will have to win the battle up front and its linebackers will have to play fast and gap-sound to prevent Henry from getting to the second level. The 6-foot-3, 242-pound bruiser runs like a freight train. If you let him get into the secondary, he will punish any defensive back in his way. The key is to bottle him up and not let him gain any momentum.

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If the Spartans can contain Derrick Henry, they have a great shot at winning the Cotton Bowl for the second consecutive year and advancing to the National Championship.

No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Michigan State
College Football Playoff Semi-final: Cotton Bowl

When: December 31, 8:00 pm
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Line: Alabama -9.5