MSU Defense Produces in Season-Opening Win Over Western Michigan
As good as Michigan State's defense was last season, and few were better from a statistical standpoint, the letter grade it deserved was "I" for incomplete.
For all the good the Spartan defenders did, it was what they didn't do that galled them throughout the offseason: They didn't score any touchdowns for the first time anyone could remember, they didn't get off the field in crucial situations, they didn't sack the quarterback often enough, they didn't force an acceptable amount of turnovers.
What MSU's defense emphasized it realized in a 26-13 season-opening victory against Western Michigan that began Friday night and didn't end until 12:36 Saturday morning due to a 56-minute lightning delay.
The defense scored two of Michigan State's three touchdowns and set up one of its two field goals with three of the four turnovers it forced. With five sacks, it was already a fourth of a way to the 20 it produced in 2012, and there are still 11 regular-season games to play.
What's more, linebacker Jairus Jones, free safety Kurtis Drummond and defensive end Shilique Calhoun made quick transitions from defense to offense, which was especially timely in light of the way the MSU's actual offense sputtered at times.
"There were still things we needed to work on and we realized that," Drummond said. "But we also realized that that was last year. This year, we are working on those things and trying to be a complete defense.
"We harped on scoring touchdowns and getting turnovers all offseason. For us to see it actually happen feels like we're taking a step toward things we that we needed to correct last year. But, we obviously still have things we need to work on."
Jones and Drummond teamed up to end the defense's touchdown drought while scoring the Spartans' first touchdown of the season in the first quarter. Jones, a converted defensive back, intercepted a pass by Western Michigan quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen at the Broncos' 24-yard line.
Able to advance it only 3 yards before being caught, Jones lateraled the ball to Drummond, who was trailing on his left and took the pitch the remaining 21 yards to the end zone.
"It was second nature," Jones said. "I can't pitch it without looking, and I saw his eyes get big so I had to pitch it. I'm a former DB, and on Thursdays, when it's like a walk-through, if you get a pick, and you're about to get tackled, you look to pitch it.
Later in the first quarter, Drummond made a spectacular, vertical, one-handed stab of a Van Tubbergen pass, the likes of which was last seen in these parts by the eventual Heisman Trophy winner in 1997.
"We work on deep balls all the time, and it was me just jumping, and it just happened to stick in my hand," said Drummond, who also scrambled to down a punt at the 1-yard line.
Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi was equally as impressed.
"I mean, if that ain't in the Top 10 on ESPN all weekend, I don't know what is," Narduzzi said. "It probably should be the No. 1 play in the country. That was an unbelievable catch."
The Spartans didn't cash in on that turnover, but late in the third quarter, Jones' second interception, off WMU backup Zach Terrell, who replaced the injured Van Tubbergen, led to a 30-yard Kevin Muma field goal.
And in the fourth quarter, Michigan State took a 26-7 lead when defensive end Marcus Rush separated Terrell from the ball while effecting a sack for a 9-yard loss, and Calhoun picked it up and returned it 16 yards for a touchdown.
"Thanks for reminding me," Narduzzi said in reference to last season's defensive shortcomings. "But it's great. Me and (defensive backs coach Harlon) Barnett were sitting up (in the coach's box) high-fiving each other after some of those happened.
"We've talked about getting sacks and getting turnovers on the quarterback, and we got one. It was surprising (Calhoun) was able to scoop and score because he had a guy's arms around his waist and he pulled free."
The Broncos finished with just 11 rushing yards, and 56 of their 204 total yards came on their final possession of the game against MSU's backups.
"It was a solid performance, but we'll clean a lot of things, I'm sure, when we get to see the tape," Narduzzi said. "You've got to make plays, and that's what we expect our play guys to do. They've got to make smart decisions and (Jones' pitch) was a smart decision.
"I'm just happy with his development at that position. It's round one, and we have 14 rounds to go, and I'm happy with where we are after one."
Head coach Mark Dantonio echoed those sentiments when he said, "Obviously, the thing to talk about here is the defense. I thought they played extremely well. Those are positives. We need to dwell on those positives and build on them.
"We need to always play to our strengths, period." The biggest problem Michigan State has going into the second game, against South Florida, is that the offense also made a major emphasis on eliminating past shortcomings, such as dropped passes. And yet, the receivers muffed another half-dozen, which had a direct bearing on the performances of quarterbacks Andrew Maxwell and Connor Cook.
"We've got to catch the football," Dantonio said. "(Dropped passes) aren't something we've seen in summer camp, so it can be straightened out. As we move through it, we can't make mistakes and beat ourself. The thing you worry about in the first game are unforced errors, and we had them.
"The name of the game is to win, but we've got to do this collectively and together. So, am I totally happy? No, but I'll go home with the win."