Couch: For Michigan State's defense, the Peach Bowl is a chance to change its trajectory

·5 min read
Michigan State practices at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday prior to Thursday's Peach Bowl in Atlanta.
Michigan State practices at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday prior to Thursday's Peach Bowl in Atlanta.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Michigan State’s 10-2 football season is that it won 10 games despite a pass defense that ranked dead last in college football. Depending on how you choose to look at it, that’s either one heck of an achievement or a sizable concern. Or both.

The bottom line is: For MSU’s program to grow into a consistent player in the Big Ten and on the national scene — and make 10-2 a regular thing — allowing 337.7 passing yards per game, 26 yards worse than anyone else in the sport, won’t do.

The Peach Bowl against Pittsburgh on Thursday night is a chance for MSU to begin to show that with time to heal and prepare, it has the braintrust and personnel to do something about it. Pitt might not have Heisman Trophy finalist Kenny Pickett at QB any longer, but it still has the Biletnikoff Award winner at receiver in Jordan Addison, making this a credible test. And, at this stage, this is as much about the Spartans showing some teeth as it is their opponent.

“As a defensive backfield, we think we have something to prove,” MSU senior safety Xavier Henderson said Monday, while also saying he isn’t sure yet whether he’ll return next season. “We know we have something to prove. Not just to other people, but to ourselves — that we can play a really solid game of football, a consistent, four-quarters game of football. (That) we’re here for a reason and we have guys that can make plays.”

MSU’s defensive numbers this regular season were both a bit misleading and right on the nose. For example, while the number of yards passing the Spartans allowed ranked 130th among 130 FBS programs, they allowed a more respectable 7.5 yards per pass attempt, which is closer to the middle nationally, 72nd overall. Not good, but not quite the story 130th is. Four Big Ten teams were worse. As was Pitt, which allowed 7.6 yards per pass attempt.

Some of MSU’s defensive cushion was also by design, in an attempt to mask weaknesses either in the defensive backfield or with its every-down edge rushers. And, for quite a while, MSU’s approach — which forced teams to be patient in the passing game and, for two months, yielded nothing but wins by way of opportunistic turnovers and red-zone stops — looked like the right call for the talent available. Who cared how many yards opponents put up. The Spartans were 8-0 after beating Michigan on Oct. 30. They had as much resolve and swagger as they did shortcomings.

What happened from there, however, largely fell on MSU’s secondary. The Spartans’ two losses this season — 40-29 at Purdue and 56-7 at Ohio State — and the manner in which they occurred were caused by embarrassing pass defense. Their words as much as mine.

And so now, with several weeks to prepare and a month to get closer to full health, we’ll get a good look at where this defense is and how far it has to go.

“It's always helpful to have a better (idea), ‘Hey, listen, we had a chance to get a little bit more healthy (and) got a little bit of stuff in (schematically),” MSU defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton said Monday from Atlanta. “(And) we have an outstanding or good showing this week, well, hey, that helps catapult you. If it's an OK showing or if it's what we've been as we've gotten later in the year, you say, ‘OK, these are the pieces that we need to help and replace.’ ”

If you’re at all on social media, you know that some think that should include Hazelton. I don’t think that’s fair at this stage. We knew that MSU’s defense could be a rebuild early in the Mel Tucker era. Tucker just in the last few weeks said he told his team coming into the season that while he thought they had some punch, he also thought they lacked the depth to survive the rigors of a Big Ten slate. MSU got by for eight weeks and then ran out of steam and healthy bodies. Especially in the defensive backfield.

Even before then, the Spartans on their best days didn’t have a true edge rusher — though Jacub Panasiuk produced some well-timed sacks. They’ve had to manufacture a lot of their pressure on quarterbacks. For a while, Hazelton seemed to dial up the right blitz at the right time. Late in the year, though, he, like his players, often seemed out of answers.

MORE: MSU football in the transfer portal: Every incoming and outgoing player

Michigan State's Chester Kimbrough, right, returns an interception against Nebraska during overtime on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.
Michigan State's Chester Kimbrough, right, returns an interception against Nebraska during overtime on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

“The secondary, we’d love them to finish strong and be able to say, ‘OK, we've got something to hang our hat on,’ ” Hazelton said, “ ‘(that) we played the best receiver in the country and we did a great job with him.’ … But it really comes back to the D-line, too. It’s about them, too. We have to be able to get pressure on the quarterback. When we blitz our ‘backers or DBs, whoever is blitzing has to get home.”

Some of the answers might not yet be on MSU’s roster. Perhaps they’re coming this fall or in the class of 2023. Tucker and Co. have to be given time to recruit and develop, even if they haven’t asked for it. Even if they’ve won ahead of schedule. Even if they’re being paid like they should be ahead of schedule.

But MSU also shouldn’t continue to give up the most passing yards in college football. The Spartans shouldn’t look like the worst pass defense in the country in the Peach Bowl. If they do, that’ll be a legitimate concern.

This staff has gotten the most out of this roster in every other way.

MORE: How a meeting with Mat Ishbia led to more than just Mel Tucker's $95 million contract

Contact Graham Couch at gcouch@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.

This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: MSU football: Peach Bowl gives defense a chance to change its story

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