In Mel Tucker’s third-year defensive coordinator mind, the Spartans are not too far from being better than the stats show.
“There's a lot of bang-bang plays out there that we say, ‘Dang it, you know, we just need to tighten up in alignment or tighten up a position’ or something like that.’ And then those bang-bang plays will be made,” Hazelton said Tuesday. “And that's really what's been hurting us a little bit is this little details. It's the death-by-inches stuff. …
“Are we super far away? No. Do we have little things that are adding up that are making us seem far away? Sure. And those are the things that we really got to tighten up.”
The numbers, however, say something much different as MSU (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) heads to Maryland (3-1, 0-1) on Saturday. Both in the past two games and over the course of the past three seasons.
Trying to 'block out' the boos
In 24 games under Hazelton and Tucker, the Spartans have given up 400 or more yards 15 times, including 500 or more in six of those games. MSU opponents average 418.9 yards of offense and 27.5 points per game in Hazelton’s tenure.
That includes giving up more than 1,000 yards of total offense the past two weeks — 503 in a 39-28 loss at Washington and 508 in Saturday’s 34-7 home defeat against Minnesota. Fans at home Saturday delivered boos as the Spartans trailed the Gophers 24-0 after three quarters, but Hazleton said it is imperative for his players to not let that be a bother.
“As a family — as a family in football and as a family, my family — we've always talked about: try to block out all the outside noise,” he said. “What's here is the truth, right? What's here on the inside is the truth. And the people in the room, when we meet on defense and people in the room when we meet as a team or on special teams, that's really what matters.
“It's about us. It's the warriors that actually go out there getting better and what can we see that we need to improve on. Can we see who the guys who are battling and fighting and scratching and working hard every day are doing to get better? And as long as we can see that, you try to block out all the outside noise as you go.”
MSU’s pass defense remains its loudest problem, though.
Last year, the Spartans ranked last in the country in passing yards allowed at 324.8 per game. Through four games this season, MSU ranks 101st in passing yards allowed at 265.2. However, that includes facing a first-time starting quarterback in Western Michigan's Jack Salopek and Akron's backup Jeff Undercuffler for three quarters of that victory.
Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. dissected the Spartans for 397 yards and four touchdowns, while Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan passed for 268 yards and three scores. And MSU has to face Maryland’s Taulia Tagovailoa this week and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud the following Saturday, two more experienced quarterbacks who combined for 782 yards and seven touchdowns through the air against the Spartans last season.
Opponents have averaged nearly 290 yards passing in their 24 games against Hazelton’s 4-2-5 defense. The past two Saturdays, Penix and Morgan found huge openings in seemingly soft coverage to hit receivers. The Spartans are one of just four teams in the 131-team Football Bowl Subdivision without an interception this season.
“I think if you really watch it, we mix it up quite a bit,” Hazelton said. “Sometimes we're off, sometimes we’re on. It's a different deal. We’ve played man, we’ve played zone. We've done all of those things. So as we continue to go, we'll continue to see what we're good at and continue to play those. And it'll change up depending on what it is.
“Sometimes you'll see, if you watch the game, sometimes the dudes are up in pressing all day and then they're back and then they move all over. So that'll continue to be as we as we go through, 'Hey, see what the matchups are, see what it looks like, see who's playing' and all those kind of things, and we'll adjust it as it goes.”
Injuries adding up
Last year, a number of injuries at cornerback caused some of the late-season problems. This fall already, the Spartans’ depth at all three levels has been eroded.
They lost linebacker Darius Snow and safety Xavier Henderson in the opener against WMU. Defensive tackle Jacob Slade got hurt against Akron and didn’t travel to Washington. Defensive end Jeff Pietrowski went out early against the Huskies and didn’t play against Minnesota. Then MSU had three more linemen — defensive end Khris Bogle and defensive tackles Simeon Barrow and Maverick Hansen — get hurt against the Gophers, with only Hansen returning to finish the game.
“The thing that we look at is there's a lot of plays out there that we say, 'Gee, if we were here — this is things that we need to tighten up, and we need to look at those things.' And that's what we've been working on throughout the week as we go,” Hazelton said. “It's something that you say listen, as the next man up, you need to get that guy as experienced as the last guy so we can be tighter on things.”
Problems now are emerging beyond the pass defense, particularly as injuries chip away the depth up front.
MSU allowed 346 rushing yards against the Huskies and Gophers, who got 103 of their 240 on Saturday from Mohamed Ibrahim. Morgan also gained three first downs with his legs as the Gophers went 10-for-12 on third down.
Defensive tackle Derrick Harmon reiterated Tuesday what both defensive end Jacoby Windmon and safety Kendell Brooks said Saturday; the Spartans prepared for Ibrahim and the Minnesota ground game, but not for what Morgan did with his arm and legs.
“That whole week, we were focused on them running the ball,” Harmon said. “So that whole week was focused on stopping the run and stopping the rest off the run. So when they came out (throwing the ball), that threw us off a little bit. But we made the corrections on the sideline, then tried to come back and do it.”
MSU ranks 107th in the nation this season and next-to-last in the Big Ten in allowing opposing offenses to covert 43.3% of their third downs. Also not helping matters: The Spartans’ defense remained on the field for 12 minutes in the first quarter against Washington and 11:40 against the Gophers and they don’t have a sack the past two games after registering 12 in the first two wins to open the season.
“Different things show up as you go through, and it's getting the guys as force-fed experience as you can get them so that we can be able to tighten that stuff up and play better,” Hazelton said. “And really, it's getting off the field on third down. … When you boil it down, there's times — especially in the first half — that it was disappointing we couldn’t get off the field, whether it was rush, or coverage or whatever.”
Tucker said Monday the Spartans are "determined and optimistic."
"Because we're capable of correcting these things," he said. "And the players know it."
Tagovailoa, who got hurt late in the Terps loss at Michigan on Saturday, presents a similar challenge to what both Penix and Morgan and even Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell showed in throwing for a Hazelton era-worst 536 yards: a quarterback who can get rid of the ball on a short drop and also presents the potential to escape the pocket with his legs.
Hazelton, though, appeared confident his players can make the adjustments to prevent a third straight game of the other team’s offense asserting control from the outset.
“I don't know if it's a short-term fix. I think we need the next man up, we just got to keep working with that guy and get him to be right,” he said. “Is it a personnel problem? No. I mean, we have players in the room that are tough, that are physical. They work like crazy, man. Those guys work at an exceptional rate and they grind every day at practice. And so those guys, like, it's the truth, if we're going into a war or something was going to happen. There's a lot of dudes in that room that you would say, hey, come with me. I'll take these dudes anywhere with me because they are battlers like that and they're strainers.
“Do they know all the time? No, they don't know those things. And we're getting those things tighter. And we got a bunch of good coaches in the room that are working on that stuff to get it clean.”
Hazelton, who said he and Tucker “have been a collaboration all year,” said the mission of the coaches right now is to use what the Spartans are doing well on defense and coach them up on the issues.
“That's really what it's about. It's about looking inside,” Hazelton said. “Just like when everything else in life goes (poorly), you just look at yourself first and say ‘OK, what can I do to get better?’ That's what we all do — ‘OK, I can do this, I can do this.’ And we're trying to help and guide our young men to do those same things, not only on the field but with everything else that's going on in life.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Scottie Hazelton: Michigan State defense not super far away