MSU defense has breakthrough, coming of age

Spartans' defense started to put it together after some ups and downs early in the season. Against Nebraska, things were clicking.

On the second play of Saturday’s game against Nebraska, Connor Cook stepped up in the pocket under pressure and tried to dump a pass to Josiah Price.

Instead, it found the helmet of Nebraska defensive tackle Vincent Valentine and landed in the hands of defensive end Randy Gregory.

Just like that, the Michigan State defense found itself defending a short field. Three plays later and a loss of one yard later, the Huskers punted.

It was a quick showing that harkened back to previous Michigan State defenses and a statement that carried through much of Saturday’s 27-22 win.

Senior Taiwan Jones, one of the carryovers from the 2013 defense, said it was a coming of age game for the defense which features six new starters.

“I feel like it is,” Jones said Saturday. “I feel like this defense could be really special.

”I feel like this whole team could be really special.”

Through three quarters, the Spartans allowed just 153 yards to a team that entered averaging 572.6 yards per game – and just 24 on the ground compared to a 354.8 yards per game average.

But with a swarming, physical and, at times, dominant defensive performance, it went beyond statistics and numbers.

It came back to a mentality of being the “Spartan Dawg” defense that had been in the Top 6 in the nation the previous three seasons.

Linebacker Riley Bullough said it was a statement to what this edition of the Pat Narduzzi-led defense is capable of, even with the departure of mainstays Denicos Allen, Max Bullough, Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis.

”I wish we could have held on a little bit better in the end there, but through three quarters, I thought we played well,” he said. “I wish we could have finished, but I think we made a statement and we showed what we can do. We understand what kind of defense we are and what kind of guys we had.

”We know we lost guys from last year, we all know that, but I think we’ve got guys stepping up and filling in and we are going to be a great defense.”

The Spartans rank No. 12 in total defense through their first five games, but had shown some uncharacteristic coverage busts and weaknesses in the first four games. On Tuesday, coach Mark Dantonio said for the most part, the defense played “extremely well" against Nebraska.

”I sort of feel like it's a little bit of redemption maybe,” Dantonio said. “Guys played well, though. Specific players played well. Structurally we played extremely well and had great attention to detail.”

Junior linebacker Ed Davis said it was not a surprise that it took a few games to get on the same page as a group.

”We knew it was going to take a minute for us in game situations to communicate better and get everybody on the same page,” he said. “I feel like we really broke through this last game with communicating and not having any busts in coverages.

”I think we broke through.”

Now that things are clicking, the Spartans are out to keep the ball rolling and look to build more consistency, said senior defensive end Marcus Rush.

“I think we just showed the potential of who we can be and showed our identity,” Rush said. “I think we now know what we can do if we focus in. We can be confident in everyone, be excited and play our game and we can be a great defense.

”We just have to be consistent with that.”

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