By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. – All Michigan State has to do to find the defensive prowess that led the Spartans to Big Ten Championships and major bowls is follow a very simple MAP.
“We’re putting a big emphasis on getting turnovers and making plays,” said junior outside linebacker Andrew Dowell. “We call it M-A-P, make a play, whether is the D-line getting sacks or putting pressure on the QB, DBs locking up, linebackers raking at the ball.
“We should get back to that.”
With just 11 quarterback sacks and 13 forced turnovers en route to a 3-9 record in 2016, MSU had strayed drastically off the course it took the year before to the Big Ten title and College Football Playoff. In 2015 the Spartans recorded 37 sacks (2.6 per game) and led the conference with 28 takeaways and a plus-1 turnover margin. Senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun had 10.5 sacks all by himself.
In fact, there may be no more telling statistical cause-and-effect for Michigan State’s success under coach Mark Dantonio than the correlation between turnovers and winning. Since 2007, Dantonio’s Spartans are 57-12 (.826) when forcing at least two turnovers in a game.
Prior to last season, MSU set the league standard in turnovers for three consecutive years. Along the way to capping the 2014 campaign with a win over Baylor in the Cotton Bowl, the Spartans forced 34 turnovers and had a plus-19 turnover margin to go with 42 sacks.
And in 2013, MSU’s Big Ten and Rose Bowl champions took the ball away 28 times for a plus-13 turnover margin and corralled opposing quarterbacks on 32 occasions.
To put it another way, the Spartans dropped from fourth in the nation in turnover margin in ’15 to 101st, at minus-0.42, in ’16.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an embarrassment,” said Dowell, who had one sack and one of MSU’s eight interceptions in ’16. “But we obviously want to get better. None of the stats we had last year were satisfactory with turnovers and pressure on the QB.”
Fewer forced turnovers and sacks – which often have the same effect as a sack -- mean fewer opportunities for the offense, which in the previous three seasons often began drives with optimal field position after getting the ball on a turnover or third-down sack.
What’s more, the Michigan State defense had been an offensive force in its own right. In 2015, the Spartans converted turnovers into 108 points, including five defensive touchdowns (three on fumble returns and two on interception runbacks). Of Michigan State’s 13 fumble recoveries that season, five were returned for 194 yards compared to zero return yardage on a total of five fumble recoveries in ’16.
Turnovers and sacks are typically the result of aggression, which can be inhibited by inexperience, and Michigan State had no choice by to rely on plenty of green players last season due to injuries and other factors.
Junior safety Grayson Miller refused to point out the Spartans’ youth as an excuse, but used it to help explain why the defense faltered. After all, he knows first-hand what it’s like to endure a baptism by fire because he and fellow defensive back Khari Willis got their first starts as true freshmen in the dramatic 2015 win at Michigan.
Junior safety Grayson Miller will help lead the Spartan secondary this fall.
“You know what, I will never say you’ll be better off from going through as many struggles as we did last year, but there is definitely different learning that came from it,” he said. “There’s good learning that can come from playing in big-time wins and games like Khari and I did our freshman year.”
Justin Layne went through the same sudden-immersion treatment as a true freshman in ’16 after switching from wide receiver to cornerback midseason. In his first career start, against Northwestern, Layne returned an interception for one of MSU’s two defensive touchdowns last year.
However, Layne was new to everything he did and is expected to improve significantly as his knowledge and experience catch up to his instincts and natural abilities.
“Justin Layne played (immediately) coming in as a wide receiver and played through (five) starts at corner just letting him play because he’s such a good athlete,” Miller said. “I think he’ll be a much better player for that. Sometimes, whenever the season isn’t going the way you want, you kind of just let guys play a little bit. You’re not as focused on every single mistake somebody’s making; you’re just making sure guys are ready for the next season or the next week, whatever it may be.
“I think definitely younger guys got experience and that’s a good thing. In the DB room, we don’t have any seniors, and that’s going to be a challenge for sure, but we have four guys at safety that have legit game-experience – me, Khari Willis, Matt Morrissey, David Dowell – who are ready to step up as third- and fourth-year guys. From that standpoint, it’s going to be as competitive as can be and on the outside we have young guys stepping up like Justin Layne, Josiah Scott and Josh Butler.”
Miller, whose father John intercepted eight passes for MSU in 1987, said the Spartans have no choice but to return to their ball-hawking and quarterback-swarming ways.
“Without a doubt, it just needs to be better,” Miller said. “There’s no more excuses for it. I think we have guys that are going to be very talented this year getting to the passer – guys have stepped up this spring. I know I play a little more in control now than as a freshman.
“There are a lot of guys in the DB room who are going to push each other. It was a very competitive spring, and the only way to get on the field when everybody’s at the same level from a mental standpoint is to simply make the play. Don’t just tackle the guy for a 5-yard gain, knock the ball out, get the tackle-for-loss, be able to see things just a second quicker so you’re able to get their even quicker than the other guy.”
According to third-year sophomore defensive tackle Raequan Williams, the false sense of security that had permeated Michigan State because of previous success has been eliminated.
“Last year did humble us,” said Williams, who had two sacks, four quarterback hurries and one forced one fumble in 11 games. “We thought that because we were Michigan State, we were supposed to go out there and just win. The biggest thing I learned is it takes work – you have to give it your all every day.
“Nobody wants to get as (few) sacks as we got last year. That was a big focus this spring and coaches put us in position to make better plays. It’s going to be different. We’re just ready to get the bad taste out of our mouth.”