Spartan Defense Getting Job Done
MSU Defense Feature
By Chelsey Stoa, Michigan State Athletic Communications Staff Assistant
Michigan State’s defense entered the 2017 season hungry and ready to prove themselves in the competitive Big Ten Conference.
And prove they have.
“It’s huge, and confidence has never been higher,” said sophomore defensive lineman Kenny Willekes of the Spartans’ early success in 2017. “We knew what we could do and that may have been a surprise to some other people. We know the team that we have and the defense that we have, so we just have to continue to have some more confidence going forward.”
At the halfway point of the regular season, the Spartan defense has been more than impressive. Starting just two seniors, MSU fans have a lot to look forward to not only the remainder of this season, but in seasons to come.
“I think this defense has incredible potential,” added Willekes. “You see there are a lot of young guys on the defense, including myself, who haven’t played a lot of football. Each game is just like another learning ground. We do something well, something bad; but we get in that film room and I’m learning more and more from each and every game as I grow. My teammates are doing the same, and we can keep getting better and better.”
As a unit, Michigan State’s defense has held opponents to just 262.3 yards of total offense per game, leading the Big Ten and ranking fourth in the country in total defense. Through seven games, MSU has allowed just 655 total rushing yards, ranking eighth in the country in rushing defense, allowing a paltry 93.6 yards per game. The Spartans are also ninth in the nation in passing yards allowed per game with just 168.7.
The Spartan defense has come up huge in every win this year, however, perhaps none bigger than the victory in the Big House two weeks ago when the Green and White forced five turnovers in arguably one of the biggest games of the season.
Another area this year’s MSU defense has shown great improvement from last year’s team is in the sack count. This year’s Spartan defense has already tallied 17 sacks, averaging 2.4 per contest. The 2016 Spartans totaled 11 sacks throughout the entire season.
Junior safety Khari Willis attributes the defensive success this season to having trust in one another on the field.
“As a defense we’ve been a lot better just sticking together and just making sure we get our job done,” said Willis. “Trying to know what’s coming, trying to talk and communicate out there with each other, and then we feed off each other as well. Joe Bachie, Chris Frey, Kenny Willekes, Demetrius Cooper and Raequan Williams, those guys are doing so well up front. We feed off that and it makes us want to lock up in the back. Then you bring a young guy in like Josiah Scott who is just a natural competitor, and then Justin Layne is just getting better. It’s really fun and our coaches are just doing a great job engaging with us and just helping us to get better.”
Perhaps one of this season’s biggest surprises is sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie. Bachie took over the Mike position after Riley Bullough graduated last year, leaving a huge hole for the Spartans. Bachie has not skipped a beat since assuming his new role as the ‘quarterback’ of the defense.
The sophomore leads the team in tackles with 63, including 27 of which have been solo stops. The sophomore also has 6.5 tackles for loss, adding 3.0 sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one pass break-up. The break-up was his first of his career and came on the final play at Michigan, sealing the victory for the Green and White.
“Joe has made plays since the day he got here,” said senior linebacker Chris Frey. “He picked up on our defense so fast and I’ve got so much respect for him. I feel like guys on the field are more comfortable when he’s out there because he knows what he’s doing. He’s going to take every run through he gets, and he’s making the calls out there and for how young he is...I think a lot of times people forget how young he is because of how well he’s playing. He’s a guy that played 100 snaps last year, maybe, on defense, and he didn’t really get much recognition, but you know he has come into this season and has shown people that he can play. He’s going to be a great player for us both now and in the future.”
Frey is one of only two seniors starting for the Spartan defense. The veteran linebacker has produced this season, ranking second on the team in sacks (3.5), and leading the team in fumble recoveries (2) and quarterback hurries (7). The senior also has 30 total tackles this season.
Also stepping up into a monster role for MSU is Willekes. The former walk-on leads the team in tackles for loss with 8.0 and also 4.0 sacks as part of his 39 total tackles, with 16 of them unassisted.
Multiple players have been impressive in the secondary this season, including Willis, freshman cornerback Josiah Scott and sophomore safety David Dowell.
Willis has been a mainstay in the Spartan secondary, sitting third on the team in total tackles with 43 and is second on the team in solo takedowns with 24. The junior snared his first career interception at Minnesota, and has also tallied 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack and two pass break-ups this year.
Dowell had arguably the best game of the season at Michigan, reeling in two interceptions, recovering a fumble, and registering a pass break-up in the win over UM.
Adding to the strong defense is Scott, who is a true freshman that came to campus in January and has contributed in big ways since stepping foot in East Lansing.
“Josiah is a mature individual, he works hard, he’s tough, can run, got great ball skills,” said head coach Mark Dantonio. “He plays with his back to the ball very effectively. And he reminds me a lot in terms of how he presents himself and how he handles himself of Darqueze Dennard, especially that Darqueze was a true freshman. And that’s admirable. Thus far, he’s been great.”
Associate head coach/co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett has helped lead this young defense to new heights this season.
“We tweaked some things up, and it’s made us better,” said Barnett. “As I said before, people study the champs, they study us to see how you beat them, and they talk about you and they find out ways to do certain things against us that we were doing for years. So we had to change some things up to help us be more effective and we did and our guys are executing.”
One thing is for sure, Spartan Nation has a lot to look forward to in the second half of the season.