There is no other way to frame it, so it’s best to just lay it out there as-is: Michigan State’s secondary hasn’t played very well through the first six games of the year.
In fact, the No. 7-ranked Spartans’ (6-0, 2-0 Big Ten) defensive backfield has been quite a let-down when compared to the previous “No Fly Zone” era spearheaded by former star corner Darqueze Dennard. A couple of years ago, nothing escaped the reach of coach Mark Dantonio’s safeties and corners.
Things are different this year. Things are flat.
And those deficiencies can greatly influence the outcome of a game, especially against a surging team such as Michigan (5-1, 2-0 B1G)–the No. 12-ranked team in the nation with the No. 2-ranked passing defense (118 YPG) in the country.
“You know, it’s so funny you said that because I’m sitting here about two hours ago, watching ESPN Classic–they had the 2007 game on–and you know, Michigan State was winning, and they end up giving up a bomb…” said legendary Spartans defensive back Amp Campbell (1994-1999). “It was Chad Henne to Mario Manningham. Chad threw Manningham a bomb, and Manningham catches the ball for the game-winning touchdown.”
Trailing 24-21 with 2:28 to remaining in the fourth, Henne heaved a 31-yard back-breaker that gave the Wolverines a 28-24 victory. The secondary broke, and the Spartans paid the cost.
“That’s big,” Campbell said of plays such as Henne to Mannigham. “If a team has a secondary that’s weak, and you’re throwing the football (against it), you can pick and choose to run, run, run and set up the play-action pass–or you could throw the ball every down if you want because you feel like ‘my guy is better than the guy across from him.'”
At the end of the day, things are relatively simple. The “my guy is better” idea applied in 2007 when Henne ripped his way to 311 yards, and it’ll probably apply Saturday for Jake Rudock, who could methodically pick apart Michigan State’s sensitive areas thanks to a group of ascending receivers. Kind of like what Rutgers quarterback Chris Laviano did this past week to the Spartans. If they’re not careful, Rudock could do much worse than 15-for-24, 208 yards and three touchdowns.
“If you have guys who can’t cover guys, that’s going to be an issue,” said Campbell, who coaches corners at Kent State. “But I think those guys, like last week, I got the opportunity to watch a little bit at the end against Rutgers. I think they didn’t play very well, and I’m sure (secondary coach Harlon) Barnett and Coach D (Mark Dantonio) took that to heart and got some things fixed. But if you can’t cover guys, you’re going to get exposed.”
Today, lack of execution at those positions has resulted in an uncharacteristic dip in production. As of right now, Michigan State has the No. 10-ranked passing defense in the Big Ten, allowing an alarming 242 yards per game. That’s a far cry from the days when the Spartans ruled the airways.
Teams are throwing at will. Michigan State has faced 196 passes this year, about 20 percent more than Michigan–the opposition recognizes the weakness and will continue to pick until corrections are made. The Spartans have surrendered 1,452 yard and nine touchdowns through the air.
There isn’t a ton to fear back there–especially given all of the injuries: Darian Hicks may miss Saturday due to a concussion suffered in Week 6, R.J. Williamson will miss the game due to a bicep surgery, and the lack of overall depth seems to be an issue, according to Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press.
On the flip-side, Michigan’s secondary is playing very well. Dantonio said so during Tuesday’s conference call, actually. He knows what his team is up against. That puts the onus on Spartans senior quarterback Connor Cook, who all but certainly controls his team’s fate.
However, the Wolverines must respect his arm–and his 1,334 yards and 12 touchdown passes (and just two interceptions). It’ll take a lot of effort to disrupt one of Michigan State’s greatest big-gamers. But the Wolverines have the firepower–just take a look at junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis, who has three picks, and redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers, who is one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the nation.
“I think if you’re playing against Connor Cook, you want to make him as uncomfortable as possible,” said Campbell. “He has a very strong arm, and you have to be tight–you’ve got to have tight coverage on your guy–because he has the arm that can squeeze and fit it up in there. I think you’ve got to give him different looks, if you’re playing against Connor, and just press coverage on the outside. Things like that.
At the end of the day, Connor has to lead, man. He has to play one of his best games this coming weekend.”
Sure, the pressure is on Cook to perform well–just like the pressure was on Bill Burke to do the same about 16 years ago. Cook’s going to need some help, though, just like Burke received during his headline battle with Michigan.
Despite giving up 396 yards through the air, the Spartans found ways to makes plays on Michigan’s receivers. Conversely, Burke did his part by throwing for 400 yards. This year’s battle may not produce such a display, but it could very easily be decided by the secondary that makes the fewest mistakes.
“I think 1999 was a big year for us,” said Campbell. “Those guys came in highly ranked, and I think we were in the top 15, if I’m not mistaken, and I think they were in the top three. They had a lot of hype at the receiver spot with David Terrell. Our secondary played well against those guys. We ended up winning 34-31.
The score may have looked closer than what it was, but I think our secondary’s experience propelled us. That was a big win for us, but at the end of the day, our secondary made a few more plays defensively than those guys did offensively.”