November 1, 2012

Defensive Update: MSU healthy enough for a run?

EAST LANSING - When bumps and bruises start to add up for football teams late in the season, this is apparently when Michigan State grows stronger.

At least that's been the case during Mark Dantonio's tenure with the Spartans. And Michigan State is confident that they are well-seasoned for the 2012 stretch run, beginning Saturday against No. 21-ranked Nebraska.

Michigan State is 14-3 in the month of November with Dantonio as head coach.

Although Michigan State is one of only two Big Ten teams to have not had a bye week (Ohio State is the other), Dantonio says his Spartans are getting healthier.

"I think we're as good as we've been in the last three weeks," Dantonio said, in terms of injuries. "We've got guys back. The guys who were going to come back, I think we're as good as we've been."

Two starting offensive linemen are still out for the year, but left tackle Dan France came off the bench last week and managed to regain some steam, as did tight end Dion Sims.

Former starting fullback Niko Palazeti is back to full reps in practice.

Former starting linebacker Chris Norman is battling injuries, but has been supplanted by sophomore Taiwan Jones, who is performing at an All-Big Ten level.

Former starting free safety Jairus Jones has been out since the Indiana game and remains questionable, but has been outperformed by sophomore Kurtis Drummond.

Drummond missed a couple of snaps during last weekend's victory at Wisconsin, as did cornerback Johnny Adams. But Adams has apparently snapped back fine in practice this week.

"He'll be fine for the game," defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett said of Adams on Wednesday.

Adams seems to have lost some foot speed due to physical aggravations in recent weeks, and staggered off the field a few times last week with what appeared to be a shoulder ailment.

"I'm always on the positive side, thinking he would be fine," Barnett said. "And he said, 'I'm ready coach.' So he will be ready to go."

Nickel back R.J. Williamson missed last week's game and is questionable for Saturday.

Coaches aren't about to let injuries and bad luck of the bye week draw be adopted as an excuse for their players.

"We're healthy," Dantonio said, "and looking forward right now, which is positive. We're not looking back at what happened last week. We're looking forward. That's a big positive for us."

Terrific Matchup

Saturday's MSU-Nebraska game (3:30 p.m.) pits the Big Ten's best offense against the conference's best defense. The two teams are also regarded as possibly the two most physical teams in the conference, giving the Spartans an appropriate test at the outset of November, one week before the bye.

"Guys are banged up all across the country at all levels of football," Barnett said, "but can you keep pushing and finish? Have the right mental makeup to be able to finish a game and a season? That is something that we have stressed over the course of our time being here and guys have bought into it. They understand it and it means something to them."

This possibly has carried over to MSU's strong November record under Dantonio.

"We talk about it back in the winter program, finishing," Barnett said. "That's all you hear: finish, finish, finish. We even bring up the fact that at the end of the season you have to be able to finish."

Strong November finishes allowed MSU to play for the Big Ten title in 2008 (losing at No. 3-ranked Penn State), win a share of the Big Ten title in 2010, and capture the Big Ten Legends Division title last year.

MSU is still mathematically alive for the Big Ten title this season, but will need to win out, and then receive help from others.

Dantonio challenged his players to go 4-0 in the last one-third of the season, following a bitter loss at Michigan. MSU succeeded in step one, by beating Wisconsin and breaking the Badgers' 21-game home win streak.

"We understand where we're at right now, but let's see where we're at at the end," Dantonio said. "Let's focus on the next game, not worry about things too far in the distance.

"We have played well in November around here. We need to continue doing that. I think it gives credit to our players, how they've hung in there regardless of what season we've had. They've hung in there and played well down the stretch, which is a positive thing for us.

"It's been a big emphasis for us.  September you're out of conference. October you're in conference. Then you have to finish. The same thing I mentioned. November has been sort of what we've tried to say around here is for contenders."

Hicks & White Ready Again

Last week, defensive back Mylan Hicks received the first quality playing time of his career, serving as the nickel back for a handful of plays in the victory at Wisconsin.

Hicks, who came to MSU as a three-star recruit, ranked the No. 8 player in the state of Michigan, was bothered by injuries in his first two seasons with the Spartans.

This year, he has been listed as a third-string cornerback, but has repped as the No. 2 'star' in the nickel defense. The 'star' plays in the slot area for the nickel.

Junior Isaiah Lewis has served strongly in the slot area as the 'star' in the nickel since his freshman year in 2010. Lewis is a deep safety for the regular defense in non-passing situations.

Williamson customarily plays a deep safety along with Drummond in the nickel defense, moving Lewis up to the slot area.

But Williamson was lost to an injury late last week. With Jairus Jones unavailable due to a lower body injury which he sustained at Indiana, Lewis had to play deep safety in the nickel defense in Williamson's place.

This meant Hicks had to play Lewis's usual role at the 'star' position in the slot area.

"Due to injuries and things like that, his opportunity has arisen and he has taken advantage of it," Barnett said. "We always talk about: When your opportunity comes, be ready to go. He did a good job last week."

Hicks (5-11, 192, Detroit Renaissance) played fewer than five snaps, but made some noise with a tackle on a third-down draw during Wisconsin's last drive of regulation. He also covered well on the last play of regulation, which resulted in a Kyler Elsworth sack.

"Mylan has continued to work hard each and every practice, regardless of his situation, where he is located on the depth chart," Barnett said. "He is a hard worker. He only knows one speed and he goes full speed in everything that he does, and he has an understanding of what we are trying to do and he got an opportunity last week."

White (5-11, 185, Sr., Livonia Stevenson) saw action as Adams' back-up at field safety, and as a makeshift back-up for Drummond at field safety.

With Jones and Williamson out, White - a venerable former walk-on - became the emergency manager for a few snaps at field safety when Drummond had to sit for a little while.

White has been a second-string CB for four years. But in the last two or three weeks, he added safety to his list of duties.

"We talk about the rotations if things happen prior to the game so he knew it could be a possibility that he could go in at that position," Barnett said. "He has always been a guy that had a great understanding of what we do, and just by sitting in the room that much longer over the course of time he has an even better understanding of what we are trying to do at all positions. There are certain guys in the room that you can just say, 'Hey, get in there and play safety. Or go out there and play corner,' and they can do multiple things. He is one of those guys.

"We have always stressed in the past the more you know the more opportunity you will have to get on the field."

White was on the field for Wisconsin's final play of regulation, during a situation in which the Badgers conceivably could have gotten into field goal range with a 25-yard pass. White was tasked with covering Wisconsin's top receiver, Jared Abbrederis, as Adams was lost on the previous snap to the shoulder problem on a deep shot.

Barnett didn't flinch when assigning White to cover Abbrederis with the game on the line.

"Put him in there he can do it," Barnett said.

Barnett didn't reveal whether Williamson and Jones will be available this week.

"They are both battling back, trying to get back soon," Barnett said. "We'll see. They're trying to push through it. We just have to see on gameday."

Hicks and Mitchell will be ready, and approach Saturday with an extra layer of experience.

"We'll just keep moving forward and see who gets healthy and who understands the plan and move forward from there," Barnett said. "We'll just see how guys come out through this week."

Leverage Through Pain

Credit Adams and Lewis with a hidden gem of a defensive play midway through the fourth quarter last week.

After Lawrence Thomas fumbled at the MSU 18-yard line with 8:17 left in the game, the Spartans desperately needed to keep the Badgers out of the end zone in order to stay within seven points of Wisconsin.

On first down, Wisconsin challenged MSU with a speed option flanker reverse to Abbrederis out of a jumbo Wildcat set. Adams and Robinson stayed home on the back side, played with sound containment, and snuffed out what could have been a dangerous play for a gain of 7.

Adams did an excellent job of seeing the reverse pitch, and circling back with a smart, conservative angle while Robinson got off a block and helped leverage the ball as well.

"They leveraged it up well, eye control," Barnett said of Adams and Robinson. "We talk about leverage all the time, leveraging the pile, leverage the ball, use one another back there and they did a good job on that play."

Wisconsin kicked a field goal three snaps later to extend its lead to 10-3. MSU remained within a touchdown for its game-tying drive.

Also credit Robinson with a huge pass break-up on third down in overtime.

Martinez Up Next

Nebraska QB Taylor Martinez has racked up 7,801 yards of total offense in his career, and needs just 115 to surpass 2001 Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch to become the Huskers' all-time leader in that category.

Martinez injured his left ankle in the first half of last week's victory over Michigan, but is expected to be fine on Saturday.

"He is very athletic, first of all. That's his number one trait," Barnett said. "He is throwing the ball well down the field this year. And he'll look to the sideline and understand the checks and knows how to put the team in the right play."

Notes To Go

  • The Michigan State defense had a season-high 12 tackles for loss (59 yards) and posted five
    sacks at Wisconsin. The Spartans totaled only six sacks in their first eight games.

  • MSU has
    recorded 21 tackles for loss (88 yards) in the last two games (against Michigan and Wisconsin).

  • The Spartan defense held Wisconsin to 190 total yards, the first time the Badgers have managed less than 200 yards since Nov. 20, 2004 (186 vs. Iowa).

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