It’s generally true in modern football that excellent offense beats excellent defense. Rules have shifted to limit contact with quarterbacks and receivers. Those rule changes, made available to physical specimens who would’ve been high-level basketball wings 15 years ago, make defending even harder. 7-on-7 drills passing game skills into players from earlier ages. And so, some of the numbers yielded through the air by Michigan State’s offense can be hand-waved a bit.
536 yards from Aidan O’Connell? OK, Purdue did that to a number of other teams. Ditto with CJ Stroud’s astounding 32/35 line for 432 and 6, which could have been worse if OSU had left him in longer - dude was a Heisman finalist and will be a top 10 draft pick next year. Bailey Zappe’s Western Kentucky set a number of season-long passing records, so his 488 yards and 3 TDs honestly could have been worse.
383 yards from Cade McNamara’s to-that-point training wheels Michigan passing attack. 313 yards from Sean Clifford in a blizzard, only held back by James Franklin’s terrible game management. 283 yards and 3 TDs from Hunter Johnson.
Not great, Spartan Bob!
From a personnel standpoint, there’s a lot of carryover in the back end. Corners Ronald Williams, Marqui Lowery, and Chuck Brantley will be joined by Georgia transfer Ameer Speed. Nickel Darius Snow is moving to linebacker, and former outside corner Chester Kimbrough is rotating to nickel. Safeties Angelo Grose and Xavier Henderson are both back, and a couple of well-regarded true freshmen in Dillon Tatum and Jaden Mangham figure to crack the rotation at one spot or another.
It’s somewhat telling, however, that after last year’s calamitous results, the coaching staff only brought in one transfer in the secondary (Speed) to try to improve things. Mel Tucker has also referred to the struggles defending the pass as being about more than coverage, and suggested that the pass rush needs to get home quicker on a more consistent basis. With DEs Jacub Panasiuk and Drew Beesley moving on, Jeff Pietrowski was the only returning end who has shown much in the way of pass-rushing chops.
Ergo, when Ron Burton moved on, Tucker sought out a pass rush specialist to join the staff in Brandon Jordan. He also focused his portal efforts on front seven pass rushers, bringing in DE Khris Bogle and LB Jacoby Windmon to shore up that aspect of the team. It was surprising, but perhaps telling of the staff’s philosophy, that the staff added two high-impact transfers to a linebacking group that had a freshman All-American in Cal Haladay and an athletic freak in Quavaris Crouch (who has since portaled out). Relentless talent acquisition, even at the risk of established players opting to bail, is just how this staff is going to operate.
If the Spartans can find a way to pressure strong quarterbacks more effectively, the spine of the run defense will likely remain strong. For all the grousing I’ve done about the state of the roster at the end of the Dantonio era, the defensive tackle group has required zero transfusion whatsoever. Jacob Slade and Simeon Barrow are a hell of a combo, and the depth is excellent in guys like Maverick Hansen, Dashaun Mallory, and Jalen Hunt. Add true freshman Alex VanSumeren and, at least on the interior, the ability to rotate could resemble the national elites.