EAST LANSING, Mich. — The Michigan State players ran over to the band with helmets pumping in the air after Saturday’s 17-10 win over Iowa.
Linebacker Chris Frey stood front and center, hopping around and dancing to the rendition of DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win” as if he’d just chugged an energy drink. But he hadn’t — as far as we knew. He’d just played four quarters of a grueling game.
But this Michigan State defense, particularly its linebacking corps, has been relentless in 2017. As games progress, the Spartans haven’t slowed. They’ve only locked in further. In four games, the defense has allowed 13 second-half points.
The defense will need to be at its best next Saturday against Michigan. The Wolverines lead the Big Ten in total defense (Michigan State ranks third) and will be going against a Spartans offense that has failed to score 20 points in each of its past two games.
But the Spartans defense likely won’t have a problem with that. It relished the challenge on Saturday.
“We had a lot of fun out there,” sophomore linebacker Joe Bachie said. “We knew it was a big matchup. We knew that we had to show up for this Big Ten game. I was just excited for the whole defense. Offense struggled a little today.”
Bachie, Frey and fellow linebackers Andrew Dowell and Antjuan Simmons flew around the field against Iowa, seemingly being everywhere all at once. Bachie recovered the first of two fumbles, and Frey corralled the second. The four combined for 22 tackles, 4.5 of which went for a loss.
They helped frustrate Iowa into a dreadful outing running the ball, with 19 yards on 25 carries. Star running back Akrum Wadley managed 30 yards and averaged 1.8 per carry. The Hawkeyes had 6 three-and-outs; Michigan State had none.
“We knew coming into this game what kind of game it was going to be,” Frey said. “We knew it was going to be physical. They pride themselves on being tough. We pride ourselves on being tough. And we just wanted to show that we were the tougher team.”
The defensive line deserves a lot of credit for the linebackers’ success. Those linemen occupied blockers while Bachie, Frey and Co. played with reckless abandon and built their gaudy stat lines.
“Raequan [Williams] and Mike Panasiuk, they’re playing great right now,” Bachie said, referring to the starting defensive tackles. “Kenny [Willekes] is playing out of his mind. [Demetrius Cooper] had a good day. I can go down that whole line. They’re just working their butts off up front.”
Kenny Willekes, a former walk-on at defensive end, seemed to have no trouble getting into the backfield at will. Neither did his teammates. The Spartans racked up 9 tackles for loss and 8 quarterback hurries. Cooper effectively ended the game with a strip sack that kept the clock moving.
That pressure allowed the Michigan State secondary to have another strong outing. Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley finished 16 for 31 with no touchdowns (for the first time this season) and a 103.6 passer rating (easily his lowest of the season).
Stanley had his moments, namely a few big completions on third down. A couple went against Josiah Scott, the freshman who had been garnering national recognition. For the first time at Michigan State, he had to figure out how to flush out getting beaten by a receiver and move on to the next play.
“I focus on playing the pass,” he said. “Everybody’s going to get beat once in the whole year. Nobody’s perfect. Nobody’s just going to give up zero catches every single day. You have to have the mindset that if I get beat once, oh well, just go out there and give your best and don’t let it happen again.”
It helps to learn that lesson before Michigan week. The last glaring issue this Spartans defense needed to iron out before facing the Wolverines was their lack of forcing turnovers. Scott did his part, forcing the second fumble of the game with a hit on Iowa’s Brandon Smith.
Michigan got a jump on preparation with a bye before next weekend’s showdown at Michigan Stadium. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said he would give his squad 24 hours to celebrate and start preparation on Monday. But several players on his stout defense likely won’t wait that long.
“I’m probably going to go home and start watching film right now,” Panasiuk said Saturday night. “That’s a big thing for me. I like to get ahead of the game, see what they do and what kind of team they are. I’m probably going to start tonight.”
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