Michigan State has lost three straight games. Two of those came against Big Ten opponents. The Spartans have yet to beat a Power 5 conference opponent. Each loss has been by double digits, and Michigan State has only played three competitive quarters of football amongst those three games.
For the past two years, many of the Spartans' issues came on the defensive side of the football, which was something unthinkable for this program before this current coaching regime. It sounds like a broken record now, but Michigan State again has one of the worst passing defenses in the country.
Last season, Michigan State had Travares Tillman as their cornerbacks coach. That was the second year Tillman has been a position coach, with his first being at Colorado with Mel Tucker. This offseason, he left East Lansing and took a job as the defensive backs coach at his alma mater, Georgia Tech. He was replaced by Tucker himself, who has a history of coaching defensive backs.
Coach Harlon Barnett’s position was expanded from safeties coach to secondary coach. Barnett had past success with MSU’s secondary, including winning a Rose Bowl, Cotton Bowl and two Big Ten championships under former head coach Mark Dantonio.
Barnett left MSU in 2018 to become the defensive coordinator at Florida State, and Michigan State’s secondary has not been the same since. Even after Barnett flamed out at FSU after just two seasons and returned to East Lansing in 2020, the Spartans have still struggled to put a quality product on the field in the defensive secondary.
Whether it’s the different scheme, different style of coaching, or not the proper players, something isn’t working. Michigan State has not been able to recapture the success they had recruiting or developing defensive backs how they did in the early 2010s.
After the loss to Washington Tucker said he took the secondary situation personally, but the Spartans haven't shown much improvement since then, until the second half of the MSU-Maryland game.
Holding the Terrapins to six points the whole second half inspires hope, but that could be erased quickly. Michigan State will play host to the offensive juggernaut Ohio State next, which could get out of hand quickly.
MSU’s linebacker play is on a decline this season as well. After re-watching the game, it’s evident that the Spartan linebackers are often out of position, and therefore unable to make plays.
When Michigan State played Minnesota, the Gophers ran the ball to the weak side nearly the whole game. The Spartans overloaded the strong side of the field, which left the weak side wide open. Minnesota took advantage of that misalignment throughout the game.
Who coaches the linebackers? Defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton.
It becomes more difficult every week to defend the defensive coaching staff, outside of defensive line coach Marco Coleman and pass rush specialist Brandon Jordan.
I expect Hazelton to be gone by the end of this season. Barnett should be given a smaller role as well, with a return to safeties coach as the best option. Nickelback coach Ross Els should be out the door as well. The Spartans have tried so many players at nickelback, and none have worked.
Fans want some of these coaches gone now, but I don’t see that happening. The only window for that is the bye week, which is two weeks from now (Oct. 22).
Tucker has said that scheme isn’t the issue. I agree the scheme works, but it doesn’t fit the Spartans’ personnel. Rival Michigan uses a similar scheme with their defense, and it has worked extremely well for them. But, it’s not for everyone.
The majority of the talent on this team is still young. Although this is Tucker’s third season on the sideline, he was hired after National Signing Day in 2020, and then had to conduct his first recruiting cycle via Zoom while the nation dealt with the COVID pandemic.
Tucker’s first full recruiting class, 2021, are only true freshmen right now. His second class, 2022, is even more talented – on paper – but it’s going to take time for these younger players to develop and grow in the program.
With that being said, Michigan State’s budget for assistant coaches is large, and the university doesn’t have to settle for the product it is seeing on the field. The Spartans do have personnel concerns, but much of this coaching staff has not been able to put its players in the best position to succeed.
If you want my advice – Hire a new coordinator, maybe one who utilizes a similar scheme, but has a different coaching approach. Hire a full-time cornerbacks and linebackers coach.
These are the first steps towards getting back on track and rediscovering the success that this program had a season ago, and in year’s past.