When the sun goes down Saturday evening, MSUâ€™s defensive backs will be talked about. The gameâ€™s outcome will largely determine the tone and topic around watering holes from Chicago to East Lansing. Last yearâ€™s Northwestern squad torched the MSU defense for more than 500 passing yards. Few defensive performances have ever looked so dismal as the one MSU turned in against NW in 2007.
Missed tackles, blown assignments, lack of talent and toughness were the words that Spartan fans dared utter around the coffee pot on Sunday morning. Northwesternâ€™s wide receivers all looked Charles Rogers fast, had hands like Andre Rison and could break tackles like Plaxico Burress. This was the same Northwestern team that stayed home during the holiday season with a losing record.
So how did Michigan Stateâ€™s secondary look so bad last season, while Northwesternâ€™s offense looked so good? I donâ€™t have the answer, but here is a logical explanation. Michigan Stateâ€™s defensive backs were implementing a scheme that was new to them. Even though they had played against spread teams under JLS every week, they lacked the coaching, discipline, talent and communication to shut Northwesternâ€™s spread offense down. A year later things look much better (ignore the IU game film).
In all fairness to our DBâ€™s, I am not sure that Northwesternâ€™s offense can be completely shut down. Pressuring Bacher (NW QB) will be very difficult. He does not hold onto the ball long and rarely does NW put him in a situation long enough for his protection to break down. What this means is that MSUâ€™s secondary is going to have to make plays on the football. They are going to have to create collisions that separate the receivers from the football. They are going to have to create turnovers. They are going to need to communicate and be sure handed tacklers when they are matched up in the open field.
The credit for this yearâ€™s improvement in the secondary has to go to both Harlon Barnett and Coach Dantonio. This yearâ€™s defensive backfield is a huge improvement over last yearâ€™s group that featured two seniors that were decent football players (Travis Key and Nemo). It is likely that MSUâ€™s best cover corner will not see the field for a couple weeks. Chris L. Rucker will be missed this Saturday. Step back and look at the depth that Harlon has created in the defensive secondary.
Otis Wiley: Currently on track to be 1st team All Big Ten. He has been everywhere. When the communication is right, Wiley is among the best in the conference. He is stout against the run and is a solid coverman.
Chris L. Rucker: The star of the defense when asked to cover the oppositionâ€™s best receiver. He is currently doubtful due to an arm injury. When Rucker is on the field, he has excellent deep ball judgment, he is a sure tackler and has a knack for separating the receiver from the ball.
Jeremy Ware: He was once thought to be a reach to get any considerable playing time and is now listed as a potential starter and playing his best football. He has been a bonus for the MSU secondary.
Johnny Adams: True freshman from Akron, Ohio who is playing corner for the first time in his football career. Played both QB and LB in high school and is now the playing winning football. He is very confident and among the fastest players on the roster.
Dan Fortner: He was thrown onto the field against a very potent Cal offense and looked a little slow to react. Ever since Dan was forced into duty as a starter, he has improved every week and has been a plus player against the run and has been able to make numerous plays on the ball that were destined for endzone. Fortner has solidified his position after Kendall Davis-Clark was injured against Cal and it is likely heâ€™ll retain his job until graduation.
Kendall Davis-Clark: KDC is arguably the most versatile of this group having played both â€˜lock-downâ€™ corner and safety. His return this weekend against NW could be the difference between a win or a loss. Look for Davis-Clark early and often this weekend.
Marcus Hyde: Marcus came in last week for Otis Wiley and played like a fourth linebacker. Hydeâ€™s tackling was crucial against Iowa last week. He showed both fans and teammates alike that he was willing to put a hat on the ball carrier and certainly looked comfortable laying the wood on 240 pounds of Shonn Greene.
Ashton Henderson: Henderson is a great barometer for this defensive secondary. Once a starter who played a ton of snaps, Hendersonâ€™s role has been a bit reduced due to improved young talent, competition and improved health among his teammates. Henderson could certainly get some snaps this weekend.
Ross Weaver: Weaver is one of MSUâ€™s fastest players. He has improved his ball skills greatly and should be a plus player for MSU if he remains healthy. Weaver is currently listed as a starter and will likely be matched up with Northwesternâ€™s best receiver this weekend in Ruckerâ€™s absence.
When you read through the players above, one thing has got to stick out in your mind. There are nine guys that MSU has ready to play in the defensive secondary. Eight of them are deemed healthy enough to play this weekend against NW and they will be needed. When was the last time MSU had nineâ€¦ Iâ€™ll say it againâ€¦ nine defensive backs that could play winning football? I have been a fan for 30 years and I canâ€™t ever remember State having nine guys in the rotation. This is the reason MSU wins on Saturday. It is largely due to good coaching and solid recruiting. A win this weekend constitutes a little extra â€˜atta-boyâ€™ for Harlon. Make it MSU 33, NW 31.