For Michigan Stateâ€™s defensive football unit, the moment is now.
After a miserable start to the season (1-3) with an embarrassing loss to Central Michigan, the Spartan football team has rebounded with authority. And the defense has finally found its moxie, living up to the accolades it received preseason. Whatâ€™s to account for the turnaround?
â€œPlayers make plays,â€ defensive coordinator Pat Narduuzi says, after the 24-14 Northwestern victory answering questions with his trademark intensity-bordering-on-impatience.
Narduzzi said in previous games, against teams like CMU, players were in position to make plays, but failed to produce results. Now, though, the defense is finding holes on blitzes, swatting away or even snatching and holding errant passes, and just plain busting their opponents in the chops.
â€œGuys came to play,â€ Narduzzi said of the defensive performance against the Wildcats on Saturday.. â€œThe kids made plays, the kids won the game.â€
One reason the improvement on defense is occurring is because of contributions from some new faces. Redshirt freshman Tyler Hoover has been able to break into the playing rotation, and the 6-foot-7, 260-pound athletic defensive end is getting noticed by offensive tackles; noticed as in he is getting held and providing the Spartans with a spark plug presence by occasionally stepping in for senior Trevor Anderson.
â€œI bet you he probably had 15 snaps and did a good job in there for us,â€ Narduzzi said of Hoover after Northwestern. Next season, Hoover will doubtlessly be a major contributor to the offense, along with fellow defensive end David Rolf, a sophomore who has seen more playing time as well..
Jerel Worthy is another impact youngster. Where the Spartans need a star presence in the worst way â€” at defensive tackle â€” Worthy is quickly stepping into the spotlight. In the last three games, Worthy has recorded two tackles for loss, two more sacks and two pass break ups â€” an impact redshirt freshman in the flesh.
But perhaps the most important ingredient to this Spartan defense is its veteran leadership, specifically the one-two punch of Greg Jones and Eric Gordon at linebacker. Against Northwestern, Gordon led the team with 15 tackles, recorded one sack and another 1.5 tackles for loss. While everyone is well aware of the NFL-caliber talent and production Jones brings to the gridiron, Gordon flies a bit under the radar.
â€œIf I had to say the guy who is the most consistent linebacker right now, all the time â€” you know. you guys all talk about Greg Jones, and heâ€™s a great football player â€” well, Eric Gordon has been very, very solid and consistent the whole year. I though heâ€™s had a great year so far, even in some of those tough losses,â€ Narduzzi said. â€œEric Gordonâ€™s playing great football.â€
The defense is coming together at just the right time. The Spartans sit tied in second place with Ohio State in the Big Ten at 3-1 and face a marquee matchup next weekend. In a night game at Spartan Stadium, MSU takes on the top-10 ranked Iowa Hawkeyes, a team that appears to be on a mission to grind down opponents week-after-week on its way to a BCS Bowl game. If MSU wants to pull off the upset, its defense will need to have its best game of the Mark Dantonio era. And it appears to be primed to do just that.