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Early Season Observations: Michigan State making unbelievable strides on defense

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This is not the 2016 defense, folks.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The Michigan State Spartans are currently 2-0. That isn’t all that surprising given that the Spartans have tangled with two Mid-American Conference teams so far, but there were obviously a lot of question marks about this team — especially on defense.

It is safe to say that Michigan State’s defense is young and untested, and that was a concern entering the season, but the unit has been unbelievable so far through two games in 2017.

Yes, I know their opponents thus far have not come from a Power 5 Conference. Yes, I know the big test is coming up on Sept. 23. Yes, I know that neither Bowling Green nor Western Michigan has a dangerous passing game (but Western sure does have a strong running game). But let me drop some statistics on you really quickly.

The Spartans have allowed their opponents to convert on third down just three times in 28 tries. That is a 10.7 percent clip, which ranks second nationally, only behind Vanderbilt at 7.7 percent. MSU ranked 90th in the FBS last year in this category, allowing an alarming 42.3 percent conversion rate. Progress, people.

Or, how about this little snippet of information: Through the first two weeks of the season, the Spartans lead the Big Ten in several major statistical categories relating to passing defense. Michigan State has allowed just a 37.9 percent completion rate (22 of 58). It has also given up just 224 yards, and an average of 112 yards per contest. Sparty leads the conference in all of those metrics. The unit also has two interceptions thus far, with freshmen Josiah Scott recording his first career interception this past Saturday.

The Spartans rank second in total defense in the Big Ten. The squad has given up just 203.5 yards per game and 3.4 yards per play. On the ground, MSU has allowed 183 yards on 60 attempts (just 3.1 yards per carry) and 91.5 yards per game. The defensive unit itself is yet to give up a touchdown.

In terms of scoring defense, Michigan State is giving up 12 points per game. While that currently ranks them at a respectable fourth place in the conference, that stat is misleading. As mentioned earlier, the defensive unit has yet to surrender a touchdown, and instead has given up just one field goal.

Both of Western Michigan’s touchdowns were scored by the ever-so-dangerous Darius Phillips — one on a fumble return and the other on a on a kickoff return. Bowling Green’s lone touchdown came on an LJ Scott fumble recovery score, which was questionable at best, but I digress. Moral of the story is that MSU’s defense is only responsible for giving up three points at this current point in time.

The team is also getting pressure. Something the Spartans really struggled with last season. Michigan State had four sacks against Western Michigan and one against Bowling Green. That is already almost halfway to last season’s total sack count (11). Although Chris Frey had the lone sack of Week 1, the Spartans were credited with eight quarterback pressures against the Falcons, and they were constantly making WMU quarterback John Wassink uncomfortable in the pocket this past weekend as well.

The interior defensive line has played really well, too. Raequan Williams and Mike Panasiuk are two big body players who are eating up gaps and getting great push. Western Michigan head coach Tim Lester had high praise for the duo and the defensive line, making note of how the Spartans were able to get more push than the highly vaunted USC defensive line.

Per the Lansing State Journal:

“I think what they did very well, we had no push,” Lester said. “That was the biggest thing. Coming into the game I knew I could watch the O-line and D-line and tell if we had a really good chance of winning. And they did a great job of not letting us get a push. Because what happens if we get push, which we were able to do against USC, if you push, you allow your running back to catch it and take two or three steps before he makes his decision, you’re dangerous, like we were last week. Today our double-teams weren’t moving their big interior. The running lanes triple if you get any push.”

Let’s not forget about the linebackers, either. Joe Bachie in particular has been a tackling machine, recording double-digit tackles in both games. His 21 tackles are only behind two other players in the conference. Elsewhere, Frey has shown ability to get to the quarterback with 1.5 sacks through two games and Andrew Dowell also has recorded a sack in the early going.

This is all good news for the Spartans. The young and inexperienced secondary and defensive line were among the biggest concerns for MSU fans entering the season, but it was also easy to see the talent and potential within those groups.

With all of this said, the college football season is only through Week 2. The Spartans have played two MAC foes and the tough Big Ten schedule hasn’t started yet. After the bye week, Michigan State will get its first true test in a primetime matchup against Notre Dame, and we can really see where the team stands then. But I think it is OK to show some cautious optimism right now.

Go Green!