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Breaking down the defense versus Northwestern

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MSU’s defense played well enough to win, but a lack of offense burned the Spartans late

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

It seems like this happens every week. The defense plays well enough to win, but the offense struggles and makes games closer than they should be. The MSU defense played well enough to beat Northwestern, but thanks to poor offense, the Spartans lost, 29-19.

What went wrong

Justin Layne

Layne has been MSU’s top corner with Josiah Scott out, and he’s done a good job in that No. 1 role. However, against the Wildcats, he got picked on a little bit and allowed Northwestern to move the chains on some key plays. One of those plays being a fourth-and-6 to move the chains late in the game. He’s no doubt MSU’s top corner right now, and one bad performance won’t change that. However, Penn State has some freak athletes that can take advantage of poor play, so the entire secondary needs to be ready for a battle this week.

Short pass coverage

This has been a problem the entire season. It’s something the Spartans are willing to live with, because they don’t want to get beat deep, but it’s also something that is hurting them. MSU’s linebackers have done a poor job covering running backs out of the backfield and getting to the flats to cover short passes. That is a big reason why Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson was able to throw for 373 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn’t completing deep passes (7.9 yards per pass). He was connecting on short routes that gave the Wildcats’ offense manageable third down yardage. Short pass coverage is something the team has been working on, but it’s still a problem that needs to be fixed very soon.

What Worked

MSU’s front seven

The Spartans’ front seven is no doubt one of the best units in the Big Ten and the nation. MSU is the No. 1 ranked rushing defense in the nation and the unit consistently puts pressure on the quarterback. Against the Wildcats, the Spartans had eight tackles for loss and five quarterback hurries. They were getting in the backfield and causing problems for the Northwestern offense, which caused them to abandon the run. The defense didn’t lose this game for the Spartans. The offense did. The Spartans’ offense gave Northwestern a touchdown by failing to convert on fourth-and-1 from their own 11-yard line, which put the game out of reach. The defense is under a lot pressure to keep the team in games, and the unit has done just that. It’s now the offense’s turn to help the defense out.

Third down defense

Throughout the game, MSU’s third down defense was pretty solid. The Wildcats were 5-for-14 on third down against the Spartans. The defense did have some breakdowns late in the game, but for the most part, the unit was able to get off the field when it needed to. With the offense struggling to move the ball, the defense was put in some bad positions and was forced to make a lot of big plays throughout the game. They came through and gave the offense more than enough chances to take a lead or tie the game. The MSU defense will face some tougher tests over the next couple of weeks, so holding strong on third down will be key.