clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Football Season Breakdown: Defense

The Spartans had one of the best and most balanced defenses in the country.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Well the regular season is (mercifully) over and now it is time to look back and reflect on what went down. Lots of good tidbits to get into here and breakdown statistically to see what went right and what went wrong for Michigan State’s football squad. Yes, I know this is going to be pretty obvious, but let’s get into the details anyway.

Let’s start with the good stuff first, the defense, which really built upon what it did last year and got even better. This group has carried the Spartan Dawg mantle that was passed down to them from the Rose Bowl squad, and been nearly as good.

First some overall numbers:

The Spartan defense finished ranked number two overall in the S&P+ rankings, behind only Clemson.

They were 14th in scoring, allowing 18 points per game.

They led the nation in rushing defense at 81.33 yards per game, and were third in yards per rush.

They rebounded to 64th in overall pass defense, but were 21st in yards per pass attempt and had more interceptions (14) than passing TD’s allowed (13).

Officially the Spartans are 14th in total defense and in yards per play.

MSU is 16th in the nation with 23 total takeaways this year, 14 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries.

That is all pretty damn good. Let’s get into some of the specifics even more.

First we need to talk about Kenny Willekes. The dude was an absolute beast this season. He finishes the regular season with 76 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, a pass breakup, and 12 QB hurries.

He was regularly ranked among the best edge rushers nationally by Pro Football Focus when it came to pressures from the edge position.

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

As for those individual numbers, his 20.5 tackles for loss are the second most by a player in a single season in school history, behind only Julian Peterson’s 30 TFL’s in 1999. Willekes led the Big Ten in TFL’s and was seventh nationally.

Willekes has 35 tackles for loss over the last two seasons, which puts him tied for ninth on MSU’s career list with the late Mike Labinjo. He needs 13 more to tie Peterson for the school record, which seems very doable assuming he returns for his senior season.

Williekes has also entered the top-10 in career sacks at MSU, currently tied for 10th place with Clifford Dukes with 15.5 sacks.

Now back to some of the team stuff, because it feels important to note how dominant the defense was, especially when it came to holding teams off the scoreboard.

Only one team scored 30 point against MSU this year, and that was Utah State, who averaged 48.6 points per year against everyone else. Keep in mind that Lewerke threw a pick-six in that game so the defense really held them to 24 points.

The MSU defense held seven teams to 20 points or less, and three of those teams to ten or less points. Two other teams go to 21 exactly. So in nine of MSU’s 12 games, the defense allowed a maximum of 21 points. You can probably throw the Ohio State game in there too where the offense was responsible for nine points against, bringing the total against the defense down to 19 points against.

If you follow me on twitter you have seen some of these stats already but here is another one. The defense finished the year extremely strong. In the month of November MSU as a team surrendered 48 total points, holding three of their four opponents to 10 points or less. Taking out those nine points against OSU and the total falls to 39 points allowed in four games, less than 10 points per game.

Three of the four opponents MSU faced in November averaged at least 29 points per game. The other was Rutgers, who is the worst scoring offense in the country. The four school’s averages totaled up is 115.3 points. MSU gave up 48 points, or 42% of their averages. That is dominant defensive stuff.

Some other tidbits. Michigan State is 11th nationally and second in the Big Ten in third down defense, allowing conversions on just 31.46% of their opponent’s third downs. That is a slight improvement over last year where MSU was 18th nationally at 32.76 percent.

MSU ranks 35th in the country in red zone defense, allowing points on 80% of their opponent’s trips to the red zone. However, they are third in the country in red zone touchdown percentage, allowing their opponents to find the end zone just 40% of the time in the red zone.

The Spartans also allowed the 11th fewest plays of 20+ yards this year.

Basically, this was one of the best and most well rounded defenses in the country.

Tomorrow we will look at the other side of the coin and get into the offense. So brace yourselves for that one. But make sure to appreciate how good this defense really was.

It’s also worth noting that the only graduating members of this defense are safety Khari Willis and linebacker Andrew Dowell. So a good portion of this group with be back next year.