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Breaking down the defense versus Utah State

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What did we learn about the defense in MSU’s win over Utah State? The secondary needs work and the Spartans will be solid against the run

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

Entering the game as 23.5-point favorites, Michigan State struggled to slow down Utah State’s up-tempo offense, specifically the passing game. The Aggies had 344 total yards with 319 coming through the air. The Spartans were able to squeak out a 38-31 win, but limiting the defensive breakdowns going forward is going to be key.

What went wrong

Struggled with up-tempo offense

Give the Aggies credit, they made the Spartans work for this win. You could visibly see the MSU defense getting tired throughout the game. They were breathing heavily and looking for a way to get off the field. The Spartans were called for two illegal substitution penalties because they couldn’t get their players off the field fast enough. The lack of conditioning is concerning, and this is not the last time the Spartans will see an up-tempo offense.

Utah State receivers were wide open

The MSU secondary was expected to return to “No Fly Zone” status, but the Spartans struggled to contain USU’s receivers. Ten different Aggies caught passes and seven caught three or more balls. Aggies quarterback Jordan Love finished the game completing 66 percent of his passes for 319 yards. Not having Josiah Scott definitely hurt, but MSU is loaded with talent in the secondary, which makes this lackluster performance surprising. The secondary will be tested again this week when they take on N’Keal Harry and the Sun Devils.

3rd Down

MSU’s third down defense was very concerning in this game. It just seemed like they couldn’t get off the field when they needed to. The Aggies were 7-for-13 on third down and four of the conversions came through the air, which takes us back to the struggles in the secondary. In 2017, opponents converted on third down just 33 percent of the time, which ranked 18th best in the country. The unit returned nine starters from a year ago and should/needs to improve very soon.

What worked

Joe Bachie

The MSU defense struggled in week one, but Bachie was making plays all over the field. He led the Spartans in tackles with 11 and came away with an incredible interception to secure a victory. Throughout the game, Bachie had a couple of incredible plays, including a tackle for loss on a fourth-and-one that gave the Spartans the ball at the Aggies’ 41-yard line which led to a field goal. Last season, Bachie had 100 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He is one of the top linebackers in the nation and should have a dominant year.

Run defense

The MSU pass defense was not very good in this game, but the run defense was outstanding. The Spartans held the Aggies to 25 yards rushing on 25 carries. In the second half, USU went away from running the ball rushing only eight times. MSU is deep, returning five of its seven starters up front from the fourth ranked rushing defense a year ago. The Spartans should be tough against the run again this year.

Kenny Willekes

Willekes was outstanding in 2017, but he looks primed for an even bigger season in 2018. He was constantly in the backfield and finished tied for fourth on the team in tackles against the Aggies. He had MSU’s only two sacks in the game and really made it hard for USU to get anything going on the ground. Willekes is the leader of MSU’s defensive line, so his play and leadership up front will be important throughout the year.