The elephant in the room remained unaddressed on Tuesday at the Michigan State football player media availability.
Team leaders, redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne and fifth-year senior safety Xavier Henderson, spoke briefly to the media about the game against Michigan as well as their upcoming matchup with Illinois, but the team’s athletic staff announced that out of respect for the ongoing investigation, they would not be speaking on the incident in the tunnel following the team’s loss to Michigan on Saturday.
With that out of the way, things were opened up for questions, the first of which was directed at Henderson concerning the upcoming battle the defense will face against Illinois star running back Chase Brown. Henderson praised Brown’s abilities, saying he will test the Spartans’ defense come Saturday.
“He is real patient at the line and then his jump-cut ability and his vision I think is why he’s got the numbers he does,” Henderson said of Brown. “Good test for us this weekend.”
When asked about the approach the team needs to take when facing a back like Brown, Henderson stressed the importance of fundamentals and holding the defensive line to prevent big plays.
“It’s playing sound fundamental football,” Henderson said. “We talk about setting an edge and building a wall up front...We’ve got to do a good job in the back end of leveraging and tackling.”
Henderson said playing against a back like Michigan’s Blake Corum last week will certainly help them prepare for Brown this week, adding that he sees similarities in the two backs’ styles.
Thorne spoke up in response to a question about the team’s leadership during this season of adversity, saying that the main focus is keeping the individuals on the team together as a unit.
“It’s a unique situation, obviously this season hasn’t gone how we had hoped and how we had planned, but we’re all we’ve got in the room,” Thorne said. “No one’s coming in to help us, no one’s coming in to save us. It’s all of us moving forward together and if we decide to start separating it’ll all unravel and nothing good will happen for anybody.”
Speaking on the offense’s struggles in recent weeks, Thorne was very blunt in saying that they have failed to execute, particularly in the second half.
“I look at our offense and right now, we’re not executing at a high enough level, not at all, second half especially,” Thorne said.
He also cited mental errors as being a large part of the offensive issues, particularly last Saturday.
Thorne praised the team’s performance on the defensive side of the ball, adding that he feels the offense let them down on Saturday.
“We’re hanging our defense out to dry, we had six plays in the third quarter,” Thorne said. “That’s terrible, that’s not acceptable. Like I said on Saturday, our defense played their butts off, held them to field goals all night and we didn’t do enough to put ourselves in a situation to be in a fight in the fourth quarter.”
Thorne spoke about a number of plays that negatively impacted the game for the Spartans that he personally regrets, notably the two failed fourth-down attempts in the first half.
“In terms of the fourth-down calls, the first one we were trying to run the ball and pound it up in there to get one yard, and the second one I had an opportunity to just go with a sneak and I didn’t do that so that’s on me,” Thorne said. “I should’ve went with a sneak there, and if I had checked the play two plays before to a throw when I saw the matchup I had we wouldn’t have even been in that situation.”
When asked about the adversity the team has faced this season both on and off the field, Thorne said he sees it as a lesson and asks himself what he can learn from the issues the team has faced.
Speaking on the upcoming matchup against the Fighting Illini and their strong defense, Thorne said Illinois will definitely be a challenge for MSU, but he feels confident in his team’s offensive personnel as well.
“They play well together, they’re fast, they’re just playing good football right now,” Thorne said of the Illini defense. “They’re a good defense and we’re going to have to play well, but at the same time, I’m confident in the guys that are lining up next to me that we can go out there and try to make some plays.”
Henderson was asked whether he feels that the defense has improved over the last several weeks, saying that the defensive players feel like they’ve made progress even though they know they have a long way to go.
“We feel good about our progress so far, we know we’re not where we need to be,” Henderson said. “It’s part of us getting healthy...We’re understanding what we can do, what we’re good at.
“I think we’re just playing with more confidence, especially in the back end so it feels good, but we know we’re not where we need to be, we’re going to keep working to make strides to be better and be the best we can be this weekend.”