The Michigan State football program held its weekly assistant coach/player media availability on Tuesday, following the team’s 23-15 upset victory over Illinois on Saturday.
Michigan State defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton was the first to speak, starting off by talking about the Spartans’ improved defensive play as of late. Hazelton said the team has benefitted from getting healthier and getting several key playmakers back on the field, but the experience the younger guys were able to get has played a big role in the improved play as well.
“I think it’s some of the experience that the guys got earlier in the season,” Hazelton said when asked about the defense’s improved play. “Getting a couple guys back always helps too.
“There is a learning curve for those young men who played a lot early, and as they get more reps, they continue to get better and that’s great to see.”
Going into the game last Saturday, there were many questions about the team’s depth, particularly on defense, following the multiple suspensions handed out in response to the altercation following the game against Michigan. When asked about the challenge of going through the depth chart to replace a number of key contributors, Hazelton praised the attitude of the players and the
“It was great to see how the guys responded to that,” Hazelton said. “They did a good job embracing the adversity that there was.”
The defense suffered a number of injuries throughout the game against the Fighting Illini, forcing the team to go even further down an already depleted depth chart. When asked about how those injuries are handled on the sideline, Hazelton took the opportunity to praise the athletic training staff, saying they do a good job keeping the coaching staff informed about the status of injured players.
“The trainers do a great job during the whole game communicating with everybody,” Hazelton said. “There’s consistent communication on the sideline.”
When asked about whether he believes the defense would have been better throughout the season had they gotten key players back from injury sooner, Hazelton said that was a tough question to answer. He elaborated by saying that the experience gained by the younger players that filled in for their injured teammates has played a big role in the recent success and that experience would not have come had those younger players not seen more time on the field earlier.
Speaking on the resiliency of the players on defense, Hazelton praised the attitude and the fight they have shown throughout the season, adding that the team’s culture focuses on building that resiliency and toughness.
“Here, the culture is so good, the guys work so hard,” Hazelton said. “They’ll go out there and hit anybody and they’ll try as hard as they can and those things are great things that our players have that’s been built in this culture for a long time.
“As long as there’s an inch to play, they’re going to defend it, and that’s what you love about these guys — they do work, they’ll fight until the end of the game no matter what happens, they’ll play the next play no matter what, they work as hard as they can all the time.”
When asked about the team’s upcoming matchup against Rutgers and what he sees from the Rutgers offense, Hazelton gave credit to the team’s playmakers, assuring the media members that the Scarlet Knights would not be taken lightly.
“Number one is an explosive little dude, he can go make some plays wherever,” Hazelton said of Rutgers wide receiver Cruickshank. “They have some different things, and some different things schematically that, like we saw last week, if we’re not on our game and we’re not focused on each snap, one play can turn into a 60, 70-yard touchdown.”
Quarterback Payton Thorne spoke next, opening up by saying the team’s trip home felt better following the win on Saturday, adding that everything feels better after a win.
Thorne was asked about the team’s final offensive possession of the game, a series that certainly raised some eyebrows in response to decision-making and clock-management issues. Thorne said the breakdowns were due to a number of miscommunications among players as well as coaches and that the team knows it is something that needs to be worked on moving forward.
“The first play we had a miscommunication on who we wanted one guy to block, which was nobody’s fault really, it was just a miscommunication,” Thorne said of the final offensive series against Illinois. “We had a timeout plus a penalty, at one point I think we signaled the wrong thing in...again it’s just miscommunication.
“We’re not pointing the finger, we’re all together as a unit, so we’ve just got to be a little bit cleaner there at the end and get the ball in the end zone to finish the game off the right way.”
Thorne credited the running game and offensive line play against the Fighting Illini, saying it was a well-executed game on everyone’s part that led to the team’s victory.
“Our running backs ran well...they were physical,” Thorne said. “Offensive line had some physical play as well, that was good to see...it was an accumulation of all those things, it wasn’t one main thing that stood out, but it was just execution. We went out and executed the run game, we went out and did what we wanted to do.”
When asked about the upcoming matchup with Rutgers, Thorne said the Scarlet Knights have good players and the Spartans will have to continue to execute to get the victory.
“They’ve got good players, just like every other team does in our conference,” Thorne said. “They’re going to have good players on both sides of the ball, so we’re going to have to show up and play our best football.”
A number of other players spoke briefly throughout the remainder of the availability, including running back Jalen Berger, defensive tackle Jalen Hunt, linebacker Aaron Brule, defensive back Malik Spencer and wide receiver Keon Coleman.
When asked about the team’s success in the run game against Illinois, Berger said the running backs knew they would be able to have success against the Illini defense, taking advantage of their aggressiveness.
“Going into the game, we knew that we would be able to attack them on wide zone because of how aggressive they were,” Berger said. “As soon as you get onto your break on the outside zone, they’ll run full speed to the sideline, so that’s why on a couple of my runs you’ll see me cut up a bit and break some runs.”
Berger said the success against the top-ranked defense in the country gave him confidence moving forward, adding that being able to put together multiple runs in a row allowed him to get more comfortable and get more in rhythm than he has throughout the season.
“It gives me great confidence,” Berger said of moving the ball against the Illini defense. “I feel like I’m getting more comfortable back there for sure, it’s kind of hard getting comfortable when you’re getting like eight carries or something like that, but when you keep running it back to back then you get a feel for the game.”
Hunt played a solid role in the game against the Illini, filling in as part of the “jumbo” defensive line set when the Spartans used four defensive tackles up front due to injuries to their defensive ends. Speaking on the viability of that concept, Hunt said they were able to do what they needed to do and take care of business.
“Even though it was a big, heavy front four, we were still able to get the job done,” Hunt said. “Front seven handled it well, the linebackers came and helped when we needed it.”
When asked about how the team is dealing with the adversity that MSU has faced this season, whether it be suspensions, injuries or unexpected losses, Hunt said he feels the team has responded well, adding that the Spartans continue to try to move forward with what they have.
“I think we’ve handled the adversity well,” Hunt said. “We know in the game of football, adversity comes and goes. Momentum swings, sometimes it swings our way, sometimes it don’t, all we can do is say, ‘Next play, next man up.’”
Despite falling short of expectations this season, Brule said the team is focused on finishing strong and gaining momentum toward the end of the season.
“As we know, in the month of November, that’s when people really remember your season, so our goal is to win out here in this whole month of November and show what we can do,” Brule said.
When asked about the team’s attitude following the win against Illinois, Brule said the Spartans were happy, but understood that this should be the expectation moving forward.
“Before that game we were fully confident, coaches were fully confident in us to win that game,” Brule said. “We expect to win, so once we did win, guys were really excited, but we also know that that’s what we should do all the time.”
Rutgers performed fairly well against Michigan on Saturday, at least early on, leading the Wolverines at halftime before Michigan pulled away with ease in the second half. When asked about what he sees from Rutgers, Brule made it clear that the defense will not be overlooking the Scarlet Knights come Saturday.
“They’re a pretty good team, they run the ball pretty well, they’ve got some good players, good coaches,” Brule said. “They’ve got some different things on film that we want to keep in mind.”
Injuries and suspensions forced the Spartans to look further down their depth chart throughout the entire defense on Saturday, including in the secondary. Spencer, a true freshman defensive back, was one of the players who saw increased playing time as a result, and he said he believes his versatility allowed him to be better prepared to step up when his team needed him.
“I planned on learning everything so I could just be thrown out whenever they need me,” Spencer said. “Being able to do more than one thing and be good at it, I value it for sure.”
As a freshman getting his first snaps as a Spartan over the last two weeks, Spencer admitted to being a little nervous. His nerves mainly showed themselves prior to the game, however, as he said he felt more comfortable on the field doing what he has prepared for.
“I had got more nervous thinking about it at the hotel than when I had actually got in,” Spencer said. “When I was actually in, it was more about just getting in there and doing what I needed to do.”
Coleman was the final player to speak, and he started off by talking about the importance of the running game in opening up options for the passing attack on Saturday.
“It really opens up everything,” Coleman said of the team’s success on the ground. “When you can run the ball, everybody’s got to come to play, all eleven of their players have got to be on their ‘A’ game, being disciplined, and it opens up, when we go into play action...we’re going to run right behind them.”
Coleman has been the team’s most productive receiver this year, and as a result, has faced tougher coverages in later weeks. When asked about the different coverages he has faced, Coleman said he likes being matched up with the opponent’s best cornerbacks and wants to do all he can to help his team win games.
“I like it, I like the matchups,” Coleman said. “I’m looking forward to going head-to-head with anybody’s best corners, honestly, and just trying to win the game and doing all I can do within the system to just provide and make a play.”
Following up on the change in recent coverage, when asked whether he noticed the Michigan defense switching coverage on him following his 26-yard touchdown reception in the first half two weeks ago, Coleman said he thought the Wolverines tried to avoid single coverage on him after that, adding that he wasn’t sure why they hadn’t made that switch sooner.
“They definitely weren’t trying to give me as many one-on-one matchups,” Coleman said. “I pretty much felt they were going to do that in the second half. I thought they were going to do that quicker, I didn’t think they were going to give us the one-on-one matchups because I felt like that favored us.”
When asked what he wants to see from the team moving forward with MSU’s upcoming matchup and the rest of the season, Coleman said he wants to see the team finish the season strong and get to the postseason.
“As a team, wins most of all,” Coleman said of what he wants to see moving forward. “Just showing everybody we can fight the adversity and silence the outside noise and just come closer as a team with players not being there and just get wins so we can get to a bowl game.”