The Michigan State football program held a press conference featuring multiple players on Tuesday, opening up for questions about the team’s recent performance and how the Spartans are preparing for the matchup against the Maryland Terrapins on Saturday.
The availability also featured one notable member of the Michigan State coaching staff, with defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton starting things off at the podium. When asked about the defensive struggles the team has faced thus far, Hazelton made it clear that he believes the team’s struggles are a result of a combination of lack of experience and a need to tighten things up on the field.
“As the next man up, you need to get that guy as experienced as the last guy so that we can be tighter on things,” Hazelton said. “There’s a lot of ‘bang-bang’ plays out there that we say, dang, we just need to tighten up in alignment or tighten up a position or something like that and then those ‘bang-bang’ plays will be made. That’s really what’s been hurting us…the little details, the death by inches stuff as we line up.”
When asked about the issues he has seen with the defense through the last couple games, Hazelton again emphasized a need for more experience, as well as the team’s need to make stops on third down.
“Different things show up as you go through, and it’s getting the guys as force-fed experience as you can get them so we can be able to tighten that stuff up and play better,” Hazelton said. “Really, it’s getting off the field on third down.”
With the defensive breakdowns the team has experienced in the last couple games, many fans have expressed disappointment with the coaching staff concerning the play on the field. When asked whether he takes the criticism personally, Hazelton said the coaching staff and players are focused on blocking out the outside noise and looking inward to fix the issues.
“We really talk about, as a family in football and my family, we’ve always talked about, try to block out all the outside noise,” Hazelton said. “What’s here is the truth, what’s inside is the truth and the people in the room when we meet on defense and the people in the room when we meet as a team…that’s really what matters.”
One of the main points of contention many people have with the defensive scheme is the “soft” coverage philosophy providing receivers with cushions and room to work. When asked about that philosophy, Hazelton said the team has not stuck specifically with the soft coverage scheme, often adjusting to different types of coverage in different situations.
“I think if you really watch, we mix it up quite a bit,” Hazelton said. “Sometimes we’re off, sometimes we’re on, it’s a different deal. We’ve played man, we’ve played zone, we’ve done all those things, so as we continue to go, we’ll continue to see what we’re good at and continue to play those.”
The team has certainly faced its fair share of injuries through the first four games, including with fifth-year senior safety and team leader Xavier Henderson. Speaking about how the loss of Henderson has affected the defense, Hazelton made it clear that, despite Henderson’s abilities both on the field and as a leader in the locker room, the team needs to continue to get other players experience to fill that role.
“There’s no doubt, when you’ve got a guy like (Henderson) out, it is harder,” Hazelton said. “When your guy is out, it is what it is and the next man up has to step up, but we also have to take that communication and do a good job of spreading that throughout different guys.”
Hazelton said the team is in a better spot in terms of depth this year than it was last season, and that MSU’s depth has been a saving grace for the defense.
“The depth thing that we had was better, and thank God we have that depth this year or it could be worse,” Hazelton said.
Despite the issues and breakdowns the defense has faced through the last two games, Hazelton expressed his confidence in his team and their ability to correct the little mistakes and get to where they need to be.
“Are we super far away? No.” Hazelton said. “Do we have little things that are adding up that are making us seem far away? Sure. Those are the things that we’ve really got to tighten up.”
Multiple players followed Hazelton in speaking to the media, including redshirt freshman defensive tackle Derrick Harmon and redshirt junior quarterback Payton Thorne.
When asked about the challenge the defensive line has faced during the team’s struggles, Harmon emphasized the need to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
“The challenge is trying to get to them before they get the ball off,” Harmon said. “It was frustrating, but you got to keep going because eventually you’re going to get to them and get that sack.”
When asked about the differences between Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and the previous quarterbacks they’ve faced, Harmon spoke on Tagovailoa’s ability to move in the pocket as well as his ability to make quick throws.
“(Tagovailoa) gets the ball out quick,” Harmon said. “He gets the ball out quick and he’s very shifty so we’ve got to keep him in the pocket.”
Thorne, as well as the team as a whole, has struggled at times this season, leading many to have a negative reaction to the team, punctuated by many fans leaving Spartan Stadium early during Michigan State’s 34-7 loss to Minnesota on Saturday. When asked about this reaction, Thorne said he views the passion of the fan base as a net positive.
“I think that when your fans ‘boo’ you and stuff like that, that shows that you’re at a program that has expectations and so I’d rather be at a place like that,” Thorne said.
Much of the negative reaction of certain fans has taken place on Twitter, and Thorne said he doesn’t see the need to have that access to negativity.
“The best way to not see that stuff is to not have it on your phone,” Thorne said. “I haven’t had Twitter on my phone in quite a while.”
Speaking on his reaction to the negativity, Thorne emphasized that he feels comfortable where he’s at and doesn’t feel the need to validate the negativity with a response.
“I don’t respond to it,” Thorne said about negative comments from fans and pundits. “I don’t feel like I need to respond to anybody. I know who I am as a person, I know who I am as a player, so I don’t place value in what people have to say.”
Thorne made it clear the team is moving forward following the back-to-back losses, focusing on what’s ahead of them and trying to right the ship.
“We’re still together, we’re still moving in the same direction,” Thorne said. “We’re focused on Maryland, we’re focused on getting ourselves ready for Saturday.”
Michigan State and Maryland kick off at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturday at SECU Stadium. The game will be broadcast on FS1.