After a disastrous start to the season, Scottie Hazelton has rebounded. Has he earned himself another year with Michigan State football?
Scottie Hazelton is a name most Michigan State football fans recognize, and not for good reason. He’s grown quite a bad reputation in his tenure at Michigan State, mostly because of how bad his defense was in 2021.
While the Mark Dantonio era at MSU will go down as one of the best in school history, the end of that era was not so great. One of the biggest complaints about Dantonio was his reluctance to change up the staff when things got bad. So when Mel Tucker hired Hazelton along with many other new faces, it felt like a breath of fresh air for the program.
Some fans were skeptical of the Hazelton hire, stating that a Big 12-style defense just wouldn’t work in the Big Ten. Others were a bit more optimistic, as it didn’t take too much digging to see what Hazelton was able to accomplish in his time at Kansas State. Although Hazelton was only the defensive coordinator at Kansas State for one season, his defense allowed just 368 total yards a game, consisting of 203 passing yards and 165 rushing yards — and just 21 points. This led Kansas State to have the second-best total defense in the Big 12 which is known for not playing defense.
While leading Kansas State to the second-best defense in the Big12 is great, my biggest takeaway from his lone season there was just the mere 203 passing yards per game his group allowed. Since Hazelton has taken over at MSU, we have been notorious for having a very poor pass defense.
So what exactly has gone wrong with this Hazelton defense?
Michigan State ranked dead-last in the Big Ten in total defense in Hazelton’s first season on the job, just a year after it was a middle-of-the-pack unit, ranked sixth in the conference. But that was a COVID-19 year, which was especially hard on teams with new personnel. Coaches couldn’t work out with their players in spring. So it wasn’t until a delayed start in the fall that the new staff could get accustomed to their new players.
Many fans weren’t too upset with the season, they understood the circumstances and were just ready to move on to the 2021 campaign.
Now, 2021 was a great year of Michigan State football as it went 11-2, a complete turnaround from a bad 2-5 season in 2020. After such a great season, those not familiar with MSU football might be surprised by the outrage directed toward Hazelton. What they didn’t realize was MSU was just a decent defense, not even a good defense, away from competing for a national championship.
While 2021 was a great season, Hazelton’s defense got exposed in one particular area: the secondary.
Michigan State’s total defense improved from the season before, moving up to 10th in the Big Ten. The 325 passing yards they allowed per game was not an improvement, and it ranked last in the entire country.
The Spartans were a victory over Ohio State away from going to the College Football Playoff, but as I’m sure most of you remember, that game was over at halftime. CJ Stroud torched the MSU secondary with ease and crushed the Spartans’ hopes for their second playoff berth. Naturally, the fanbase began calling for Hazelton’s job.
We have a great team that’s just missing a decent defense, so fire the guy that leads the terrible defense and all problems are solved, right? While that’s what many fans wanted to happen, Tucker kept Hazelton on the staff.
Which brings us to the current season; the make-or-break season for Hazelton. The 2022 season couldn’t have started worse for Hazelton and his defense, however. It was the very first game of the season when Michigan State lost Darius Snow for the year and Xavier Henderson for an extended period of time due to injuries. Spartan fans knew they were arguably the two best players they had on defense. But what they didn’t realize at the time was just how crucial they were.
Snow had made the move from the secondary to linebacker, which figured to help MSU’s coverage at that level of the defense immensely — an area they struggled a lot with the season before. What they lost in Henderson was the leader of the defense. But as Mel Tucker often has said this season, it was next man up and Spartan fans still wanted results.
The first game after losing the two key players the defense looked great as the Spartans held Akron to nothing in a shutout win. I think that blowout win made fans think MSU would be fine without Henderson and Snow.
But after that Akron game, things went downhill fast.
The Spartans would lose four in a row, allowing on average 528 yards, 37 points, and 339 passing yards per game. Fourteen yards worse, on average, than a season ago when MSU ranked last in pass defense. It was looking as if things hadn’t changed at all. Fans were once again disgusted with the defensive performance they had to watch week in and week out. They were calling for Hazelton to be fired louder than ever. Even I, myself, thought Hazelton needed to go. We couldn’t possibly run it back with him again next year. Things couldn’t be looking worse for the Spartans.
After missing five weeks with an injury, Henderson was finally back and ready to hit the field against Wisconsin. And that’s when it all changed. Michigan State had lost four in a row and was in desperate need of a win and they came out and controlled most of that game on their way to an overtime win; a much-needed win and they did so with a great defensive showing. Henderson made his presence felt, and the defense just looked more in tune with the senior on the field orchestrating the defense.
It was easy to overlook what Henderson meant to this team when he went down, but his immediate impact upon return made it obvious how much he meant to the defense.
One good game wasn’t going to get Hazelton off the hook with fans, though. So he went ahead and put together three more solid performances and is making a strong case to keep his job. In the four games since Henderson’s return, Michigan State is 3-1. The Spartans’ only loss came on the road against Michigan where they held the Wolverines to five field goals.
Among the three wins is a ranked road win over Illinois. And in each win, it was the defense that led MSU to victory, and not so much the offense. Over the four-game stretch, the Spartans’ defense allowed just 406 total yards, 23 points, and just 205 passing yards per game which are very similar to the numbers his Kansas State defense put up.
The difference in the numbers with Henderson and without are astonishing. Michigan State gets its best defensive player back and the defense improves. No one should be surprised by that, but when this team was without Henderson, it was Hazelton who took the blame for the poor defense. Now that he’s back and the defense has drastically improved, I fear Hazelton is not getting enough credit. Especially when you consider the last two games the Spartans have been even more shorthanded with eight players suspended.
The one area of the pass defense that remains weak, in my opinion, is the linebacking corps. And who are the Spartans still without? Snow, who would help in that area immensely.
Hazelton has this defense looking the best it has since he took over at MSU, by a lot, at that. And it couldn’t be happening at a better time for him. I believe his job is on the line and with two games to go, he can’t afford to slip up. But if Hazelton puts together another couple of defensive masterpieces, he deserves to stay. What Hazelton is showing us is that when he has the talent on the roster, he can put a defense on the field that’s more than capable of getting MSU back to glory.
Will it all work out with Hazelton? Only time will tell, but he’s got my vote. And, Spartan nation, he’s giving you all a pretty good reason to believe in him, too.