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Michigan State football: Highly-rated pass rush can have major impact vs. Washington

This pass rush has been impressive so far.



Michigan State football
© Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Michigan State football defense has been a pleasant surprise thus far and it’ll be tested heavily this weekend against Washington.

Through two games, the Michigan State football defense has been highly effective and performed well in many statistical categories. They pass the eye test, and the stats speak for themselves. One category this team has performed well in is third-down efficiency. Yes, against Richmond and Central Michigan, I know, but it’s still a contrast to last season when Western Michigan completed 6-for-18 third downs. 

The point is, regardless of opponent, Michigan State is ranked top five on Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) list of total team QB pressures, which is an encouraging sign that shouldn’t be overlooked.

On Thursday PFF released a list of the top five teams in “team QB pressures”. USC has 76, Notre Dame has 66, UCLA is in third with 63, North Carolina has 61. Michigan State cracks the list at No. 5 with 58 total team QB pressures. It’s important to note that Notre Dame and USC have both played one game more than these other teams. At face value, against Richmond and Central Michigan, it’s a great stat to have, but they aren’t real tests.

Two questions need to be asked: How will the pass rush look against a Top 25 opponent, and what will the impact be on the Washington offense?

Digging deeper into the teams UCLA and North Carolina have played so far, I saw that teams threw the ball much more than Richmond and CMU, which resulted in more of an opportunity for those defenses to get pressure. This tells me that the Spartan defense is taking advantage when the quarterback has the ball. Against UCLA, Coastal Carolina threw the ball 43 times, and San Diego State threw it 38 times. As for UNC, Appalachian State threw it 43 times, and South Carolina 39 times. In contrast, against the Spartans, Richmond and Central Michigan both threw it only 25 times.

Again, Michigan State football  must continue to take advantage of the opportunities. 

Michigan State should be prepared to defend the pass more than the run. Washington’s leading rusher, Will Nixon, has only 12 carries through two games. In their matchup a year ago, despite the run game being somewhat effective, it was the passing game that ultimately won it for the Huskies. Michigan State tallied zero sacks and one tackle for loss in Seattle. These numbers don’t account for QB hurries, another stat used in tallying QB pressures, but with the way Washington threw the ball, we can safely determine that there wasn’t enough.

The reason for optimism this season lies in knowing that MSU is much more prepared to defend the pass in the secondary. Health, individual talent, and players being put in a better position have Michigan State in a better place as a unit.

This is encouraging, albeit not a guarantee, and is based on the idea that if the Spartans are able to get pressure on Saturday, it will force Michael Penix Jr. to throw the ball quicker, and possibly force a mistake. PFF estimated that in the 2017 NFL season, under pressure, the average QBR fell roughly 36 points. The key for MSU here, as Penix will make his throws, is to hopefully force a takeaway, and limit the explosive plays. 

Looking more into individual effectiveness across the Michigan State defensive front, we can see how this is an encouraging stat.

Jalen Sami, whose strength was run defense at Colorado, ranked highly among all Big Ten defensive tackles against CMU. He was graded first in productivity, first in pass rush win percentage, and ranked fourth with three total QB pressures. Jacoby Windmon, ranked top 20 for all linebackers with an 81.2 pass-rush grade in Week 1.

With a mix of Zion Young, Khris Bogle, Brandon Wright, Tunmise Adeleye, Avery Dunn, Jalen Sami, Derrick Harmon, Simeon Barrow, Maverick Hansen, and Dre Butler, MSU seems more equipped to keep the line fresh, and with a steady rotation on the line. The athleticism and hard-hitting nature of guys like Malik Spencer, Angelo Grose, Chuck Brantley, and Windmon (if healthy) also play into the deep combination of blitz packages and looks that the Washington offensive line should have thrown at them.

The Washington game isn’t the only reason to be excited about the pass rush. Although it may not be enough by itself against the Huskies, there is no sign that the effectiveness of MSU’s pass rush will fall off heavily during Big Ten play. It will still be key against offenses like Maryland, Indiana, Minnesota, and others in the Big Ten if they want any chance of limiting the explosive plays that caused the defense fits in 2022.

Writer and content creator for Spartan Shadows since 2022. Die Hard Michigan State fan. I've written articles focused on Basketball, Football, and Soccer at Spartan Shadows.