On its first offensive drive Saturday, Michigan State faced a third and five from its own 39-yard line. Junior Blair White lined up as the slot receiver, covered by Michigan redshirt sophomore linebacker Jonas Mouton.
White ran a simple slant, a good route to pick up the first down, but when Michigan junior free safety Stevie Brown missed a tackle, the receiver found nothing but open field in front of him. White sprinted down the field into the arms of Sparty, the team’s mascot, waiting in the endzone.
“It’s frustrating because we play hard for two downs, and then on third down, we just give up a big play,” Michigan fifth-year senior linebacker John Thompson said. “That’s the opportunity to get off the field, and we just couldn’t convert on third down.”
That first score was the opening scene to an awful afternoon for the Wolverine secondary.
In their 35-21 win at Michigan Stadium, the Spartans had 306 yards and three touchdowns through the air.
On Michigan State’s second offensive drive, Brown and fifth-year senior cornerback Morgan Trent were on the sideline, replaced by fifth-year senior safety Charles Stewart and freshman cornerback Boubacar Cissoko. It was a particularly odd spot for Trent, who made his 29th straight start. Trent declined to speak with reporters after the game.
Throughout the game, those pairs rotated on and off each series.
“(We were) just rotating all the guys, seeing who’s going to make plays,” Michigan defensive backs coach Tony Gibson said.
Missed tackles were the biggest problem for Michigan’s secondary and plagued the group most on third downs.
Michigan State finished the game 9-of-18 on third-down conversions, with seven of them coming through the air. Those seven passing conversions went for an average of 32 yards and accounted for almost three quarters of the Spartans’ entire passing offense.
“It’s real frustrating, they just keep happening over and over,” sophomore cornerback Donovan Warren said of the big plays. “It’s not like it’s on the coaches. It’s on us. We’ve just got to make plays and tackle when we’ve got them in space.”
Considering how much Michigan’s pass defense has struggled this season, perhaps Warren shouldn’t have been so exasperated with his unit’s play against Michigan State.
Entering the game, the Wolverines ranked 10th in the Big Ten in pass defense, allowing an average of 243 yards per game.
Despite the struggles, don’t expect any big personnel changes for this week’s game at Purdue.
“We’re playing the best guys we think right now can help us win, we’re going to continue to do that,” Gibson said.
The defensive backfield’s struggles have been somewhat surprising considering the unit’s experience.
But opposing offenses are still slicing the secondary for big plays, and the group is still searching for answers.
“I was just telling the guys we’ve got to communicate out there,” Warren said. “That’s the main thing, is communicate every play.”
Whatever the stumbling block, Michigan will have to address it quickly. Purdue is second in the conference in pass offense.