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Michigan State defense turns page with Minnesota's 'run-heavy' attack up next

East Lansing — Through the first two weeks of the season, there was hope Michigan State had fixed many of its defensive issues from 2021.

It was last year, of course, when the Spartans ranked last in the nation in pass defense, winning 11 games but getting blitzed in a pair of losses to Ohio State and Purdue while leaning on an explosive offense to overcome some defensive issues in other games, namely the victory over Michigan.

In wins over Western Michigan and Akron to begin the 2022 season, there were signs the corner was being turned. The secondary had fewer breakdowns and the pass rush was as effective as it had been in several years.

That all came to a screeching halt last week at Washington as Huskies quarterback Michael Penix Jr. carved up the Spartans’ secondary, bringing back some nasty memories for a defense that once again seemed on its heels, making multiples mistakes and leaving receivers wide open.

Coach Mel Tucker, who is also now coaching the cornerbacks, said this week it wasn’t an issue with the scheme. Instead, it was on a lack of execution. The players didn’t argue. They need to be better, they said.

Well, as Minnesota comes to town for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff on Saturday at Spartan Stadium to open Big Ten play, Michigan State (2-1) will get its chance to prove it is, indeed, getting better.

“You’ve just got to have a short-term memory,” linebacker Ben VanSumeren said. “Everything that we do we learn from and we grow from, but at the end of the day, we’re mentally strong enough that we can go into the next game with confidence.”

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It sure sounds good, and there’s no doubt the Spartans, who allowed 503 total yards to the Huskies, are working hard to overcome what happened last week in Seattle. But there’s also a problem when it comes to bouncing back quickly — the Spartans will be facing an offense that looks very little like the one they just faced.

Minnesota (3-0) won’t be looking to dice up Michigan State’s secondary. On the contrary, the Golden Gophers would prefer to shove the ball down the Spartans’ throat with a punishing offensive line leading one of the best running backs in the game — senior Mo Ibrahim.

Ibrahim is second in the nation in rushing yards per game at 154.7 while Minnesota is second in rushing offense, averaging 312.7 yards per game on the ground. The Golden Gophers are also second in total offense at 554.7 yards a game and they are scoring 49.7 points a game, a mark that ranks eighth in the country.

“I am just very impressed by them,” Tucker said of how Minnesota has played through the first three weeks of the season. “When you turn on the tape and see how they play the game of football, I love it.

“P.J. (Fleck) has done a really nice job with that program and they have one of the best offensive lines in the country. They are big, and they are very good at what they do in the run game. They are very well coached. I am very impressed with the way they play the game and the way they run the football.”

It’s fair to wonder how good Minnesota truly is to this point. It hasn’t exactly played a menacing nonconference schedule, beating up on New Mexico State and Western Illinois before crushing a depleted Colorado team. All three games were at home as the Gophers have yet to face any real adversity.

They believe things will change on Saturday at Spartan Stadium, choosing not to focus much on how Michigan State performed defensively last week.

“You look defensively, their front seven is long and athletic,” Fleck said. “They're experienced. They're very strong. One thing I'll say about them is they're a very, very strong defensive front, and they've got one of their corners who is 6-3. So, they’ve got length and size.”

How strong that defensive front will be this week remains to be seen. Defensive tackle Jacob Slade missed the Washington game with an undisclosed injury and getting him back could be critical. And there’s still no update on the status of safety Xavier Henderson.

Whoever is on the field, though, the Spartans know what they’ll be facing.

“They're a very run-heavy team,” VanSumeren said. “We've seen that and we’ve got to play physical and we’ve got to stop the run.

“We're just going to play our defense. No matter who we play, week in and week out, we're going to play to our strengths, whatever the offense brings us.”

And if the Spartans, who are allowing 89.7 yards on the ground to rank 26th in the nation, manage to contain the Gophers’ rushing attack, they’ll be forced to see what the beleaguered secondary and muted pass rush can do against quarterback Tanner Morgan, a veteran who is in his sixth season at Minnesota.

“We’ve got to get a rush,” VanSumeren said. “That’s something that we're going to work on this week because it's something we need corrected and we’ve got to get the ball out quicker. We're leaving guys in coverage for too long.

“They’re a good team and they have a really good O-line. But we have really good rushers, as well. You saw that in the first two games. So, we’ve just got to get home and continue to the work our pass rush in practice and bring it to the game this week.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau