EAST LANSING, Mich. – The No Fly Zone has taken on some frequent flyers recently. It’s a program Michigan State coaches and players are now seeking to discontinue following Saturday’s 30-6 loss against Wisconsin at Spartan Stadium.
Since taking a 36-7 lead with 3:45 left in the third quarter at Notre Dame, the Michigan State defense has given up 394 yards and three touchdowns on 26 of 45 passing attempts, plus it has been called for one pass interference penalty. It has one interception, by cornerback Darian Hicks on the final play of the first half against Wisconsin, and three sacks, one of which produced a forced fumble and fumble recovery.
Of the 26 completions allowed, 13 of them have been for at least 15 yards. Notre Dame and Wisconsin have converted six third downs when they needed at least eight yards during the last five-plus quarters of play.
What DeShone Kizer of Notre Dame did to the Spartans in the final 18:45 of the game on Sept. 17 wasn’t completely unexpected. It actually highlighted how good of a job Michigan State had done beforehand in containing Kizer and the explosive Irish offense.
What Wisconsin redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook and the Badgers passing game did on Saturday was 60 minutes that will make defenders want to slouch in their chairs and cover their eyes during Sunday’s film sessions. Hornibrook’s final stat line of 16 of 26 for 195 yards, one touchdown and one interception doesn’t look great but peer deeper into the play-by-play and you find he made all of the throws he needed to make no matter what the level of coverage was.
“(Hornibrook) was just on fire. We had guys right there. He was putting the ball on the money,” Michigan State defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett said. “We still have to make plays, though. From our perspective we’re looking at it like ‘man, we still should make the play’. But I’m trying to give him credit as well, because he threw some good balls out there. He was making the plays that his team needed for them to win the game.”
Guys weren’t always there, and guys weren’t always interrupting Hornibrook’s rhythm. Any coach will tell you that good pass defense is dependent upon a good pass rush combined with good coverage. The Spartans struggled to get both parts of that equation working on the same play against Wisconsin.
While Spartans quarterback Tyler O’Connor was being sacked four times, hit seven times and constantly being forced to move out of the pocket en route to three interceptions, Hornibrook didn’t face nearly that kind of pressure. The Spartans were credited with three hits on him and two sacks. Defensive end Raequan Williams got the first sack, stripping the ball from Hornibrook and resulting in a fumble recovery by teammate Kevin Williams.
That takeaway led to a 48-yard field goal by Michael Geiger and a 3-0 Michigan State lead less than seven minutes into the game. It would be the Spartans’ only lead in the game.
Hornibrook completed 9 of 12 passes on third downs for 136 yards. Six of those completions converted the third downs into first downs, including gains of 19, 25, 23, 15 and 31 yards.
“Our defense is about getting pressure, and once we get pressure we’ve got to finish,” said junior linebacker Shane Jones, who combined with junior defensive end Demetrius Cooper for the other sack. “Sometimes we didn’t finish (against Wisconsin). That’s one thing we pride ourselves on – we get to the quarterback. We affect the quarterback. Sometimes we did today, sometimes we didn’t.”
Michigan State’s next game is Saturday night against Indiana at Bloomington. The Hoosiers lost 33-28 to Wake Forest at home on Saturday despite gaining 611 yards of total offense. That included 496 yards passing from quarterback Richard Lagow. While Lagow had three touchdown passes, he also threw five interceptions.
The opportunity for redemption by the Spartans pass defense will be there.
“We try to eliminate the explosive plays,” Hicks said. “We trust each other but we’ve got to have each other’s back. If something happens in the game, we know we have the interior guys to pick us up and we’ve got the guys in the backfield to pick us up, as well. We’re all a family here. If something happens, we’re just going to lift them up.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo