All action flooded to the right as Northwestern quarterback Peyton Ramsey scrambled to buy time from Michigan State football’s pass rush. Xavier Henderson spotted one Northwestern player leaking out the other direction.
Rarely do safeties face such a do-or-die moment. One-on-one, no help to be found. A mistake would blow the lead Michigan State had just regained.
But with just over 3 minutes remaining on that third-and-10 play, the Spartans’ junior diagnosed what was playing out in front of him quickly.
“We were in 3-deep, and I was playing the deep middle of the field,” Henderson recalled Tuesday. “I felt a vertical to my left that my corner had, and then I watched the crosser come across my face, but I didn’t want to nail down on it. And then I saw Ramsey scramble towards my left towards my left, and then the crosser came back towards me.”
Ramsey spotted Riley Lees in front of Henderson. He launched a cross-field pass. The ball hung in the air, then descended, nothing but open field in front of the receiver and defender.
Both went up. Rees had it, then Henderson yanked it away. That pass breakup preserved MSU’s eventual 29-20 upset of the Wildcats.
“The funny thing is, I was telling our sideline, I could hear all of them yelling. ‘Ball, ball, ball!’ So I kind of took a quick peek, and it was coming fast,” Henderson said. “And I felt he had a better chance at it than I did, so I just kind of tried to get my hands in there and I was able to make it make a play. I wasn’t able to bring it down, though — we want those interceptions — but I was able to get it out of his hands. That’s the important thing.”
It might have been the most important play in the Spartans’ victory, but it also showed the growth Mel Tucker’s players are making during the first year learning his 4-2-5 defense.
MSU’s secondary made plays on passes — including that near-pick by Henderson and two critical interceptions by Shakur Brown — because the Spartans’ front seven pressured Ramsey. The Spartans will need that again with the more mobile Justin Fields and the dangerous No. 4 Ohio State passing offense visiting East Lansing on Saturday.
“Our rush and our coverage have to work together. That’s very important,” Tucker said Tuesday. “We have to be able to have coordinated pass rush and limit the scramble opportunities for the quarterback to try to contain them where we can. It’s almost impossible to do that, but you gotta put together a plan to try to do that.”
The Buckeyes (4-0) beat the Spartans (2-3) last season in Columbus, 34-10, with Fields throwing for 204 yards and two TDs and running for 61 more yards. That was against Mark Dantonio’s 4-3 base defense, which both succeeded and struggled at times against OSU over his 13 seasons.
Fields, a Heisman Trophy candidate, is averaging 302 yards passing — with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions — and 33.8 yards rushing per game, with three more touchdowns. And even though head coach Ryan Day won’t be there after testing positive for COVID-19, his offense brings a number of playmakers in the passing game. Receivers Garrett Wilson (128.3 yards per game) and Chris Olave (97.3) each have four TD catches, while tight end Jeremy Ruckert has three TD grabs.
The Buckeyes’ per-game averages of 45.3 points and 535.3 total yards both rank seventh in the Football Bowl Subdivision. MSU has not faced such a prolific offense in Tucker’s short tenure.
“We know Ohio State loves their vertical passing game. Their wide receivers are so explosive, and Justin Fields has such a good arm,” Henderson said. “You just gotta watch the film, you gotta get a feel for the speed of the receivers as DBs as the game goes.”
Henderson listed three big keys for MSU’s defensive backs: take solid angles — like he did on his critical pass breakup Saturday — while maintaining good depth and leverage.
“You have to make sure they’re solid, they’re good angles, so you don’t let dudes cut back on you, and then you got to get dudes on the ground,” said Henderson, who grew up just outside Columbus, in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. “And we’ve seen Ohio State’s wideouts making plays, catching the ball and running for 40 yards afterwards.”
But MSU’s pass rush needs to show the type of pressure it did against Northwestern, because the Spartans’ season-high four sacks and six QB hits helped buy the secondary time to make plays. And Ohio State has allowed the second-fewest sacks per game in the Big Ten, at 3.0. MSU has allowed 238.2 passing yards per game while averaging just 1.8 sacks.
“We got we got dudes that can play, and we feel comfortable with whoever’s out there. Well, I do and I’m excited, I love watching dudes make plays,” Henderson said. And I feel like this defense is kind of designed for trying to stop the air attack. And then it comes down to the DBs making plays and limiting explosives”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State football getting results at front, back of pass defense