How suspensions will affect Michigan State on the field vs. Illinois

EAST LANSING – Michigan State is coming off a 29-7 loss at Michigan last week for its fifth defeat in the last six games.

There are problems in all three phases of the game but the Spartans believe they are making improvements on defense. They got enough stops to pull out a double-overtime win against Wisconsin on Oct. 15 and forced the Wolverines to kick five field goals to go with two touchdowns – one of which came after a botched punt gave Michigan the ball inside the 10-yard line.

“We’re playing better on defense because of all the work that we put in throughout the season and then we’re starting to get some guys back,” coach Mel Tucker said on Monday. “It’s really starting to show up on the field from a production standpoint and we just need to continue to get better as a unit.”

Although the Spartans (3-5, 1-4 Big Ten) have benefited from the return of injured players – especially safety Xavier Henderson and defensive tackle Jacob Slade – they will be shorthanded on defense when they face No. 14 Illinois (7-1, 4-1) on Saturday.

Following a violent postgame incident at Michigan, eight Spartans – all defensive players – have been suspended indefinitely in linebacker/defensive end Jacoby Windmon, defensive ends Zion Young and Brandon Wright, linebacker Itayvion “Tank” Brown and defensive backs Angelo Grose, Khary Crump, Justin White and Malcom Jones. Five of those eight have started at least one game this season while Windmon and Grose started all eight. Crump and Brown have combined for only 14 defensive snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus, while Jones contributed solely on special teams.

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Tucker constantly talks about a next-man-up approach and repeated it on Monday when asked about replacing suspended starters. That many be their mentality but losing eight defenders who made the travel roster to Ann Arbor will be a significant test of Michigan State’s depth. The Spartans will also be facing Illinois running back Chase Brown, who leads the nation in rushing with 1,208 yards to go with five touchdowns. Quarterback Tommy DeVito has been efficient while completing 72.4 percent of his passes for 1,594 yards, 12 touchdowns and only two interceptions.

Windmon is the biggest loss among the players suspended, both from his production and versatility as he started the first six games at defensive end and the last two at linebacker. He leads the team with 10.5 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks, has one interception, his six forced fumbles rank first in the nation and he’s the first Spartan named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week three times in one season.

When Windmon returned to linebacker, he replaced starter Ben VanSumeren alongside Cal Haladay. VanSumeren would seem like the obvious choice to replace Windmon but he didn’t travel to Michigan due to injury and it’s unclear if he will be available this week. And starter Darius Snow suffered a season-ending injury in the opener.

Aaron Brule could fill in for Windmon and he started against Wisconsin when the Spartans shifted from their base 4-2-5 to run a lot of 4-3 but it’s unclear how many three-linebacker sets they’ll play on Saturday. Ma’a Gaoteote, who has logged only 47 defensive snaps this year, is another option. Carson Casteel and walk-on Sam Edwards both played on special teams against the Wolverines.

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It’s unclear what the second level of the Spartans’ defense will look like and they will also be thin at defensive end due to the suspensions. Young, a true freshman who has 21 tackles and a sack this season, started the last two games while Wright (14 tackles, one sack) started the two games before that. Michigan State would obviously benefit from the return of Jeff Pietrowski, who started the first three games but has missed the last five due to injury. He dressed but didn’t play at Michigan and Tucker said he’s working hard to get back. Khris Bogle, who replaced Pietrowski in the starting lineup, has missed four straight games and there’s no indication he’s ready to return.

The Spartans now have only three defensive ends who played at Michigan in Michael Fletcher, who started the last two games, Dashaun Mallory and Avery Dunn. Mallory lost about 80 pounds last year, which has allowed him to move from tackle to end.

After those three, the only other defensive end not suspended who has played this year is true freshman Chase Carter and that was only five snaps in a blowout win against Akron and he hasn’t appeared in the last six games. Barring injured players returning, Michigan State will likely have to shrink its rotation at defensive end, leading to an increase in snaps for those who are available.

Among the suspended defensive backs, Grose (53 tackles, four pass break-ups) was by far the most impactful with 28 career starts. He started the first four games this season at safety but has primarily played nickelback since. White (19 tackles) had one start at nickelback but didn’t play on defense the last two games.

Chester Kimbrough started the first three games this season at nickelback before getting benched and has logged only six defensive snaps since but is an obvious option to replace Grose. There’s also the possibility that the Spartans move a safety or cornerback to nickelback.

Michigan State is now in the final month of the schedule in a disappointing season but sees recent positives on defense. The Spartans will attempt to build on them while going on the road shorthanded.

“It feels good (to show improvements) but we know we’re not where we need to be,” Henderson said. “We’re going to keep working to make strides to be better and be the best we can be this weekend and the game after that in the final four games.”

Related Michigan State football stories:

What Illinois coaches said about facing Michigan State

3-star QB Bo Edmundson decommits from Michigan State

Four more Michigan State players suspended following tunnel incidents

After losing 5 of 6 and the incident at Michigan, Spartans stressed the need to stick together

Mel Tucker on delayed preparation for Illinois and injury updates

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