Remember when Michigan State played tough, physical, punishing, damn-near impenetrable defense?

I could understand if you don't recall. The Mel Tucker years have really done a number on MSU's identity as a football program.

Spartan defense used to be all about stuffing the run and forcing opposing teams to beat them through the air against tight, physical coverage. Tucker's defenses have been vastly different, especially against the pass as MSU is now known for mind-numbingly playing 10-yard-cushion coverage.

Yeah, these ain't the No Fly Zone days.

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One of the guys who architected the solid defenses of the Mark Dantonio era is Mike Tressel. The nephew of former Ohio State national championship-winning coach Jim Tressel, Mike was co-defensive coordinator for the Spartans from 2015 to 2017, then sole DC in 2018 and 2019.

When Tucker replaced Dantonio in 2020, Tressel stayed on the staff but in a demoted role as safeties coach. He departed the next season for the defensive coordinator role in Cincinnati and the man who MSU wanted instead of Tucker, Luke Fickell.

Fickell has moved on to the greener football pastures of the Wisconsin Badgers, and Tressel has followed him there. Speaking recently to Wisconsin reporters, Tressel reminisced about the heyday of those hard-nosed Dantonio defenses at MSU, referencing the Spartans' 2012 overtime win in Madison over the Badgers and then-stud running back Montee Ball.

“I will tell you this,” Tressel, who coaches UW’s inside linebackers, told reporters last week. “There was a time in my coaching career … playing against Wisconsin, right here in Camp Randall and held a running back – I’m not going to get into naming names – who was damn near leading the nation in rushing, to a relatively poor performance.

“He walked up to Le’Veon Bell after the game and he said: Wow, I thought you guys had 100 guys out there all day long.”


UW’s Montee Ball entered that game No. 4 nationally in rushing at 122.8 yards per game. He had 13 rushing touchdowns in eight games and had rushed for 116, 247 and 166 yards in the previous three games.

Michigan State limited Ball to 46 yards on 22 carries, an average of 2.1 yards per carry. Ball had a long run of 13 yards but was held to 2 yards or less on 10 of his 22 carries. The 46-yard total was Ball’s lowest output of the season.

Thinking back to how State used to play defense could make you cry.

So could the Spartan defense's stats over the last three seasons. Take a look at how they've performed and ranked over that time.

 Average Yards Allowed Per GameBig Ten Total Defense RankingNational Total Defense Ranking (Out Of 133)

Any way you cut it, those numbers are horrible. But they're even worse within the context of what this program used to do defensively. Take a look at those same numbers for the Tressel years.

Average Yards Allowed Per GameBig Ten Total Defense RankingNational Total Defense Ranking (Out Of 133)

A not-particularly-wise man once said: "I wish there was a way to know you're in the good old days before you've actually left them."

But hey, Tuck's a defensive coach, so he'll get it sorted out.



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