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Michigan State Defensive Player to Watch: Jacub Panasiuk

The Spartans’ veteran defensive end is the anchor of their defense.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

By this point, you’ve likely seen the metrics regarding Michigan State’s defense. On paper, it is not an especially strong unit, ranking No. 111 in the country in total defense allowing over 444 yards per game. Now, you will look at them and say wait, the Spartans rank 20th in the nation in stopping the run, how could their defense possibly be that bad? Well, that is because their pass defense ranks dead last in FBS, allowing nearly 330 yards per game through the air.

To be fair to Mel Tucker’s team, and more specifically defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton, Ohio State’s defense is not that much better. The Buckeyes’ defense ranks 56th in the country overall, but like MSU they struggle against the pass, sitting at No. 108 in FBS with 261.5 yards per game allowed through the air. These two units are very similar in that they are not particularly strong in the secondary, and most of their production has to come up front with the defensive line.

Luckily for Michigan State, one of their best defensive players is part of that group, with defensive end Jacub Panasiuk leading the pack for the boys in green.

Similarly to Kenneth Walker III, who we highlighted this week as the Offensive Player to Watch, Panasiuk was not a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school. Committing to Michigan State by way of Roselle, IL, the three-star prospect was the No. 579 player overall in the 2017 class, coming in as the No. 23 SDE and the 10th-best player from his home state. He received around a dozen scholarship offers, including the likes of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa State and a few other programs around the Midwest, but ended up choosing the Spartans.

Panasiuk played in all 13 games as a freshman, recording 17 total tackles with 2.5 TFLs and his first career sack, which came against Indiana. In that game against the Hoosiers, Panasiuk registered a season-high five total tackles — the same contest in which his brother, defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk, also had a season-high five stops. The sons of Polish immigrants, Jacub and Mike got to play alongside one another for 38 total games from 2017-19 before Mike graduated in 2019 and was later signed as an undrafted free agent by the Raiders.

Jacub Panasiuk worked his way into the starting lineup as a sophomore in 2018, playing in all 12 games and starting 11 of them. He would play a total of 426 snaps at defensive end, totaling 30 tackles with 4.5 TFLs and two sacks to go along with a forced fumble and a pass breakup for a middling Michigan State squad that would finish the year with a 7-6 record. It wasn’t really until his junior season in 2019 that Panasiuk truly started to show flashes of becoming an elite edge rusher in the Big Ten.

Returning as a starter that next year, Panasiuk posted a career-high 34 total tackles with 8.5 tackles for loss as well as 3.5 sacks — a mark that tied him for third on the team. Playing a total of 565 snaps, Panasiuk was named MSU’s Outstanding Underclass Lineman Award on defense for his efforts. In addition to his improved production, Panasiuk got to have a really cool moment with his brother in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, as Jacub deflected a pass that Mike would intercept and take to the house against Wake Forest in the Spartans’ 27-21 win in the brothers’ final collegiate game together.

The 2020 season did not have much to offer for Panasiuk, as much of the Big Ten struggled through a weird pandemic season, and so the senior decided to return in 2021 with the free year of eligibility — a decision that appears to have been the correct one. Through nine games this season, Panasiuk has already tied a career-high with 8.5 tackles for loss, and his 5.5 sacks are his career best with still at least three games to be played in the campaign. He has also forced a fumble, recovered a pair of fumbles and broken up two passes for the Spartans.

Panasiuk is one of two standout defensive players on this roster, with Michigan State’s leading tackler Xavier Henderson being the other. While Henderson is probably the better of the two, also registering a team-high 10 tackles for loss to add to his three sacks and one interception, it will be tough for the safety to impact this game with the way the rest of this secondary is playing, as Ohio State will likely look to avoid throwing Henderson’s way in this matchup. However, if the Spartans want to pull off the upset here, they will need a big game from Panasiuk and the rest of the defensive line.

Michigan State is not going to win this game by dropping eight into coverage and trying to man up with the Buckeye receivers. They will need to control the clock on offense, and on defense their best strategy will be to get CJ Stroud off his rhythm and force him into a few mistakes. The best way to do that is with an effective pass rush, and that is why Panasiuk is such an important player in this Top 10 showdown. The Spartans will need their best performance of the year from their front seven, and that starts with a guy like Panasiuk creating some havoc up front.