Although the Spartans’ record may not reflect it, Saturday’s matchup against No. 21 Nebraska will feature a battle of two Big Ten giants.
The Cornhuskers (6-2 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) will bring the conference’s top offense — averaging 39.2 points per game — to Spartan Stadium to face off against the conference’s top defense — holding opponents to 15 points per game.
And at the center of MSU’s (5-4, 2-3) Big Ten-leading defense is a trio of linebackers that combined for three sacks, five tackles for loss and 24 of MSU’s 61 tackles.
Juniors Max Bullough and Denicos Allen and sophomore Taiwan Jones were a big part of a defensive unit which held the Badgers to 19 yards on the ground, pursuing the runners coming out of Wisconsin’s backfield from sideline to sideline and not allowing a run longer than 13 yards on the day.
For Bullough, a team captain, the group’s emergence goes back farther than the beginning of the season.
“We were not the weak links of the defense, but the question mark of the defense, I guess, a couple years ago,” he said. “And ever since we started playing better and better each week, I think that’s where our growth came from, and now we’re a strength.”
At his weekly press conference, head coach Mark Dantonio praised each of his linebackers, noting that the group has been very difficult to run on in each of their games, and calling Bullough an “overachiever.”
“When I say that, I say that with the greatest respect because regardless of what level of play you have — and he has a very high ceiling — if you can overachieve, understand you always need to get better, you’re untapped as a player,” he said.
Dantonio continued to say Bullough was a centerpiece of the defense, commending his leadership along with the other linebacker captain’s, senior Chris Norman.
Norman has found himself out of the starting lineup, with Jones’ play earning him a starting spot.
Although he hasn’t been on the field as often, Norman said he isn’t bothered by the situation and still does what it takes to help the Spartans win.
“I want to be a leader regardless of the situation,” he said. “I don’t want to fool around with whatever else is going on, and I just lead regardless of what happens, and obviously, there’s a challenge in that, but I think it’s going to do a lot for character’s sake.”
As the Spartans prepare to take on Nebraska and the Cornhuskers’ rushing offense — also ranked first in the Big Ten averaging 264.1 yards on the ground per game — Allen said the defense will need to continue to count on his position group to stay alive in the Big Ten Legends Division race.
“This team relies a lot on this defense, and (the linebackers) are the backbone of this defense,” he said.
“We’ve got to give our offense opportunities and get off the field when we can, (and) I think we’ve stepped up tremendously.”