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Defense looks to stop run

October 8, 2002
Notre Dame quarterback Carlyle Holiday is tackled behind the line of scrimmage during a quarterback draw. Senior safety Thomas Wright tackled Holiday for the loss of 3 yards. —

With the bye week in their rear-view mirror the Spartans have their sights set on the Iowa Hawkeyes.

And with the Big Ten’s leading rusher, Fred Russell, lining up in Iowa’s backfield, MSU’s run defense will again be put to the test.

“I think with these two weeks we have a good opportunity to prepare for Iowa,” junior linebacker Mike Labinjo said. “They have a good running attack and a good running back.”

That may be an understatement, as No. 17 Iowa (5-1 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) has the Big Ten’s best rushing offense at 242.2 yards per game and Russell’s 144.4 yards per game also top the conference.

On the flip side, the Spartans (3-2, 1-0) are yielding 148.8 yards per game on the ground, eighth in the Big Ten.

MSU defensive line coach Brad Lawing said the numbers aren’t entirely fair. He pointed to the fact that the Spartans have played against unorthodox running schemes in Rice’s option attack and Northwestern’s spread attack.

Lawing said he considers the Notre Dame game, in which MSU yielded 127 rushing yards, to be the best measurement.

“We’re not where we need to be, but we’re getting there,” he said. “We’ve got to switch gears now and get back into our regular defense.”

But the Spartans’ regular defense will get a little help the rest of the season with junior college transfer Chris Smith (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) and redshirt freshman Seth Mitchell (6-foot-2, 246 pounds) expected to see action. Both have been sidelined with injuries the first five weeks.

Spartan head coach Bobby Williams said the linebacking corps has become a concern as it was obvious against Northwestern that the unit was becoming tired.

“I think we need to start utilizing our linebacker position a bit more,” he said. “Those two guys we need to get working on the rotation at linebacker.”

Spartan faithful might remember Mitchell as a prize recruit in 2000, when he was ranked No. 20 among linebackers in the nation by SuperPrep. A sprained knee forced him to miss the entire 2001 season and resulted in a medical redshirt.

Williams said Mitchell will split time at middle and strongside linebacker with Labinjo. As the strongside linebacker last season Labinjo recorded five sacks and 17 tackles for loss.

“Yeah, I look forward to playing outside,” Labinjo said. “Having that extra body is really going to help out.”

The added depth at linebacker also should help the defensive line.

Up front the Spartans have been solid. Sophomore Clifford Dukes and junior Greg Taplin have held down the ends and junior Kyle Rasmussen has anchored the middle. But the tackle position next to Rasmussen has seen three different starters so far.

Sophomores Kevin Vickerson, Brandon McKinney and Matthias Askew have battled for the job thus far. The fact that no one has earned the starting nod for good doesn’t worry Lawing.

“We’ve got good competition going on right now,” he said. “The two most productive each week are the guys that are going to start.”

Regardless who starts, every Spartan in the front seven will need to step up against Russell. Against Purdue (3-3, 1-1) last weekend, Russell carried 22 times for 109 yards.

“I’m a guy that believes in what happens, not what you perceive,” Lawing said. “He’s leading the Big Ten in rushing, so right now he’s the best runner in the Big Ten.”

Playing in Iowa City, Iowa, the Spartans understand stopping Russell is a must. And they’ve been watching plenty of tape on the 5-8, 185-pound tailback.

“We want to tackle him high rather than low, because we’ve seen a lot of guys miss tackles on him low,” Labinjo said. “He’s got good legs and good feet. He’s a little guy, but he’s a slippery sucker.”

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