Sunday, February 25, 2024

Spartans' defense stuffs Hawkeyes

Junior defensive tackle Matthias Askew, left, and junior defensive tackle Greg Yeaster tackle Iowa running back Fred Russell on Saturday at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans defeated Iowa 20-10. —

Fred Russell's final collegiate rush in his home state came to an abrupt stop Saturday. The Inkster, Mich., native needed only one-and-a-half more yards to reach his season average of 123.5 yards per game, and he was about to pick up a much-needed first down for the Hawkeyes on a fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter.

But Kevin Vickerson would have none of that.

MSU's junior defensive tackle busted through the Iowa offensive line, which averages 304.8 pounds per lineman, to meet Russell behind the line of scrimmage, dropping him for a 4-yard loss.

Vickerson said he looked at Russell after the hit and just said, "Ooooooh." It was Russell's last carry of the Hawkeyes' 20-10 loss to the Spartans.

That one stop summarizes the dominating defensive play from MSU. The Spartans held the Hawkeyes to 24.5 points under their season average of 34.5 points per game.

For the first time this season, the Spartans gave up more than 100 yards rushing but held the Hawkeyes to no rushing touchdowns and only 158 yards passing on 11 completions.

Keeping Iowa one-dimensional on offense was a major key to the Spartans' victory, said senior bandit Monquiz Wedlow.

"We're stopping the run, and it's hard for an offense to beat you just passing the ball," Wedlow said. "The whole defense is starting to make plays."

"Our D-line is stepping up to the challenge and winning the battle up front. And we're communicating a lot better in the (secondary)."

Wedlow, who forced a fumble in the second quarter after sacking Iowa quarterback Nathan Chandler, also said finishing the game on the positive side of the turnover margin was another important part of the Spartan win.

"That's the way you win games - you win the turnover battle," Wedlow said. "(Iowa) won all their games because they won the turnover battle."

MSU forced Iowa into three fumbles and one interception. The Spartans scored 13 points on the ensuing drives after picking up three of Iowa's four turnovers. The final one, an interception by senior linebacker Mike Labinjo, didn't produce any points for the Spartans, but it did prove a point - the Hawkeyes were frustrated. Chandler pushed Labinjo after he ran out of bounds, picking up a 15-yard personal foul.

Labinjo felt the anger on the push, saying after the game, "I think they were a little upset."

The Hawkeyes managed just four third-down conversions and failed in both of their fourth-down conversion attempts against the Spartans.

The only defensive captain who dressed for the game, junior linebacker Ronald Stanley, left in the first quarter after injuring his thigh, but his team picked up the slack after the team's leading tackler went to the locker room.

No Spartan recorded double digits in tackles but 10 had at least three. Labinjo led the way for the Spartans with three tackles for a loss, one sack and one interception. The team piled up a total of five sacks and 11 tackles for a loss.

"We set out to prove a point that we could play these guys," Labinjo said. "And I think we did a good job of it."

Senior defensive end Greg Taplin agreed, saying the Spartans' power and pressure coming from the defensive line helped in establishing their skill.

"We played tough all game," Taplin said. "I think we just proved our worth. It was a power game."

Sophomore strong safety Eric Smith, who finished with six tackles, including one on Iowa receiver Ramon Ochoa in which he forced a fumble that led to the Spartans' second touchdown, said the defense will need to continue keeping the opposition to low scores to be successful.

"It's going to be real important because we're going to face a lot of tough defenses, so there won't be many high-scoring games," Smith said.

Vickerson said opponents can expect to see more of him and more improvement from MSU's defense.

"It's good, but it's not our best. We haven't reached our top potential yet," he said.


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