MSU's run defense to be tested in the next two weeks
Over the next two weeks, the Spartans’ rushing defense will be put through a strenuous test.
MSU’s next two opponents are Northwestern and Penn State, both of which feature an established rushing attack.
The Wildcats’ Justin Jackson enters this weekend’s contest against MSU having already become Northwestern’s all-time leader in rushing yards, all-purpose yards and rushing attempts.
If the Spartans manage to contain Jackson, their next task is to stop Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, the nation’s leader in all-purpose yards.
“Just watching film, seeing what they do, different schemes, different formations,” sophomore defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk said of stopping Jackson and Barkley. “I feel like once we figure out what they want to do and what they plan on doing against us, I feel like we’ll do a good job of that and just communicating with our linebackers. It starts up front with me and (Raequan Williams), and if we do our job up front, the (linebackers) will be able to fill in.”
Jackson is two touchdowns shy of tying Damien Anderson’s program record of 38 career rushing touchdowns and 38 career total touchdowns, and with 12 carries against MSU this weekend, the 5-foot-11 Illinois nave will become just the fifth player in conference history with 1,000 career rushing attempts.
After a 93-yard performance on the ground against Iowa last week, the senior running back moved past Anthony Davis for eight on the Big Ten’s career rushing list with 4,732 yards and needs just 156 more yards to pass MSU’s Lorenzo White for seventh.
“He’s a quick guy,” senior linebacker Chris Frey said. “One thing that I think we really focused on and we noticed by watching his film that he knows — when they need two, three yards, he can find the soft spots. He falls just right in the right spots to get two or three yards whenever they need it, and that’s something we need to focus on — clogging up those soft spots and making him bounce and be able to make plays on the edge on him.”
Limiting the production of quarterback Clayton Thorson and Jackson will be a key focus for the Spartans this weekend.
“Thorson’s an established guy. Justin Jackson as well,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “I think he’s eighth in the all-time career rushing (list) in the Big Ten. I believe he’s eighth right now, so the challenge is to stop those two guys offensively.”
Regardless of Saturday’s result, the Spartans will have to head back home and prepare for Barkley and Penn State.
Barkley is the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy and is averaging 146.47 all-purpose yards per game. The senior’s 7.9 points per game leads active offensive players in scoring and is No. 15 among overall active FBS scorers.
For sophomore defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk, shutting down Jackson and Barkley is just a continuation of the team’s constant efforts in defending against the run.
“The older guys, when we were freshmen — the Spartan Dawgs — they always instilled that since day one,” he said. “It’s always been stopping the run, so you don’t know nothing else but stop the run. I feel like that was just a given when you come to Michigan State.”