After standing tall a few weeks ago against Wisconsin, Michigan State’s defense has a tall task ahead in Ann Arbor this Saturday.
While the secondary has been the primary concern of a struggling defense, it is likely that the Spartan’s front-seven will face its harshest test against Michigan. Led by junior running back Blake Corum, the Wolverines rushing attack is one of the most effective in the nation.
As it stands, Michigan is averaging 241.7 yards per game on the ground, which is the eighth best in the FBS. The Wolverines flexed that muscle against Penn State just a couple weeks ago, racking up an impressive 418 rushing yards against a hitherto stout Nittany Lions run defense (PSU’s defenses allowed less than 80 average rushing yards heading into the matchup against Michigan).
With depth in the running back room and a stellar offensive line, it is no surprise that Michigan prefers to crush its opponents on the ground.
“They have a good line, they’re well coached,” Head Coach Mel Tucker said. “The backs run hard — they can make you miss, they can run you over.”
Michigan State faced a run-first team just a couple of weeks ago. While not nearly as effective, sophomore running back Braelon Allen and the Badgers made the ground game a primary focus of the offense.
For a majority of the season (and a majority of his tenure), Tucker has preferred to add an extra body to the secondary with the 4-2-5. However, to counter the Badgers’ run-heavy personnel, Tucker and the coaching staff elected for a defensive scheme much more reliant on the 4-3 set.
“Throughout the week, there was a big emphasis on stopping the run,” senior linebacker Jacoby Windmon said. “4-3 is probably one of the better defenses at stopping the run.”
While Michigan State’s defense had a strong afternoon overall against the Badgers, Allen and the rushing attack still found some effectiveness on the ground. Wisconsin finished with 152 rushing yards, albeit on 39 attempts.
Facing another opponent that favors the rushing attack, the Spartans could very well roll out a similar look on defense.
“I know they like to bring a lot of tight ends out so they can run the ball, so I think that will be a good game to run this type (4-3) of defense.” Windmon said.
The Spartans have not been especially effective against the run all season. Currently, MSU gives up an average of 153.3 yards per game, which ranks 79th among schools in the FBS.
Despite the lackluster statistical showing, stopping the run is still a major point of emphasis of this Michigan State defense.
“The mindset every week is to stop the run,” defensive backs coach Harlon Barnett said. “We will always put emphasis on that. That is the goal, the number one goal every week.”
With redshirt senior defensive tackle Jacob Slade back in the lineup, an improved defensive line could go a long way in halting Michigan's efficiency on the ground.
Coming off of a bye week, a few other banged-up defenders could also be ready to jump back into the lineup (or simply have more time to recover from injuries, like fifth-year senior safety Xavier Henderson). However, per usual, Tucker did not give any specific updates at Monday's press conference.
Michigan’s running game is just one strength of a team that has plenty of weapons on offense. If Michigan State has any hope of pulling off an incredible rivalry upset this Saturday, stopping — or at least slowing — the Wolverines running game will be key.
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