Michigan State run defense rejoins nation's elite
By MATTHEW B. MOWERY
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — When the Michigan State coaching staff dissected last year’s unexpected collapse, they knew that one of the main culprits was an uncharacteristically porous run defense.
So far this season, it’s proven to be a one-year anomaly. The 18th-ranked Spartans have returned to their old, hard-nosed, run-stuffing ways, paring more than 65 yards per game off their average.
“We go back to that ‘Spartan Dawg’ thing I talked about all offseason: That’s something that’s a part of it. We’re not allowing teams to run on us. We’re priding ourselves on that, and that’s our No. 1 goal, every week,” middle linebacker Joe Bachie said. “Just playing with confidence. Last year, it maybe got away from us a little bit. But I don’t really like to talk about that much. This year, we’re flying around, having fun, and the confidence is growing.”
Heading into Saturday’s game against Indiana (3-3, 0-3 Big Ten), the Spartans (5-1, 3-0) are ranked third in the conference against the run (93.3 yards per game) and eighth in the FBS. They had finished in the top 25 in the nation in stopping the run in six of the previous seven seasons — including five straight in the top 11 — before dropping to 51st a year ago, ninth in the Big Ten (158.7 yards per game).
“Well, we’ve improved greatly. … We’re halfway through the season, so it’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out at the end of the season — do we continue to do what we’ve done? At this point, we have stopped the run,” Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said. “A lot of different reasons for this, but I think we’ve gone back and reaffirmed who we are a little bit, looked at what we’ve done, done some things differently.”
Last year’s dip could be attributed in part to graduation and injuries, which forced the Spartans to pair a couple of graduate transfers with a wholly inexperienced crew on the line. Things only got worse when, at one point, they lost all three starting linebackers to injury.
“So it was a situation where we were down a little bit,” said Dantonio, who shuffled his defensive staff during the offseason. “They’re bigger, stronger, faster. It’s tough when you play as a true freshman — it’s just hard — as we had a lot of very young players. I think they’re growing up.”
With the glaring exception of Notre Dame’s 182 yards at 4.6 yards per carry, Michigan State has been stingy, holding four of its other five opponents to less than 3 yards per carry and three times holding an opposing offense under 75 yards.
The standard the Spartans aim for is 3.3 yards per carry, or 100 yards total, said Bachie, who leads the team in tackles and earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after the win against Michigan on Oct. 7.
“We try to keep teams underneath that, and if we do, we’ve been successful,” the sophomore said. “Our D-line’s playing great right now. We’re filling gaps hard, because they’re allowing us to. … If we keep playing fast on defense, I don’t know that it’s going to be a big deal for us (who we face).”