Big Ten Upset: How the Michigan State Defense Can Lead the Spartans to Victory over Ohio State

SpartaAt a neutral site, the Spartans and the behemoth of a program that is Ohio State will battle.

Out-manned, possessing less talent, and underdogs despite a nearly perfect season, the Spartans will put the Buckeye’s immortality to the test.

With Urban Meyer in command, this Ohio State’s team hasn’t lost a game. Scoring 40 points or more in six of their last seven games, this offense, with leader Braxton Miller at the helm, has been wreaking havoc on a mediocre Big Ten schedule this year.

Only one team remains to shut down this Ohio State offense, to prove that the Big Ten isn’t a one team league, and to prove that they belong among the country’s best teams. The Spartans aren’t supposed to contend in this battle, the final roadblock before Ohio State passes through to the BCS title game.  But the Spartans boasts arguably the best defensive unit in the country, with the aggressiveness, talent, and toughness to hold strong against the Ohio State offense.

Can the Spartans hold against one of the most powerful programs in the country?  In the final game of the regular season, Max Bullough, this defense’s King Leonidas, will lead his unit to put the Buckeyes unblemished record to the test.

Now, moving on from the “300” references, the Spartans have ample defensive talent and an aggressive scheme to give Braxton Miller and this Ohio State offense headaches. Defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has quickly become one of the most coveted defensive minds in the country, and it’d be a surprise if he didn’t get multiple head coaching offers this off-season (hopefully not before the game).

The defense is led, both in tackles and leadership-wise, by senior middle linebacker Max Bullough. Bullough goes beyond just having plus football IQ, utilizing both his experience and obvious film study to collapse holes and finish plays in the tackle box. A powerfully built, thick inside presence, Bullough absorbs blocks and holds his ground against fullbacks and guards, allowing for his (undersized) outside linebackers to funnel to the ball free and contain offenses from racking up big chunks of yards in the run game.

On their defensive line, they’re led by junior Marcus Rush and sophomore Shilique Calhoun. Rush has been productive over his three year –starting career, and while he lacks immediate pop upfield and second-step quickness as a pass rusher, he makes up for it for his tackle finishing ability and his active disengaging mentality causes disruption on the edge for runners.  As for Calhoun, he uses all of his 6’4 length to extend and drive his blockers with ample strength upfield. While he can get a bit high in pursuit, he possesses very active hands, adjusting well after initial contact to adjust his pursuit angle and technique and generate pressure. Arguably the most talented player on this Michigan State defense, his impact as a pass rusher, in collapsing the pocket, and in finishing tackles in space provides this front four with the elite talent that allows for the other members to thrive in one-on-one situations.

And finally, their senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard has emerged as the country’s best cornerback. While he gets work in multiple coverage sets, he’s best in Cover 3 or man coverage, thanks to his ability to press with his size and strength for the position, his polish as he turns and runs downfield, and his timing to break up plays both shot and quick and vertically down the field.

The team also relies on quick twitch free safety Kurtis Drummond and active, fluid linebackers Denicos Allen and Taiwan Jones to make plays in space, especially as teams key in on avoiding the Spartan leaders Bullough, Calhoun, and Dennard.

For Michigan State to upset Ohio State, they’ll need to utilize defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi aggressive blitz packages, trust in their stars in space and one-on-ones, and contain the vertical routes and inside runs that they’re susceptible to with such an aggressive mindset. If they can do that, they’ll give Braxton Miller and this offense fits, and could very well lead this Michigan State team to the BCS.

1. Michigan State’s Aggressive, Unique (and Awesome) Blitz Packages
Michigan State has talent at every level of their defense, but not many elite talents (after Calhoun) to simply just send four rushers and have success (like the Lions do in the NFL). However, they’ve able to generate ample and consistent pressure thanks to the creativity of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to keep offensive linemen guessing and off balance throughout the game. While the Michigan offense line is a bit unfair to pick on because they are a very poor unit, Ohio State’s offensive line will be without senior starter Marcus Hall, and likely will be starting a freshman right guard and a sophomore right tackle.

Below are multiple blitz and stunts that Narduzzi utilizes to give his defensive linemen a cosnsitent advantage and keeping offensive linemen on their toes and playing off balance. Notice especially the number and lengths to which the defensive linemen stunt, the subtle slanting of their rushes to allow room for delayed blitzers, and their rushers IQ to keep their hands up on interior stunts/rushes to close down the mid-field throwing lanes. 

2. Continue Trust in Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, and Shilique Calhoun to Make Plays
In the passing game, Michigan State is willing to have just four or five consistently back in coverage and trusting their pass rush to force incompletions or poor quarterback decisions. While opposing quarterbacks focus on staying composed against this pass rush (a big question mark for the sometimes rattled Braxton Miller), they also have stayed away from the best cornerback in the country in Darqueze Dennard. Michigan State frequently leaves him on an island in his press-man or press-Cover3, and he’s had success. In most games, he doesn’t get targeted more than 2-3 times, and for good reason. Michigan State should continue to trust in him on an island, giving the Spartan secondary a hefty advantage in 2 or 3 receiver sets.

For Bullough, they will continue to rely on his instincts and post-snap reads to limit big holes the running game and set up his fellow linebackers and defensive backs for tackle success. Below are two prime examples of just how Bullough is the quarterback of this defense. The first play shows Bullough immediately reading and reacting to the play, crushing the lead blocker and closing off the hole. The second is Bullough’s aggressiveness to the backfield yet vision to adjust against the play action to force the quarterback off-balance. 

And finally, whenever Shilique Calhoun is in a one on one situation, he’s bound to have success, and Michigan State trusts in that consistently. He’s best utilized when this team slants their blitzes, so he’s either isolated in space to take on a single offensive tackle or (in the below play) a running back, or he’s able to use his length to swing around and capitalize on a delayed stunt. Either way, his success as a power rusher and one-on-one winner will be key for this defense.

3. Be Patient With Blitzes, Contain Vertical Routes and Inside Zone Runs
After doing my part to build up just how special Pat Narduzzi is along with boasting about the talent on this defense, it’s important to note their biggest worry coming into this game: preventing the big play. When you play aggressive, it can very quickly become an aggressive mistake.

By consistently stunting and trying to dictate where the offensive linemen need to block (forcing the offense to adjust instead of dictate themselves), they open themselves up to teams “letting them rush where they want to”, and using zone blocking on the inside to open up huge holes. With Ohio State’s success running the ball this year with eventual Top 100 pick Carlos Hyde in the backfield, this could lead to some big chunks of yards if the Spartans play over-aggressive early in the game. 

Along with concerns about big plays in the run game, the Spartans aren’t great in protecting vertically after Darqueze Dennard. Isaiah Lewis, their strong safety, is a major liability in the vertical passing game, and when their pressure doesn’t force quarterbacks off balance, they can certainly get burnt deep. Because this pass rush generally keeps quarterbacks off balance, they don’t have the time or positioning to target vertically, so the defensive backs try to jump the shorter routes whenever possible. Below is an instance where they did, and let the inside receiver free down the field. Ohio State certainly will be looking vertically when possible.

I’m picking the Spartans. Forget the line (surprisingly under a touchdown spread), forget the unblemished record, forget the expectations of a Winston-Braxton BCS title game. The Spartans defense should give this Ohio State offense fits all game long, and I don’t think Ohio State can sustain enough drives to put up the 40 points their used to. It’ll all come down to how many big runs/vertical throws Ohio State can muster up, and I’m guessing it’s not more than three or four.

The Spartans offense certainly isn’t sexy, but they’ve played more consistently than the Michigan offense has this year, and the Wolverines put up over 40 on the Buckeyes last week. I’ll take the Spartans to the Buckeyes and Urban Meyer at bay, 30-23.