September 11, 2011

Inside MSU's dominant defensive performance

EAST LANSING - Michigan State placed enhanced emphasis on tackling and third-down defense, following the Spartans' sluggishness in both areas last week against Youngstown State.

The Spartans were much sharper on both accounts this week against Florida Atlantic, although the Owls fielded perhaps the weakest offense Michigan State will encounter all year.

Michigan State held Florida Atlantic to just one first down and 48 yards of total offense.

"Stats are for losers," said defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, repeating one of his favorite refrains.

But these figures were kind of cute, for Spartan fans.

"It was done right," Narduzzi said.

Florida Atlantic ran only 33 offensive plays against Michigan State, and the Spartan first-string defense was on the field for only about 20 plays. But within those 20-or-so plays were a handful of examples of improved tackling and third-down defense:

  • FAU's first drive ended at three-and-out with linebacker Steve Gardiner breaking up a well-covered pass.

    "I should have had the INT on that pass," Gardiner said sheepishly after the game. "I was just working to my match and I got on balance and I was kind of surprised that the quarterback threw it. I felt we had a lot of green shirts there. It kind of slipped through my finger tips; I had to reach up to get it."

  • FAU's second drive ended at three-and-out, again with Gardiner involved. He checked in as part of the nickel defense, and laid out to make a nice, clean tackle on a WR coming from the back side after a gain of 7 on third-and-11.

    Good tackle. Good third-down defense. Another punt, and a tone was being set.

    "I was dropping back, but I knew they to send three guys vertical and then they send the guy from the boundary across," Gardiner said. "I kind of saw that coming so I was able to come to balance and make a break on the ball."

    The Spartans were on their keys defensively.

    "I think we had it in week one as well, but today it was real relative," said linebacker Max Bullough. "There were a lot of tendencies that Florida Atlantic did, and we were able to communicate across the linebackers."

    More examples:

  • FAU's fourth possession, good for its fourth three-and-out, featured Bullough scraping across formation nicely for a clean take-down, holding a toss play to no gain.

  • On the next play, [db]Chris Norman, who had some stale moments a week ago, converged on the tight end an executed a swift, brisk, forceful tackle on a short out route.

    It was 17-0, and improvement was already evident, even when taking into account the weakness of opponent.

    From The Inside-Out

    Strong play at defensive tackle was the root of Michigan State's defensive dominance.

    Three-technique defensive tackle Jerel Worthy penetrated the backfield with regularity, once for a sack, and once to turn a play toward Will Gholston for a tackle at the line of scrimmage.

    MSU dominated the interior while staying accountable to gap responsibility (also known as "maintaining leverage" or "playing square.")

    "We executed last week too but we didn't play with as good of leverage as we needed to," Narduzzi said. "Last week, we played pretty solid but we didn't play with a lot of leverage with our d-tackles inside and that was probably the difference a week ago," Narduzzi said. "But today, they played square, played with good leverage and it was a nice performance. It was a pretty dominant performance by those guys."

    Want an example of someone staying square? Marcus Rush got upfield on a speed rush while the FAU quarterback rolled in his direction for a sprint-out pass attempt. With MSU covering well in pass defense, the QB might have been inclined to tuck it and run. But Rush maintained proper containment and hemmed the QB in, rather than recklessly charging after him.

    Rush's discipline enabled Johnathan Strayhorn to converge from the backside for the initial hit on a half-sack, assisted by Anthony Rashad White.

    "Leverage up front, that meant keeping contain and everything inside," said nose guard Anthony Rashad White. "And we had to get push, and we got that today."

    Defensive Notes And Quotes

    Don't look for great defensive numbers from Spartans this week. Because they faced few snaps, the Spartans' leader in tackles was Bullough, with just four.

  • The 48 yards of total offense are the sixth-fewest allowed in Michigan State history, and the fewest since allowing 6 yards to Michigan in 1951.

  • It marked the fifth time a Spartan defense hasn't allowed a first down by rushing, and the first time since Ohio State in 1999.

  • Florida Atlantic was held to 22 yards rushing, the second-lowest in the Dantonio era (12 yards by UAB in 2007).

  • The 26 passing yards by Florida Atlantic are the fewest allowed by MSU since surrendering 10 yards passing against ground-oriented Army in the 1984 Cherry Bowl loss to the Cadets.

  • The 44-0 win marked the first shutout win since MSU defeated FAU 17-0 in 2008.

  • Michigan State has only allowed six points in the first two games, the fewest allowed in the first two games of the season combined since 1965 (UCLA - three points; Penn State - shutout).

  • Michigan State extended its home winning streak to nine games, matching its longest home winning streak since it also won nine straight from 1998-2000...Dantonio is 24-6 in Spartan Stadium (.800).

  • On Jeremy Langford's scoop-and-score 37-yard fumble return, which featured three broken tackles by the former tailback:

    "As soon as he caught it, I said there is a chance he scores because he also plays scout tailback for us, so I knew as soon as he got the ball in his hand he knew what to do," Narduzzi said. "So I was fired up for Jeremy."

    "The sideline lit up," Bullough said. "When that happened, the whole sideline lit up and the refs had to tell us to get back. Jeremy is a guy that can do that; he's a real explosive player, he just needs a chance to do it."

  • Junior defensive end Tyler Hoover missed the game due to injury believed to be related to the rib soreness he played through last week.

    How long will Hoover be out?

    "Not real long," Narduzzi said. "Maybe another week, I don't know. But he is feeling pretty good. He wanted to play today. He asked at halftime if he could put his pads on, and I said no."

    History Lesson

    The only other time a Spartan defense held an opponent to one first down was in 1944 when Michigan State did it to Maryland. Michigan State won that day, 8-0, on Oct. 20 at Maryland. Or was it on 33-0, on Nov 4 in East Lansing? In a scheduling oddity, the Spartans played the Terps two times that year. A war was on, you know.

    The first MSU-Maryland game was held in Washington, D.C., actually, not at Maryland's College Park campus. The game was played in a driving rainstorm. MSU's only TD was scored by Jack Breslin. It's believed that this was the MSU-Maryland game during which the Spartans allowed only one first down. And who can argue with us? There were only 800 spectators at the game.

    COMP'S FINAL COMMENT: If this were Ann Arbor and we were your hometown media and these defensive stats were put up against Delaware State or something, we would be bowing at the numbers, telling you that this is the best defense since The Steel Curtain.

    Instead, we caution you to realize that FAU's offense rushed 30 times for 30 yards against Florida last week, and wasn't even that good. FAU trailed 17-0 and 24-0 early in that game against the Gators, yet the Owls painfully stayed in an I-formation, continued to try to run the ball and only occasionally attempted short passes. That's how reluctant they were to put the ball in the air. The Owls are terribly limited at quarterback, and their run game package was uprooted by quick defensive interiors for two consecutive weeks.

    Michigan State was quick inside, sound and in position elsewhere, and took people on the ground. That's what a good - not great - defense should do against this terrible FAU offense this year.

    FAU players said after the game that MSU's defense was "rock solid."

    That's a good term. Rock solid. Not great. Not The Steel Curtain. Just rock solid. And that's a good place to be after two weeks.

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