October 2, 2011

Can Spartans' 'Lights-Out' Defense Continue?

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The nation's No. 1-ranked defense made good on its No. 1 priority, Saturday at Ohio State when Michigan State corralled fast, elusive Buckeye quarterback Braxton Miller.

They Spartans stopped him from getting loose on deadly scrambles and designed keepers, and then they harassed him in the pocket as a passer.

But first, the Spartans stopped conventional runs in staging a sturdy, systematical 10-7 victory over Ohio State which was more convincing than the score indicated.

"I thought the defense played lights-out," said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio.

The Spartans came into this game ranked No. 1 in total defense, No. 3 in pass efficiency defense and No. 9 in rush defense.

Dantonio downplayed those rankings earlier in the week, stating that numbers don't begin to mean much until late in the conference season.

Well, Michigan State defense treated the Buckeyes with the same rudeness the Spartans had for con-conference lightweights Central Michigan, Florida Atlantic and Youngstown State, in MSU's three previous wins.

Doing it against a Big Ten heavyweight - even on a down year for the Buckeyes - was noteworthy.

"We needed a signature win away from home," Dantonio said. "This will sort of point our way for us and give us credibility and more importantly confidence in ourselves, and I think we got that today. We went on the road and we played well. That's big.

"I thought we took the crowd out of the game, pretty much. It was a good day for us, a good day for the Spartans."

Putting A Fence Around Miller

Michigan State held Ohio State to 178 yards of total offense, 12 first downs and without a point until the final :10 seconds.

The Buckeyes connected on a 33-yard TD pass with :10 left in order to avoid a shutout. Without that play, and CMU's blocked punt a week ago, the Spartan would probably have three shutouts on the year.

"I felt like we were dominant out there," said Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson. "I feel like we dominated, and I'm proud. You can't get complacent, though. We still have work to do and we still have challenges ahead of us."

Ohio State has had problems at quarterback for most of the year, but Miller - a true freshman - showed explosiveness in last week's Buckeye victory over Colorado.

MSU sought to contain Miller by blitzing him, with a disciplined policy of containment.

"We really felt like Braxton Miller is an outstanding athlete, and we couldn't let him loose," Dantonio said. "We had to try and put a fence around him. We did pressure him, we blitzed quite often. But more importantly was not to let him get those loose plays, you know those plays when you drop back to pass and then the next thing you know he's out of the pocket, running. So we sort of put a premium on that throughout practice all week and it paid dividends for us."

Michigan State battered the Buckeyes with nine sacks, including five on OSU's relief QB Joe Bauserman in the fourth quarter.

But first, the Spartans had to force OSU out of its comfort zone, and into the air, by stopping the Buckeyes' ground game.

Ohio State's running backs were held to 3.3 yards per carry and 78 net yards.

When including QB losses, the Buckeyes netted only 35 yards rushing. This coming a week after rushing for 226 against Colorado and two weeks after rushing for 174 against Miami.

"If you can't run the football really well, then you put your quarterback in a situation that he is a sitting guy back there," said Ohio State coach Luke Fickell. "It really puts you in a bind that they can gang up on you and do the things they're going to do. Gotta give them credit. They did a really good job at it."

Inside The Gameplan

MSU defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi wanted to frequently commit an extra body to stopping the run, and then make the inexperienced Miller go to the air.

"He told us beforehand, 'we are going to attack them, we are going to suffocate the quarterbacks and we are going to make them throw,'" MSU linebacker Denicos Allen said of Narduzzi. "He did what he said he would. You can do that when you shut down the run and make the quarterback pass. The game plan going in was to make them pass and we executed that game plan pretty well."

Miller was 5-of-10 for 56 yards through the air with one interception.

"We thought we're going to have to throw the football as many people as they're putting in there (to stop the run) and as much heat as they're bringing," Fickell said.

Bauserman was 7-of-14 for 87 yards through the air, as OSU had to abandon the run after the Spartans went up 10-0 on a 51-yard field goal with 10:53 remaining.

"Our biggest thing was: Stop the run. Then stop that quarterback from running around and throwing it around," Robinson said. "We did that."

Michigan State did it with an array of blitzes, sometimes bringing a pair of linebackers up the middle, sometimes a single outside linebacker off the edge, sometimes a cornerback or a free safety.

"You keep bringing something at a young quarterback that they have never seen before," Robinson said, "and their eyes are going to be big and they are going to be back there like ,'What's going on? What are they going to do now?'"

Rarely did the Spartans tip off their blitzes, largely because many of the pressures were ones that had not yet been on film this year.

"He doesn't know where the blitz is coming from at all," Robinson said. "He doesn't have the experience to make those checks like an experienced quarterback would do, normally. So we brought something new out and it worked."

"He's a young quarterback," Dantonio said. "and that's what we had to take advantage of a little bit.

Low Risk, High Reward

The Spartans backed up their blitzes with solid zone coverage in the back.

Example: Michigan State wrapped up a great first half on defense with a sack by blitzing cornerback
Johnny Adams out of the nickel defense. With Adams blitzing, MSU rolled the other four DBs into a quarters shell, which is the Spartans' base coverage in regular situations.

Against cover-three, MSU often gives up openings on comeback routes along the sideline. But Ohio State's young QB wasn't able to make the reads quickly enough.

"Things were happening fast for them," Fickell said of the Ohio State quarterbacks. "They're going to get on you. Get after you. I think maybe he (Miller) didn't see the field real well."

In run situations, the Spartans often sent a safety into the box, with a deep cover-three zone behind it. The extra man in the box helped stop the run, without exposing the secondary to quick-strike hot routes.

In short, MSU blitzed without gambling. They engineered high-reward defensive plays with little risk.

The Spartans' blitzes were designed to stuff the run, as much as harass QBs.

"We came into the game with a lot of blitzes, even against runs, especially against runs," said linebacker Max Bullough. "We have a lot of run blitzes that get guys going in different directions so they don't know how to block it. So we were able to clog the holes and stop the guys we wanted to stop."

The Spartans occasionally had pass rushers getting off of blocks and coming free. More importantly, the Spartans always had the edges contained with outside-in leverage on the quarterback, and the interior gaps hosted as well.

It was a swarming, gap-smart approach - not so much a case of one or two edge rushers establishing individual dominance.

"You can't get past the run blitz if everyone is doing what they are supposed to do," Bullough said.

"We were just running in and pressuring and closing all windows," Allen said.

Narduzzi's Gameplan Excited The Spartans

Spartan players were eager to get to work on the game plan soon after Narduzzi introduced the strategy at the outset of the practice week.

"When Coach Narduzzi brought the game plan to the table and told us what we were going to be doing, I know the linebackers and d-line were really excited," Robinson said. "All week I was impressed with the game plan."

Allen and fellow outside linebacker Chris Norman led the sack parade with two each. Bullough, Adams, Jerel Worthy, William Gholston and Marcus Rush each had one sack. Gholston had an additional sack wiped from the stat sheet when MSU accepted a more damaging Ohio State offensive penalty on the play.

"I was amazed at how much pressure with how many times we sacked them," Allen said. "I have really never seen anything like that. It got to the point where I was like, 'what is going on? Are they just letting us through?' I was amazed at how we were able to get to them."

Allen amazed himself when he leaped over a blocking back and sacked Bauserman inside the OSU 10-yard line with 6:24 to play.

"I didn't know I could jump that high, but apparently I can," said the stocky, 5-foot-10 Allen. "It just happened. It was reaction. I have never dunked a basketball. I didn't realize how high I was. I thought the guy was cutting me, so I jumped over him. We call it 'kamikaze,' sell out toward the quarterback. I sold out a lot and it paid off."

Ohio State crossed MSU's 35-yard line only once in the first 59 minutes of the game. The Buckeyes did it thanks to a 33-yard deep ball on third-and-13 midway through the second quarter. OSU flooded the left one-third of MSU's cover-three with three receivers. MSU cornerback Darqueze Dennard was caught without help and had to leave one of them open. Dennard help make the tackle on the spot, but OSU seemed to be on the move.

Dennard turned back the threat three plays later when he intercepted a deep pass at the goal line, wrestling a jump ball from Ohio State receiver Devin Smith.

"We were able to make sacks, and play well on defense until that last play," Dantonio said.

Ohio State avoided the shutout with a Bauserman TD strike to WR Evan Spencer on a deep crossing route in the final seconds. MSU's prevent defense had allowed runs of 7 and 13 yards by Bauserman earlier in the drive and a 9-yard pass on fourth-and-3.

MSU came out of the prevent and rushed five in giving up the TD pass, one of the few ploys all day that didn't work.

"Big program win for us," Dantonio said. "They were the only team that we had not beaten in the Big Ten since coming here as a staff. So that was a big win for this program."

What's Next For This Defense?

After the bye week, MSU will face a more explosive yet similarly one-dimensional offense when the Spartans play host to rival Michigan on Oct. 15. Wolverine tailbacks have had trouble running the ball against credible defenses this year, and Michigan QB Dennard Robinson has had problems when trying to throw intermediate passes from the pocket.

However, Robinson is one of the more dangerous players in America when scrambling out of the pocket. Michigan State will once again have to attempt to "put a fence" around Robinson, hem him in and contain his freelance ability. The Spartans were successful in doing this last year against a Michigan offense that was more tailored to Robinson's talents, and put horizontal stress on defenses with wider splits, better zone blocking and the hurry-up element.

"We have a bye week, so we can get some guys healthy," Bullough said. "This was a long, hard-fought Big Ten game, and you are always going to have some guys dinged up after that. We are going to take our opportunity to get healed up and get ready for a huge one at home.

"Watching Michigan on TV next week, that will start to get us hyped. It's hard not to get hyped up for a game like Michigan."

Then the Spartans will face the best offense in the Big Ten, and perhaps the most powerfully balanced offense in the country, when Michigan State plays host to Wisconsin on Homecoming night at Spartan Stadium on Oct. 22.

After beating Ohio State, MSU is 1-0 in a crucial, four-game, mid-season gauntlet which also includes a trip to Nebraska on Oct. 29. If the Spartans can beat Michigan and go 3-1 in this four-game stretch, a rematch with Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game will become a stronger possibility.

The Spartans are beginning to look like they have the best defense in the Big Ten. If that trend continues, a serious run at conference title contention may follow.

"We came into the season with a little bit more confidence," Robinson said of the Spartan defense, "because last year we won a Big Ten championship and we know that the players on this team are capable of winning and we believe in each other and we believe we can dominant any team. We take it kind of personal when a team scores on us. We don't want that."

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