EAST LANSING, Mich. — One thing Mark Dantonio can often count on is that Michigan State will be able to stop the run.
It’s been an uneven start to the season for the 20th-ranked Spartans, but their defensive front has made its presence felt. Michigan State ranks No. 1 in the country in run defense, and it’s not particularly close. The Spartans’ ability to limit teams on the ground has been one of the biggest factors in their success over the past several years, and this season appears to be no different.
“We’re building a wall, we’re not getting knocked off the ball, we’re tackling well,” said Dantonio, Michigan State’s coach. “We’re leveraging the ball well, those type of things. We’re making it difficult.”
The Spartans have allowed 40 yards rushing per game. They’ve been so good against the run that they’d lead the nation in that category even if their 12 sacks (for 70 yards) were removed from the calculation.
This is no fluke. Last season was the fourth time in six years that Michigan State held opponents to an average of under 100 yards a game on the ground. Last weekend’s win over Central Michigan was the seventh game in a row the Spartans kept a team under 100, a streak that dates to last season.
“We’ve got some big D-tackles at the first line of defense,” said Raequan Williams, who is one of those defensive tackles. “The coaches emphasize what they know we can do best is destroy plays. That’s something that we put a lot into. … You see a lot of bull rushes by us — bulling the guy straight back.”
Michigan State faces Northwestern this coming weekend. The Wildcats are last in the Big Ten in rushing, and they lost running back Jeremy Larkin last week when a medical condition involving his neck and upper back forced him to retire from football .
Even without Larkin, Northwestern nearly upset Michigan last weekend, but the Wildcats lost 20-17 after jumping out to a 17-0 lead. John Moten led Northwestern with 13 carries for only 36 yards, but the Wildcats can be effective offensively even without a productive running game. Clayton Thorson threw for 356 yards and two touchdowns last year when Northwestern beat Michigan State 39-31 in triple overtime.
The previous season’s matchup was even more of a shootout, with Thorson and the Wildcats prevailing 54-40 in East Lansing.
In the past, Michigan State has been able to complement its tough run defense with a secondary that can limit deep passes. It’s not yet clear if this year’s team will be able to do that — the Spartans are near the bottom of the Big Ten in pass defense.
“I think the run defense is a collective effort, as well as the pass defense. We look at it all as a collective effort,” safety Khari Willis said. “We know that our pass defense could be better, and it’s continually getting better.”
Willis and the secondary should be tested this weekend, but later in October, the Spartans face Penn State and Michigan.
Those games — and Michigan State’s chances of contending for the Big Ten title — may depend on whether the Spartans can keep stopping the run.
“We’re going into the heart of our season,” Dantonio said. “So a lot of who we are and relative to run defense will be defined I think over these next four, five weeks.”
NOTES: Dantonio said injured cornerback Josiah Scott, who has been out all season, is not practicing yet but is “very close.”