LINCOLN — Michael Rose, linebacker and new quarterback of Nebraska's defense, had already been prepped for the question to come.
What's your take on Michigan State's defense?
“We're not playing against their defense,” Rose said. “We're playing against their offense.”
That's the right answer for Rose to give, especially considering the Spartans' sputtering offense gave NU's defense enough headaches last year for the Huskers to be wary this year. It's not like Michigan State forfeits its offensive possessions to better genuflect on its defense.
Opposing coaches — especially those who understand the ingredients of great defense, like Bo Pelini — do that well enough.
“They communicate well, they've been in the system a long time, and they're pretty advanced,” Pelini said at his Monday press conference. “They understand not only their system, but what people are trying to do to them. And it allows you to do a little bit more. They've progressed. They continue to change and upgrade and keep getting better.”
Pelini's especially fond of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, a Youngstown, Ohio, native who should be a slam dunk finalist for the Broyles Award that honors the top assistant in college football. MSU's success — just 11.6 points, 12.7 first downs, 210.2 yards, 43.4 rushing yards allowed per game — is the byproduct of an “attitude,” Pelini said, and long-term development. Pelini joked that many of the Spartans starting Saturday started in Lincoln two years ago.
Bo has a good memory. There are five — linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, safety Isaiah Lewis, cornerback Darqueze Dennard and defensive end Marcus Rush. Would have been six if defensive end William Gholston hadn't jumped to the NFL.
At any rate, five guys for three years, all marinating in the sauce of a scheme that attacks, attacks, attacks. If they're the right kind of athletes, that'll wreck a lot of offenses.
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Having feverishly produced in 2009 and 2010 two of the great defenses in NU history with players he mostly didn't recruit, Pelini found himself in 2011 and 2012 having to refit his unit for the Big Ten with a lack of depth behind the front-line experienced guys. And after the experience left, he stumbled into the bad dream of early 2013, when the most basic concepts seemed hard for his defense to execute.
But in the last 25 drives — about 1Ĺ games — Nebraska has turned a considerable corner. You're seeing the talent that was always there emerge from the fog. The Huskers don't look like Michigan State right now — the consistency is the last piece to come, and NU hasn't shown that yet — but, in two years, when the Spartans return again to Lincoln, they could.
The emergence of Rose, whose love for football practically oozes, and true freshman Josh Banderas at middle linebacker are two reasons.
More than that, Nebraska has collected, as Michigan State has, some of its best athletes on defense. Redshirt freshman LeRoy Alexander — a star basketball player in high school — is progressing at safety. The best physical specimens on the defense not named Randy Gregory are linebackers Courtney Love and Marcus Newby, and they're redshirting because of injury and a late arrival to school. Another athlete late to football, defensive end Avery Moss, put the right weight on his frame and has been the surprise of the season.
Though the Spartans communicate well and commit to the scheme, you'll notice Saturday — if you haven't already seen them — how quickly they get wherever it is they want to go. It's hard to run a zone read, a jet sweep, a toss, even the traditional option. It's not merely a bunch of lunchpail guys that Michigan State has out there — although there are as many Rivals two-star defenders (two) as there are four-star guys in the starting lineup — it's fast athletes Narduzzi and head coach Mark Dantonio found and converted to defensive players.
Narduzzi's system, which emphasizes blitzing and tight pass coverage to take some of the guesswork out of playing physical, probably gets those guys on the field more quickly. Find the right middle linebacker — and Michigan State certainly did in Bullough — and the final product is a swarm.
Again, you could see Nebraska look like that in the future. You've already seen it for the last 25 drives.
“Our communication is getting better,” Pelini said. “Our confidence is getting better, which is allowing us to play faster. I think you can see with the type of athletes that we have is that if we can play fast, we can be pretty good.”
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