Published Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 10:55 am
Spartan defense prospers by being aggressive, cohesive
Michigan State at Nebraska
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
Radio: 1110 AM KFAB

LINCOLN — Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio calls football “a game of inches.”

It's not a new or revolutionary line, but the way the Spartans' defense denies opponents, those inches put a spotlight on the scheme developed by Dantonio and his defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, and the ferocity with which their players execute it.

Nebraska — the one team to bedevil this defense and beat the Spartans each of the last two years — will get an up-close look Saturday.

“We always look to find a better way,” Dantonio said this week. He's in his seventh year at MSU, and never has his defense been statistically better than this year's version. The numbers at times seem like misprints. Michigan State is:

» First nationally in total defense, giving up 210.2 yards per game — 33 fewer yards than any other FBS defense. Only one FBS defense since 2000 — the 2011 Alabama unit — has given up fewer yards per game in a season. Overall, MSU is giving up 3.47 yards per play.

» First nationally in rush defense at 43.4 yards per game. Should that figure hold, only one FBS defense since 2000 can compare — the 2006 Michigan unit at 43.4 yards per game. The Spartans are allowing 1.62 yards per carry. If carried through the season, it would be the lowest average in the last 12 years.

» First nationally in third-down defense. Opponents convert 26.12 percent of their third downs into first downs.

» Tied for first nationally in fewest red-zone attempts. Opponents have reached the Spartans' 20-yard line just 17 times this year.

» First nationally in opponent yards per pass attempt at 4.9. The Spartans are second nationally in opponent completion percentage at 46.7 percent.

Playing less-than-top-shelf offenses this year has helped. Indiana — eighth nationally in total offense — has the only highly ranked attack MSU has seen. But how else are the Spartans doing it?

“We're understanding our coaching, and we're doing it to a 'T,' ” said sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who has 6.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss. “We're not trying to be our own players. We're staying within the defensive scheme and trying to help our brothers in any way we can. We work as a unit — and not as individuals — and that's a big part of why we've been successful.”

Chemistry and teamwork may be easier to forge when Narduzzi's calling the shots. Calhoun calls his coordinator “insane” in an affectionate, admiring way. Narduzzi's been with Dantonio since Dantonio coached at Cincinnati, and the Spartan staff has continuity that helps gets the message across.

Narduzzi is “the mastermind behind all of us,” Calhoun said. “He puts us in such good positions to make the type of plays that we've made this year. He's been a great deal of help. He studies film more than anyone I know.”

The Narduzzi/Dantonio system has distinct features culled from various sources, including Nick Saban and Jimmy Johnson:

» A 4-3 defense that attacks the run with a quick front seven and maximum aggression, including run blitzes that keep linemen's heads on a swivel.

» A “quarters” coverage pass defense that combines tight man-to-man principles on the edge of the field — where the Spartans' cornerbacks crowd the line of scrimmage — with zone principles elsewhere. Michigan State relies on its safeties to be good in single coverage and run support.

» Savvy linebackers, specifically senior Max Bullough, a third-generation Spartan with a photographic memory.

“We've got smart guys on this defense. And they know what they're doing as much as I do, and that's what makes us work,” Bullough said in Michigan State's Gameday Magazine. He wasn't available for interviews this week.

“Max basically knows everyone,” Calhoun said. “He can tell you what you're doing. If you don't, he makes sure. From time to time you'll be watching film and you'll catch him looking back at you saying, 'What's going on here?' He's been a leader for us on and off the field.”

» The emotional quotient. Michigan State, second-fiddle to Michigan for decades until Dantonio arrived, plays with a chip on its shoulder. Angry. Dantonio calls the style “passionate.” Calhoun said it trickles down from Narduzzi.

“We can see he wishes he could be on the field,” Calhoun said. “He doesn't have to say anything. But you know he's going to say something. The emotion in his face, that pours out with his words — he's fighting for us on the sideline, and he's fighting for us from the booth trying to help understand — so it's like, 'Let's execute this for him, he's given his all, so let's give our all so we can be complete.' ”

* * *

Video: The Big Red Today Show, Nov. 12:

Contact the writer: Sam McKewon    |   402-219-3790    |  

Sam McKewon covers Nebraska football for The World-Herald. Got a tip, question or rant? Good. Email him. Follow him on Twitter. Call him.

Read more related stories


< >
2013 college football preview
View our 2013 college football preview, a 26-page, three-part section filled with coverage of the Huskers, Big Ten conference and more.
Big Red Bowl Retrospective
See complete historical results, game recaps and photo coverage from the Nebraska Cornhuskers college football bowl game appearances, from the 1941 Rose Bowl up to today.
Big Ten football recruits
The World-Herald's Big Ten recruiting database contains every football recruit that signed with a Big Ten school from 2002 to 2011, complete with color-coded interactive map representations, player information, high-concentrations recruiting clusters and more.
Devaney Center timeline
Check out a World-Herald timeline to see the evolution of memorable moments at the Devaney Center, complete with photos, videos, memorable quotes and more.
Follow OWHbigred on Twitter
Looking for the latest Husker sports news from The Omaha World-Herald and Follow us on Twitter!
Husker scholarship distribution chart
Want to see how many scholarships NU has invested at each position? Wondering how the Huskers have appropriated their offers by class? Check out our handy chart to look further into how Bo Pelini has built his team.
Husker Signing Day 2013
The World-Herald's top-notch coverage of the Nebraska football's class of 2013, complete with videos, photos, articles, live recruit interviews, interactive components and more.
Husker turnovers: A slippery slope
Bo Pelini has coached 68 games at Nebraska. When NU’s turnover margin is positive or even, the Huskers are 35-2. When they lose the turnover battle, they’re 13-18. Why hasn’t Nebraska joined the nation’s elite? More than anything, it’s turnovers.
Interactive: Bo Pelini's contract
View an interactive PDF of Pelini's revised contract signed by the NU football coach, complete with brief summaries of the legalese and insight into the document's finer points.
Interactive: Darin Erstad's contract (2012)
View an interactive PDF of NU baseball coach Darin Erstad's contract released in August 2012, complete with brief summaries of the legalese and insight into the document's finer points.
Interactive: Tim Miles' contract
View an interactive PDF of Tim Miles' contract signed by the Nebraska men's basketball coach on May 4, 2012, complete with brief legal explanations, comparisons to other Big Ten coaches and more.'s Big Ten coverage
Delivering the best news coverage and analysis of the Big Ten Conference, from and other top news outlets from around country.
Husker Recruiting: Changes shrink NU's sphere of influence
For decades, the Great Plains represented fertile recruiting ground for Tom Osborne's football program. Restoring that lost tradition won't be easy.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
< >