One way to understand the 3-4 is to compare it with the more common 40-front schemes, namely the 4-3.
In a 4-3 (witnessed by Spartan defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's base scheme) the defensive ends are relied on as being pass rushing forces. In the 3-4, ends are run stoppers, first and foremost. The nose tackle, buried deep in the trenches, looks to disrupt running lanes as well.
Many college and NFL coaches have pointed to the general shortage of big bodied athletes needed for line play, as opposed to the abundance of tweeners who could play D-end or linebacker.
While 3-4 schemes need less down lineman, they certainly want them bigger. Contrast the Spartans with the Golden Bears: The 2-deep along the Cal D-line (six players) averages 289 pounds; MSU's 2-deep along the D-line (eight players) — 273 pounds.
One common 3-4 strategy is to use D-lineman almost exclusively as offensive line disrupters. They must mind nearby rushing lanes, but if they keep their man (or, ideally, men) occupied, that allows the four linebackers to roam free and make plays. Hence the beef eaters up front for Cal.
Golden Bears head coach Jeff Tedford is relying on his linebackers to be playmakers in the 3-4. Senior Zack Follett, a Butkus Award candidate and the team's sack leader for two consecutive years, leads a seasoned group on the outside. Tested veterans Worrell Williams (also a Butkus candidate) and Anthony Felder man the inside as an intimidating duo. And the speedy Eddie Young will man the other outside slot.
"The strength of their defense — you have to look at their linebackers," Spartan quarterback Brian Hoyer said. "Those guys are tough individuals, they can bring it on every play."
Obviously, getting lineman on linebackers ASAP is an enticing strategy for MSU. But the real heroes of the day for the run game could well be the tight ends. Reading subtle positional alignments or shifts within the Cal front seven, who might morph into the 4-3 at times, is vital to ensure proper assignment execution.
"The calls are a lot different right now from a 30-front to a 40-front " Spartan tight end Charlie Gantt said. He is the starter and will be relied on to help communicate assignments, which may be audibled at the line.
"If the defensive tackle is too far inside," Gantt explains, "and I won't be able to get him on maybe an outside zone reach, I'll have to make a different call and the (offensive) tackle will have to make a different call on that play."
Gantt won't be alone. Garrett Celek, who tight ends coach Mark Staten has singled out as an excellent run blocker, should see action in many formations as well, particularly two-tight end sets.
Fullback will also be an important position this Saturday. Andrew Hawken, Jeff McPherson or Josh Rouse will have opportunities to seal off pursuing MLBs from the inside or take out a crashing OLB from the outside which may make the difference between a 4-yard scamper and a 75-yard explosion for Javon Ringer. Either way, their ability to recognize shifting assignments or to make split-second decisions about where a surprising lineman/LB stunt is coming from will be vital.
The aggressiveness of the front seven in a 3-4 scheme can also leave the secondary on an island. While an active blitzing and stunting D-line and linebacker corps can disrupt running lanes and pocket passers who regularly take 5-step drops, it's also prone to leaving areas of the defense empty.
That can put tremendous pressure on corners and safeties and that could mean a big day for Mark Dell or B.J. Cunningham. Dell might help Spartan fans forget Devin Thomas as the new recipient of Brian Hoyer's well-thrown bubble screens. Corners in 3-4's play both man and zone, but a 5- to7-yard cushion is common.
A single deep safety is not uncommon either, which will give Hoyer an opportunity to stretch the field with Dell, Cunningham or explosive freshman Keshawn Martin.
But real success will come on the ground with a dominating offensive line making proper reads and blowing run lanes open. And Spartan fans know how dangerous Ringer is when he gets a little bit of space.