Preview: Michigan State Defense

Notre Dame hasn't had trouble moving the football in its first two contests of the 2009 season, but this weekend the Irish might run up against the best defense it has seen thus far. IrishEyes previews the Michigan State Spartan defense.

The Notre Dame offense has averaged 500 yards per game (166 rushing, 334 passing), while averaging 34.50 points in its first two contests against Nevada and Michigan. This weekend they'll be facing a defense that returns eight starters that held the Irish to 258 total yards (16 rushing, 242 passing) in 2008. Notre Dame scored its lone touchdown in the fourth quarter in the 23-7 defeat to the Spartans in East Lansing.

While many expected the Michigan State defense to improve on last season, that hasn't proven to be the case, at least early in 2009. The Spartans did stifle Montana State's (I-AA) in their first game, but then saw Central Michigan pile up 418 yards last weekend in their 29-27 loss to the Chippewas in East Lansing. Most disheartening for Spartan fans is that the strength of the defense was expected to be the secondary, yet they've yielded 225 yards per game in season, including 33 completions on 46 attempts and 352 yards a week ago.

Michigan State plays a base "4-3". Spartan defensive coordinator, Pat Narduzzi will throw blitzes in from time to time, but he prefers to play solid defense and tries to limit big plays. The front seven isn't as experienced as the back four, but they have been the strength of the defense up until this time. There is some depth so Michigan State can rotate upfront, but the starting linebackers will likely play throughout the game this Saturday. MSU has held opponents to 64 yards rushing per game, and registered three sacks.

Front Four

Defensive End: Trevor Anderson (6-2, 260-pounds, 5th Sr.) has started 12 games at Michigan State, and also started at Cincinnati prior to leaving the Bearcat program and following Dantonio and his coaching staff to East Lansing. He will line up opposite of Sam Young. He's solid, yet an unspectacular player on the edge. Anderson has seven tackles and one sack on the season.

Defensive Tackle: Jerel Worthy (6-3, 292-pounds, R-Fr.) is a force on the inside. He is big and he can get into the backfield and make plays. Worthy has seven tackles and 1.5 sacks on the season. Michigan State will also rotate Kevin Pickelman (6-4, 268-pounds, So.) in here as well. Unlike Worthy, Pickelman can move around and be disruptive. He isn't real big, so I expect Notre Dame to run the ball at him when he does appear.

Nose Tackle: Oren Wilson (6-3, 294-pounds, Jr.) is the returning starter from a year ago. Wilson can get off the ball quickly but he isn't real active inside, so he probably won't make a lot of tackles, but that isn't necessarily his job… he's just tough to move off of his spot. Wilson has four tackles in 2009.

Defensive End: Colin Neely (6-1, 248-pounds, Jr.) has five starts under his belt and he'll be lined up against Paul Duncan. Neely doesn't have a lot of size, but he's expected to get to the passer. He's done an adequate job in the first two games, but he'll likely find the going much tougher this weekend. Neely has five tackles and one sack over the first two games.

Linebackers

SAM Backer: Eric Gordon (6-0, 228-pounds, Jr.) has started 25 games and has become a solid playmaker for the Spartan defense. He's undersized for a SAM backer, but he's got a nose for the ball and he will pursue the ball all over the field. Gordon finished with 85 tackles last season; thus far in 2009 he has 10.

Mike Backer: Greg Jones (6-1, 228-pounds, Jr.) has started 22 games in his career. Jones is the star of the defense and is one off the top linebackers in the Big Ten and likely one of the best in the nation. This is his first year in the middle after playing on the outside his first two seasons. He is the ultimate playmaker on this defense and if he can get to the ball carrier, which he does a lot, he'll make the play. Last season Jones made 127 tackles, with 14 coming from behind the line. Already in 2009, he has 29 stops, with 4 TFLs. This is the guy Notre Dame must get a body on, and shield him from the play.

Will backer: Brandon Denson (5-11, 230-pounds, 5th) was a backup safety and has now moved into the starting Will spot on defense. He isn't real big, but he's gets to the ball. Last week he made nine tackles against Central Michigan, and he has 13 on the season.

Back Four

Cornerback: Jeremy Ware (5-11, 188-pounds, 5th) only has six starts under his belt, and he's done a solid job this season in the first two games. He has solid cover skills and he will come up and make tackle when the play comes to his side. He owns the lone interception for the Spartan defense, which came last week as Central Michigan was in the shadow of the goal-line.

Cornerback: Chris Rucker (6-2, 195-pounds, Jr.) is a returning starter. Rucker has the height and good speed, to stay with the best receivers, but he runs hot and cold. He will come up to make play that come his way, but isn't as physical as his size would indicate. Rucker has 10 tackles on the season.

Free Safety: Trenton Robinson (5-10, 190-pounds, So.) played as a true freshman last season and after last weekend was named the starter over Danny Fortener who was the returning starter and had started 11 games for Michigan State. He isn't big, but he is very good in coverage. He's got very good instincts and plays the ball well in the air. Robinson has 13 tackles in two games.

Strong Safety: Marcus Hyde (6-0, 206-pounds, Jr.) has done a solid job in his first season as the starter, but I expect Notre Dame to attack him fairly often. He's got tremendous athletic ability, but tends to get lost at times on defense. When he does get to the ball carrier, he'll make the play. Hyde has 15 tackles in 2009.


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