Spar­tans’ sti­fling run de­fense awaits Lions

Michi­gan State al­lows 33.8 yards per game on the ground.


Most ev­ery­thing about the 2018 sea­son hasn’t gone the way Michi­gan State wanted.

One thing has ex­ceeded their wildest ex­pec­ta­tions, though.

When they take the field to­day at 3:30 p.m. at Beaver Sta­dium for a bat­tle with No. 8 Penn State, the Spar­tans will do so with a rush de­fense it hopes can slow the Nit­tany Lions’ vaunted back­field tan­dem of run­ning back Miles San­ders and quar­ter­back Trace Mcsor­ley. It may need to play to its own lofty stan­dard to turn around a dis­ap­point­ing sea­son, as well.

At just 33.8 yards per game al­lowed on the ground, the Spar­tans boast the stingi­est rush­ing de­fense in the na­tion, and sta­tis­ti­cally, it’s not par­tic­u­larly close. The No. 2 team against the run, San Diego State, has al­lowed 61.8 yards per game. The next clos­est team from a Power Five con­fer­ence, No. 4 Texas A&M, has al­lowed a com­par­a­tively lofty 82.5.

“They play the run first,” said San­ders, who was bot­tled up for just 43 yards on 16 car­ries in the Lions’ last game against Ohio State on Sept. 29. “When you watch film on them, all 11 play­ers, their eyes are in the back­field. The lineback­ers and the safeties, they read the guards and the tack­les. So, they’re look­ing for a run play.

“We know what they’re like in the run game, but we’re up for the chal­lenge.”

Run­ning the ball well to­day, in their first game

since that knee-buck­ling 27-26 col­lapse against the Buck­eyes two weeks ago, would not just a change of for­tune against the 2018 Spar­tans, but a re­ver­sal of a dis­ap­point­ing rush­ing trend for Penn State against Michi­gan State.

Last sea­son, in a 27-24 loss to the Spar­tans, the Nit­tany Lions rushed for just 65 yards on 21 at­tempts. In a win in 2016, they had just 77 yards on 33 car­ries.

No team has rushed for more than 63 yards in any game this year against the Spar­tans, and last week, North­west­ern man­aged just 8.

“They kind of get hats into the box in the run­ning game. That’s kind of been their sta­ple over the last 10 years,” Mcsor­ley said. “They’re not go­ing to let you run the ball. They’re go­ing to make you earn it. You’re go­ing to have to make one-on-one plays in the pass­ing game.”

Part of the rea­son the Spar­tans have started 3-2 is, teams have been able to make those one-on-one plays.

Four of their five op­po­nents have thrown for 270 yards or more, and last week, the Wild­cats’ 8 rush­ing yards were enough to se­cure a win, in part be­cause they also threw for 373 yards.

The dis­crep­ancy con­cerns Michi­gan State coach Mark Dan­to­nio, whose team has been ham­pered by in­juries not just through­out the of­fense, but in the sec­ondary.

“I say to our guys, ‘We’re play­ing very well against the run. Well, how are we play­ing against the perime­ter pass, which is bub­bles and jail­break screens and things like that?’” Dan­to­nio said. “They’ve got to throw that into the run game, be­cause that’s how peo­ple are run­ning the ball against us in some re­gards. So we look at that as­pect and ask our­selves how we’re play­ing and we work at it.”

En­ter­ing the sea­son with Big Ten cham­pi­onship as­pi­ra­tions of their own, the Spar­tans know this week presents per­haps their last op­por­tu­nity to force their way back into the race, a chance to up­end a top-10-ranked team on the road.

Stop­ping the run has been, as Mcsor­ley said, a sta­ple. But to pull the up­set, Dan­to­nio knows they’ll have to over­come those fac­tors that haven’t gone the way they’ve wanted.

“The No. 1 statis­tic, and the thing I have to hang our hat on is: Do we win or do we lose?” he said. “And at the end of the day, we’re a 3-2 foot­ball team, and I feel like we had op­por­tu­ni­ties to win those other two and did not.”

Con­tact the writer: dcollins@timessham­; 570-348-9125 @psubst on Twit­ter

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