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Meet the Spartans: Front seven

The following is the second of five installments of The Stanford Daily’s “Meet the Spartans” series, which will give an in-depth look at Michigan State leading into the 100th Rose Bowl Game between No. 4 Michigan State and No. 5 Stanford on Jan. 1. Today’s piece will focus on the Spartans’ front seven. Come back to stanforddaily.com/category/sports for the next three days for looks at the Spartans’ run offense, pass offense and special teams.

Part 1: Secondary

Part 3: Running game

Part 4: Passing game

Part 5: Special teams

The low down: Michigan State is very stout up front — opponents are averaging only 2.7 yards per rush and 12.7 points per game. The Spartans do this with a 4-3 defense (four defensive linemen and three linebackers), so their players have different roles than the Cardinal’s big guys up front.

Second-team All-Big-Ten linebacker Denicos Allen has come up big several times for the Spartans this season. His fourth-down stop late in the Big Ten Championship Game helped send Michigan State to the Rose Bowl. (Michigan State Athletics)

Second-team All-Big-Ten linebacker Denicos Allen has come up big several times for the Spartans this season. His fourth-down stop late in the Big Ten Championship Game helped send Michigan State to the Rose Bowl. (Michigan State Athletics)

Best player: In the 4-3, the best pass rushers are usually defensive ends, and for Michigan State, the man who does that job best is defensive end Shilique Calhoun. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound sophomore has been a monster up front for the Spartans, recently being named the Big Ten’s defensive lineman of the year. Not only has Calhoun recorded 14 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, but he has also converted pressure into points. Calhoun has scored three touchdowns this season — two on fumble returns and one on a 56-yard interception return. If Michigan State is going to make a game-changing play on defense in the Rose Bowl, there is a good chance it will start with Calhoun bringing pressure up front.

Best performance: It’s hard to ignore the Spartans’ dominance up front in their 29-6 win against rival Michigan on Nov. 2. Michigan State’s 11 tackles for loss — seven of them sacks — resulted in an eye-dropping rushing total for the Wolverines: -48 yards. Calhoun and second-team All-Big-Ten linebacker Denicos Allen pitched in with three tackles for loss apiece, and backup linebacker Ed Davis even got into the mix with 2.5 sacks. The win showed off the depth of the Spartans linebacking core, which feasted on Michigan even though its best player, first-team All-Big-Ten selection Max Bullough, recorded just three tackles.

Worst performance: Though Ohio State boasts the nation’s third-best rushing attack, Michigan State’s statistical performance against the speedy Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship Game must still be worrisome for the Spartans coaching staff. Ohio State tallied 273 yards against the Spartans, 91 more yards than Michigan State yielded to any other opponent, and rushed for 6.8 yards per carry, just slightly below the Buckeyes’ season average of 7.0. Most notably, the Spartans had trouble stopping Ohio State’s read-option attack.

Highlights of the season: The best moment for the Spartans front seven against Ohio State was a crucial fourth-down stop by Allen of Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller. Allen’s tackle with around five minutes left helped get the Spartans to Pasadena.

Earlier in the season, the Spartans front seven came up big in the second quarter of a low-scoring, 14-0 win against Purdue. Bullough pummeled Purdue quarterback Danny Etling, and Allen took the ensuing fumble 45 yards to the house.

Biggest questions: If the Spartans have shown any weakness whatsoever in stopping the run all season, it has been against the read option. Miller rushed 21 times for 142 yards and two touchdowns — an average of 6.8 yards per attempt — against Michigan State.

Matchup with Stanford: While the Spartans eventually stopped Miller enough to secure the victory, it would not be surprising to see Stanford run the read option with junior quarterback Kevin Hogan throughout the Rose Bowl. Hogan has shown the ability to run that play well, and over the Cardinal’s last few wins, the read option became a go-to play, even on third-and-long. Against this stout Spartan defense, the read option may be Stanford’s only chance to pick up big chunks on the ground.

Latest development: Per Brett McMurphy of ESPN, Bullough has been suspended for the Rose Bowl Game for violating team rules. A two-time team captain and a two-time All-Big Ten First Team selection, the senior linebacker was third on the team in both tackles and tackles for loss this season.

 

Contact Sam Fisher at safisher ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Sam Fisher

Sam Fisher is the managing editor of sports for The Stanford Daily's Vol. 244. Sam also does play-by-play for KZSU's coverage of Stanford football, Stanford baseball and Stanford women's basketball. In 2013, Sam co-authored "Rags to Roses: The Rise of Stanford Football," with Joseph Beyda and George Chen.