CHAMPAIGN - Along with the arrival of football weather the past two weekends, Michigan State Spartan fans have also seen the arrival of the Michigan State defensive line.
Aside from the play of the offensive line after getting starters Joel Foreman and Joel Nitchman, perhaps no other unit on the Spartan football team has shown the type of improvement from the first week of the season until the midway point than the defensive line.
Against Michigan, two weekends ago the front four of the Spartans played a big part in limiting the Wolverine ground game to 28 yards in a 26-20 win. Saturday at Illinois, the Spartan defensive line again came up big again as they helped hold the Illini to 14 points in a 24-14 win that evened Michigan State's record at 3-3. At 2-1 in Big Ten play, Michigan State finds themselves in a tie for first place with Wisconsin and Minnesota heading into this weekend's game against Northwestern.
Led by starting defensive ends Trevor Anderson and Colin Neely and starting tackles Jerel Worthy and Oren Wilson, the Spartan defensive line helped stall the Illini offense for most of game. Of Illinois' first eight drives, seven ended in punts and one ended in an interception as the Spartans built a 24-0 lead.
"I think our front controlled the line of scrimmage, we won up front," said Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio. "With that being said we got after the quarterback, six sacks and a couple other sacks we missed. I'm trying to live in a perfect world that don't exist, but we got them dead to right but credit the guy we tried to tackle too."
The Spartan defense line turned in a number of big plays during the afternoon led by Anderson who totaled five tackles along with two quarterback hurries and 1.5 quarterback sacks. Inside, Worthy added three tackles and one sack while Neely finished with two tackles and a half sack.
"They are playing good football for us," said defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. "I think every week the go in there they are going to continue to get better. Trevor is really the only old guy on the d-line. I guess Oren is pretty old, but Neely is really starting for the first year and I know they don't have any gray hair or anything. They are playing pretty good up front."
The Spartans ranked No. 5 in the Big Ten in sacks behind conference leader Penn State, as well as Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio State heading into Week 6 at Illinois. After dropping Illinois quarterbacks six times, Michigan State trails only the Nittany Lions in total sacks at the midway point of the 2009 season. The Spartans rank No. 12 nationally with 18 sacks. The Spartan defensive line has contributed 11.5 sacks on the year.
Coming into the season the Spartans expected to have plenty of depth along the defensive front and the depth has been evident in the past weeks. But it has taken the Spartans some time to develop chemistry up front and to get young players the experience needed to make plays on the Big Ten stage.
Anderson is the only senior on the defensive line. Wilson and Neely, both juniors, are the only other upperclassmen in the three-deep for the Spartans on the defensive line. Senior Michael Jordan had been listed on the depth chart until last week at defensive tackle. But red-shirt freshman Cameron Jude has since replaced him.
During the past two games Wilson, Anderson, and Neely have played well. The Spartans have also received a boost from youngsters like true freshman Blake Treadwell, who has been seeing plenty of snaps at defensive tackle and David Rolf at end.
"Oren Wilson, Jerel Worthy is coming in to his own, Trevor Anderson, Colin Neely, we played quite a bit of guys," Dantonio said. "Blake Treadwell was in there, David Rolf, we played some different guys. We had about eight different guys in there."
Worthy has made the biggest splash of the Spartan defensive linemen in the rotation for the first time. The 6-foot-3 293-pound Ohioan ranks No. 2 in the Big Ten in total sacks with 4.5 on the year and he is improving rapidly against the run.
"He has quickness you really don't see from 300-pounders," Anderson said. "He is really learning how to stay in his technique. If he listens to coach (Ted) Gill even when he is getting down on him he is going to be a great player for us."
Even when not recording sacks, the Spartan proved to be a disruptive force and forced the Illini to double-team a number of Spartan defensive linemen that opened things up for the linebackers on blitzes as the Spartans totaled six sacks for the day.
That pressure also made third-down difficult for the Illini as the Illinois offense finished the day going 3-for-14 on third down.
Stopping the run and putting pressure on the quarterback is the goal of the Spartan defensive line and its something they've done well not only against Michigan but in the Illinois game.
"We really just want to stop the run first," Worthy said. "If we stop the run then everything else will just fall into place. When we do get into pass situations we want to get four down lineman up the field to get pressure on the quarterback."
The Spartan defensive line has also answered any questions about their ability to stop a spread offense with their performances against both Michigan and Illinois. The line will get another shot at a spread attack this Saturday when Northwestern visits East Lansing. Facing the Illinois spread gave the Spartans a good taste of what is to come against the Wildcats this Saturday.
"Guarding the spread offense is pretty hard because Illinois uses their athletes a lot in the spread offense," Neely said. "I thought we did a good job today and next week we basically have to face the same thing."
RUN DEFENSE STILL GOING STRONG AND GETTING BETTER
While Michigan State's defensive line has improved each week putting pressure on the quarterback. The front four has also done a nice job developing into one of the better rush defenses in the Big Ten.
In back to back weeks, Michigan State has faced two of the better running teams in the Big Ten. The Spartans held Michigan's ground game to a season low 28 yards rushing.
Combined the Fighting Illini and the Wolverines average a total of 364.93 rushing yards each week with Michigan ranked No. 23 in college football with 197.33 yards per game. Illinois ranks No. 4 in the Big Ten and No. 45 nationally running the football with an average of 167.6 yards per game. Illinois and Michigan combined to rush for 160 yards against the Spartans, a total more than 200 yards fewer than the two programs' combined average.
Penn State is the only team ranked ahead of the Spartans in rush defense. The Nittany Lions are yielding a conference best 82.3 yards per game on the ground. That puts them No. 8 in the nation in rush defense.
The Nittany Lions have a good rush defense, but Penn State has faced just one opponent ranked in the Top 60 running the football in Illinois. Each of the five bowl subdivision opponents (formerly Division 1-A) the Spartans have faced are ranked in the Top 60 running football.
Temple is the only rushing offense ranked in the Top 75 nationally through Oct. 11 that Penn State has faced. Michigan State has already faced three of the Top four running teams in the Big Ten including Wisconsin and Michigan ranked in the Top 25.
Spartan opponents have not only amassed yardage on the ground, but they have also been effective in the red-zone running the football. The five BCS bowl subdivision teams Michigan State has faced this season have combined for a total of 61 rushing touchdowns through week six of the college football season. The teams faced by Penn State have combined for 33 rushing touchdowns.