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Previewing Alabama vs. Michigan State: The Spartan defense

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Though different from Alabama's vaunted unit in scheme and complexity, the end results are not dissimilar

Michigan State pursues well to the ball, and they hit hard.
Michigan State pursues well to the ball, and they hit hard.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Powerhouses from rival conferences. Purveyors of "old man football." Physical, punishing defenses, and pounding, pro-style run-heavy offensive schemes. There are many threads which knit together the respective football spirits of the Alabama Crimson Tide and Michigan State Spartans as the two teams prepare to meet in the Cotton Bowl for a chance to play for the National Championship.

Sure, the teams differ in enough ways to add intrigue to what will likely be a bruising display of football might. And while defensively, the Tide and Spartans go about their business in differing ways, the end result is often similar enough to see the philosophies of Bama coach Nick Saban shape the team led by his former padawan, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio.

While many figure the Cotton Bowl match-up is Alabama's game to lose (with the Tide a roughly nine point favorite heading into the December 31 game), few can underestimate the prowess of the Michigan State defense. Cut (at least in spirit) from the cloth of Saban defenses past, MSU plays a fast, aggressive, physical style of defensive football that has allowed them to topple previous National Champion Ohio State and beat other tough outs like Michigan this season.

Sparty runs a 4-3 to Bama's 3-4...the MSU defense runs a simplified "key" system as opposed to Alabama's complex system predicated on pre-snap reads and multiple adaptability. Despite those differences, however, the outcome is often the same, i.e. dominant, top 10-ranked defensive units.

There's no secret that Alabama's offense will lean heavily on a talented offensive line and the running of Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry in this year's College Football Playoffs. But doing so successfully will be no short order, as the Spartans bring the nation's ninth-ranked rushing defense into the game. Not to mention, the Spartans have a history of dominating pro-style power offenses like the one Alabama has run in 2015. MSU's run defense versus Alabama's ground game will match strength-on-strength, and if any outcome is certain, it's that the aforementioned will be a war of attrition won in the trenches in grueling fashion.

What will the Spartan defense have to do to stop Henry in his tracks? Can Alabama continue to ride its bell-cow over Michigan State and into this year's National Championship Game? If the MSU run defense stymies Henry, can Alabama quarterback Jake Coker do enough through the air to keep Sparty honest and loosen the running lanes?

Those questions and more are yet to be answered. In the meantime, let's take a closer look.

The Roster

The Spartan defensive roster may not blind the casual observer with recruiting bling, as for some time, Dantonio and his staff have made a silk purse out of a sow's ear, figuratively speaking. The Michigan State defense is made up of players who largely fell through the cracks of their higher-profile Big 10 rivals and into the hands of the Spartan coaching staff. Former defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, himself a one-time undersized defensive player, prided himself on taking the leftovers and turning them into a ferocious, competitive unit with coaching and a system that breeds success. With Narduzzi's departure, Dantonio named Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel co-defensive coordinators, and the two have carried the torch well in 2015.

Just because many Spartan defenders don't come to East Lansing as top-rated prospects doesn't mean that they don't leave the program as such. The 2015 MSU defensive roster is studded with proven talent, with a shocking number of upperclassmen in starting positions. For example, among the starting defensive line, the Spartans field only one sophomore (Malik McDowell, 6-6, 275 pounds) among a field of redshirt seniors.

Defensive end Shillique Calhoun (6-5, 250 pounds) may be the best of the bunch, with elite size and speed to go along with his mastery of the end responsibilities in the 4-3 over scheme used by the Spartans. Calhoun has amassed 14.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 of them sacks, among his 45 total tackles in 2015. Fellow senior end Lawrence Thomas (6-3, 305 pounds) is a lineman in the mold of Alabama's own dominant players, a large man with a burst and an understanding of his role in forming the wall for opposing running games. Thomas has had himself a year as well, with three sacks counted among his 35 tackles.

Joining the aforementioned McDowell at tackle is senior Joel Heath (6-6, 293 pounds), another behemoth who is an equal opportunity tackler for the Sparty line. McDowell has been stellar as a starter at nose, with 39 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks (as well as an interception.) Heath has 29 tackles on the season, 5.5 of them for loss, and a pair of sacks.

The Spartans use a hybrid linebacker/ safety position that is referred to as the "Star" linebacker. Unlike the Star in the vernacular of most teams, in which the player is a safety or corner who has coverage and run-support responsibilities, the Sparty Star is a roving linebacker who plays sideline to sideline in run support, often times crashing the line of scrimmage with a safety to put eight or nine in the box.

The Star is none other than heralded redshirt senior Darien Harris (6-0, 220 pounds), a fast, aggressive, sure-tackler who literally does anything asked of him by the Spartan defense. He crashes the line of scrimmage, he blitzes through open gaps, he tracks down running backs, and he drops into short coverage. As a result of his critical role, Harris has to his credit 82 tackles, along with seven tackles for loss. Harris is easily the most versatile player on the Sparty defense, and his play has been a large factor in Michigan State's defensive success this season.

At the more traditional linebacker roles, the Spartans have a pair of heavy hitters in their own right. Redshirt junior Mike linebacker Riley Bullough (6-2, 230 pounds) is fast and powerful when called upon to seal his assigned gaps and hem up running backs when they bounce outside off of the impenetrable Spartan front wall. Bullough has been fantastic in 2015, racking up a team-leading 95 tackles, two interceptions, a fumble recovery, seven tackles for loss and four sacks. Sophomore Sam linebacker John Reschke (6-2, 228 pounds) has excelled in his role alongside veterans Bullough and Harris, as he has piled up 74 tackles, 5.5 tfls and two sacks.

In the secondary, which is called upon to play a great deal of Cover 4 in the MSU system, the Spartans have solid corner play from junior Darian Hicks (5-10, 180 pounds) and redshirt senior Arjen Colquehoun (6-1, 202 pounds). The corners have good size and nice speed respectively, and they are called upon to take away vertical routes, with free safety help over the top. Hicks has 30 tackles on the season, while Colquehoun has 39 tackles with two interceptions.

The safeties are strong if not spectacular, with redshirt junior free safety Demetrious Cox (6-1, 200 pounds) responsible for helping out deep, and sophomore strong safety Montrae Nicholson (6-2, 220 pounds) bringing a formidable physical presence to the Spartan run defense when crashing the line of scrimmage.

While the top 11 defenders are definitely worthy, if there's a knock against the Spartan defense it's that it lacks experienced depth. Only three of the top 11 second stringers are upperclassmen, with five members of the second string being true freshmen. There's talent to be sure, but it is untested. And in a bare-knuckled brawl with a team as deep and physical as the Crimson Tide, such depth issues could eventually become a factor in the outcome of the game.

How the Spartan Defense Can Attack the Alabama Offense

When watching tape of the Spartan defense in action, a few things come to mind. They are physical. They are fast, especially in regard to straight-line closing speed. They play confidently and make few mental errors under fire. They are rarely out of position, and they execute well.

All of these characteristics can rightly be attributed to the defensive system in East Lansing, as the 4-3 Over as run by the Spartan defense is designed to allow such attributes to flourish. The system is one that eliminates the "reads" required of many more complex defensive schemes, Alabama's among them. Instead of individual players having to make a set of complicated pre-snap decisions, the defense relies on "triangle keys" that allow players to assess their responsibilities based on offensive alignments and movement in a determined area. Depending on what the key indicates, the player adjusts in order to handle his prime responsibility, thus increasing the efficiency of the players around him and creating a machine-like system that works in synchronicity.

For example, take the 9-technique defensive end's key. When the offense comes to the line, the end is responsible for looking at a pre-defined space of responsibility. In this case, the end will read a triangle from the outside shoulder of the tight end to the far should of the center back to the running back. His actions are dictated by who lines up in that triangle, and what blocking scheme each of those blockers is executing. A fullback may cross his face, but if his primary responsibility is to tie up a tackle, then he must play through the fullback and make sure the tackle is occupied. His responsibility remains the same regardless of movement or shifts, but reading the key helps the end understand what he must do to do his job.

Each defensive lineman has his own key that may overlap with those of the men next to him, thus creating a phalanx-like wall of big-bodied defenders charged with working together to snarl the center of the field. The linebackers have keys as well, though they work slightly differently. Still, the keys for both linemen and linebackers are designed to take the guesswork out of the equation for the Spartan defenders. Instead of spending time and mental energy diagnosing a play before the snap, reading motions, or dealing with unexpected pulls or shifts, the players look at their keys and react confidently towards achieving his primary goal, knowing that if every one of his teammates reads his respective key, no one will be out of position. This creates fast, aggressive, highly-synchronized defensive play with defenders flowing to the ball with what appears to be reckless abandon. But in reality, their attack is calculated, physical precision. If everyone does his job, there will be nowhere for an offense to run. The gate will be slammed shut.

Speaking of jobs, the primary responsibility of the Spartan defensive line as a whole is to create chaos, but not in the same way of an attacking, multiple defense like, say, Ole Miss. The main goal of the MSU defense is to play inside out against the run. In other words, the defensive line is meant to create a pile of bodies that litters the line of scrimmage between the hashes, making that area almost completely unnavigable for the opposing running back. When the running back must bounce the play outside, he is met by the gap-sound linebackers or crashing strong safety, both of whom are responsible for sealing the edges once the interior is disrupted by the big men up front.

It's sinister, in a way. It effectively takes away half of the field for the offense. It is particularly effective against pro-style teams that like to run Power or Inside Zone (which, if you've been keeping up, you know are two of Alabama's favorite schemes for running inside.) What makes the tactic even more effective is the Spartans' routine use of "wrong-arm" technique. Players using wrong-arm disrupt the point of attack by preventing lead blockers from squaring on the defenders, while at the same time knocking blockers off balance and negating their respective effect on the run game. Even when the blocker makes glancing contact, it is often not enough to keep the defender from playing through the block and making a play on the ball carrier. It staggers the flow of blocking, and confuses tailbacks as they attempt to select running lanes.

Just because the Spartans are consumed with clogging up the middle doesn't mean they don't rush the passer effectively. The team is ranked 23rd in team sacks with 35 on the year, and in many cases, they generate pressure with vanilla blitzes. For example, a favorite is the 3-deep 2-under zone blitz which is a mainstay in the pro and college games. There's nothing unique about it, but it works because each player knows his role, and is confident enough in his keys and his teammates to execute with speed and aggression.

So the Spartans like to create a wall up front to gut opposing run games...but what about the pass defense? MSU tends to use a lot of Cover 4, allowing their talented corners to take away vertical routes with help from the free safety over the top, while the strong safety drops between the hashes along with the Star backer to take away short passing lanes and keep defenders in position to make plays on nominal passes to the flats. The Spartans are solid in pass defense, but not spectacular. They have the nation's 72nd ranked pass defense (giving up 229.8 yards per game) and the 69th ranked team pass efficiency defense.

The Spartan defense...it's ruthlessly simple, and ruthlessly effective. Spartan defenders don't have to be the biggest or fastest. Their system maximizes both qualities for them. Once defenders learn the keys and master the system, the Spartan defense functions like a well-oiled siege-engine.

Just ask Ohio State. The Spartans bottled up Buckeye back Ezekiel Elliot, who famously received only 12 carries in the game. The reason Elliot didn't get his carries has more to do with the Spartan defense than the Buckeye game plan. The Buckeyes knew that running against the Sparty defense was a tough affair, and they chose to first spread them out and stretch the field with the vertical passing game to loosen the lanes for Elliot. That never happened, as the MSU secondary took away the vertical game and forced the Buckeyes into a conservative game plan that clipped the effectiveness of OSU's offensive strength and took away its most potent weapon, Elliot.

Sure, the Buckeyes could have pounded the running back into that wall of Spartan defenders 30 times, and the outcome would likely have been the same. They needed to stretch the field and force MSU to take players out of the box. They needed to use passes to the edge to spread the field and create space. They were unable to do either, and as a result the Sparty defense held serve.

Though the OSU and Alabama offenses differ considerably, expect much of the same from the Spartan defense in the Cotton Bowl. They know Henry will be used as a sledge hammer against their front. They know Kiffin will use play-action to stretch the field vertically. They know that Calvin Ridley will be used to make defenders miss in space in an attempt to spread the field. Will they be able to keep those things from happening? That will be a matter of execution.

The Result

Alabama will need flawless execution and (most likely) a slight departure from the usual game plan in order to neutralize the strength of the Michigan State defense. Given that Alabama's bread-and-butter in the latter half of the season has involved smashing Henry into defensive fronts behind Power and Inside Zone blocking, the Tide may have to make a few minor tweaks to create enough imbalance in the usually-steady Spartan defense to seize the upper hand.

If Michigan State, as expected, stacks the box and attempts to create a tangled mass of bodies between the tackles, Alabama may need to add a helping of Outside Zone to the menu for the Spartans. The Spartan linebackers play downhill against the run in north-and-south fashion, and so any Alabama running schemes that create a little lateral motion may give the Tide a chance to reach the space outside of the ends to make plays and use their athleticism.

Kiffin and the Tide offense have followed the trend in the college game of using packaged plays and run-pass options, and this game will give them a chance to use both to great effect. With the stacked box and downhill linebackers, the Spartan corners will be isolated in space, as will the strong safety when he is called upon to play the middle of the field. The Tide's playmakers at receiver, guys like Ridley, Kenyan Drake and ArDarius Stewart, may be able to use their athleticism to take advantage of that space for good effect. Again, the under-utilized O.J. Howard can create mismatches against both Nicholson and Harris, and one could expect Kiffin to let Coker target him if he is routinely matched one-on-one with a safety or ‘backer in space.

In regard to the previously-discussed "wrong-arm" technique favored by Michigan State defensive linemen to magnify the line of scrimmage chaos, Alabama must find a way to negate the benefit such a strategy provides the defense. One way to do that is allow the running back the leeway to bounce the ball outside if the tactic is used on the edge. When a defender uses wrong-arm on the edge, he does himself no favors, as it allows blockers to use momentum to effectively seal the edge for the back to bounce outside. Fullbacks/ H backs can also increase their depth to combat the technique, a tactic which forces the wrong-arm defender to effectively take himself out of the play, thus letting the blocker target the next defender in his path. Finally, a savvy offensive coordinator can work well-timed counters into his play-calling to burn the wrong-arm players and force them to limit use of the technique for fear of giving up future big plays on the ground.

MSU also likes to use rather traditional blitz packages, such as the 3-deep 2-under zone blitz they've displayed for years. This defense brings double A-gap pressure with crossing linebackers, while the tackles attack the B gaps and ends go outside of the tackles. In terms of coverage, the corners go vertical while the Star backer covers the middle, the strong safety provides underneath coverage and the free safety provides deep help. Typically, the defense results in either quarterback pressure, or an ineffective throw to the shallow flats. Sometimes a quarterback sees what appears to be a seam, only to throw into the teeth a deep zone where the free safety is lurking.

It's a simple but effective pressure strategy when executed properly, but it does have a weakness, one the Tide can exploit with its playmakers. With the linebackers bringing inside pressure and the Star and safety in the middle underneath, there are opportunities for speedy, shifty skill players on the edges. Remember, the corners are designed to provide vertical coverage, so with wides running vertical routes, there is space created for guys like Ridley and Drake on the edges. Once the ball is in the hands of a playmaker, he only has to get past a safety or Star with a tough pursuit angle, or a closing corner who has broken off his coverage as the play develops. The result could be a first down or more, and the Tide would only need to be successful with the strategy a fraction of the time to force the Spartans to adjust with either spacing or personnel. The trickle-down effect could be all that Henry needs to run with authority, and could provide the first crack in the Spartan dike.

The Tide can also force the Spartans to adapt and loosen the inside by creating mismatches for slot receiver Richard Mullaney and Howard in the middle of the field. Both men have proven themselves capable of matching up against linebackers and safeties successfully, and there's no reason to believe that with corners downfield and a soft zone underneath that there won't be opportunities to pick up yards in short gains.

Once the trademark of Alabama offenses of the Saban Era, the screen may once again prove valuable against MSU. Maybe not the typical variety, however, but rather wide receiver screens that let Coker whip the ball to the edges and away from the bulk of Spartan personnel. One has to think that Ridley would win his share of one-on-one match-ups on the edge, and that may be enough to make Sparty rethink their run-stopping priorities and dedicate personnel to stopping the short edge passes.

Keep this in mind: earlier in 2015, Arkansas decided to stack the box against Alabama and play a similar style of frustrating sell-out-against-the-run defense. While Henry was indeed held under a hundred yards (barely), Coker responded with 33 completions for 262 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Ridley had 140 yards receiving with a touchdown. Granted, Bama would rather run the ball and apply its patented boa constrictor tactic to win games. But given the fair-to-middlin' rankings for the Spartan pass defense, there's no reason to believe that the Tide offense can't shift gears and do the same thing if running appears futile against Michigan State in the early going.

If all else fails, prepare for a heavyweight prize fight featuring Henry with 40+ carries pounding away at the Spartan tangle in two-tight sets with a fullback. Alabama has on several occasions this year resorted to straight ground-and-pound, particularly when the opposing defense was physically outmatched by Bama's huge offensive line and Henry's brutal running. Though the Spartan linebackers are talented, there is still the matter of inertia...in a battle of a 242 pound back at full speed versus a 220 pound linebacker at full speed, the 242 pounder will win enough of those collisions to breed success for the Tide offense. None of the linebackers outweigh Henry, and as has been publicized often this week, the Spartan defenders know they will need the game of their lives to keep the Heisman winner in check.

For lovers of defense and ground-based offense, the Cotton Bowl will be a rare treat. There's little doubt that the Tide will want to bang the ball and wear down the Sparty front. But the Spartans have the swagger to think that they can slay the giant with a smart scheme and ferocious tenacity. This will be nothing like the 2010 match-up of the two teams in the Capital One Bowl, as the Spartans are good enough to beat Bama at its own game if the Tide offense falters and fails to adapt.

There are multiple paths to victory for the Alabama offense, but the same is true for the Spartan D. Sparty is +14 in turnovers, and if Alabama plays fast and loose with the ball, the MSU defense has proven it can make the Tide pay dearly for those mistakes.

This will be a game of bruises, blood and grass stains, make no mistake. If Alabama can execute at a high level, the eventual outcome in the second half could mimic many of the Tide's contests in the regular season. But if Alabama turns the ball over, or fails to adapt to what the Spartans are giving them, this could be a low-scoring affair in which Alabama's defense could be responsible for carrying the team to victory.

In the College Football Playoffs, there are no patsies. Michigan State is a high-caliber team that is well-coached and well-seasoned. Alabama will need its best offensive performance of the season to emerge victorious. The Spartan defense is indeed legit.