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A Spartan Defense: What the Oregon Ducks can look forward to vs. Michigan State

An analysis of Michigan State's defense in the Rose Bowl in preparation for the Duck-Spartan match-up in Autzen on September 6th.

Ronald Martinez

In their tradition of playing marquee schools in the out of conference schedule, Oregon faces last year's Rose Bowl winner in Michigan State. The Spartans defeated Stanford 24-20 in that game, coming back from a 10 point deficit and holding the Cardinal to a field goal in the second half. Seven of those points came off of an interception return for a touchdown. While the Spartans are losing six defensive starters, two from each unit, they keep the same system under defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi. Under Narduzzi, their defense was third in the country in scoring, allowing 13.2 points per game, along 252.29 yards per game. During one three-game stretch, the defense did not allow a touchdown. This stretch was capped off with holding Michigan to negative 48 yards rushing in a 29-6 victory.

The Spartans carried these defensive principles to the Rose Bowl against Stanford's pro style offense. They held running back Tyler Gaffney almost a yard and a half below his yards per carry average (giving up 3.8 compared to 5.2 ypc on 24 carries) and 91 yards total. The majority of those came on one 47 yard run. After the first drive, where they allowed Stanford's one offensive touchdown, the defense gave up only two more field goals for the remainder of the game.

Here is the video with clips taken from the Rose Bowl. This will be referred to this throughout the analysis.


The first play was Michigan State's biggest defensive error of the day, happening 36 seconds into the game. Stanford comes out in a three receiver set with two men in the backfield. The fullback motions out to the right side, taking the corner with him. This is because Michigan State is playing Cover 0, with no deep zones and man coverage on all receivers. This is because they send the Sam and Mike linebackers on an A-Gap blitz, attempting to pressure Kevin Hogan into a bad throw. Taking advantage of single coverage, Stanford's Michael Rector gets a bit of separation on his man and Hogan makes a pretty good throw to get it to him for a 43-yard gain. This would set up a Tyler Gaffney touchdown run four plays later.

The next three plays come after a punt and a penalty put Stanford at their own 8. A false start penalty would move them back to their own 4. The first play motions Hogan out to the left to give a Wildcat look with Gaffney. Michigan State is aggressive in trying to stop Stanford's running game in this situation. They put eight in the box and rush seven, with the outside linebackers and the safety playing in the slot attacking the play. They leave receiver Ty Montgomery completely alone, a feeling many Cal fans are familiar with, and get a two yard loss out of the situation.

The second down play comes out of an I formation with two tight ends. The Spartans continue to put eight in the box. They rush the Will linebacker and Stanford gets a two yard gain. On third down and 14, the Cardinal move to a pistol set with three wide, two to the right and one to the left. The Spartans have moved into a set with three down lineman. They rush the Sam linebacker and drop seven into zone coverage, after to playing man press with the corners without any help over the top. This adjustment breaks up the pass to Montgomery, who had gotten some separation from the cornerback, but the safety help made it an incredibly difficult pass to complete.

The next play comes in the third quarter. Michigan State tied up the game with a field goal on the previous drive. Stanford had just gotten a first down on a pass to the fullback, Ryan Hewitt. On first and 10, Kevin Hogan sees the same look from the Spartan defense that he saw on the first drive. The Spartan cornerbacks play up on the receivers, and they rush the Sam and Mike linebackers. This time, Narduzzi disguised his defense, and he has a deep safety to give help over the top, which causes a throw into double coverage, leading to an interception.

The final two plays are from Stanford's final offensive possession. On third down and 2, they run a power with the guard pulling out of the 3 WR, 2 RB shotgun set. Michigan State is now playing seven in the box, but they send the weak side linebacker on a blitz and the middle linebacker gets under the guard pull, effectively blowing up the play. On fourth down and 1, David Shaw goes for a fullback dive, staying with the play even after Mark D'Antonio calls a timeout. Michigan State stacks nine in the box to counter the seven offensive lineman and the three running backs Stanford has put into the formation. The Stanford line cut blocks, but the linebackers on the second level jump over the line, driving Hewitt back for no gain and giving Michigan State the game.

In the past, Oregon's offense has been susceptible to physical, disciplined defenses that can keep up with them. A beleaguered Cal team almost took them down in 2010 with a Cover 0 scheme similar to what Michigan State ran against Stanford. Stanford has become Oregon's Achilles heel these past few seasons as well, keeping the Ducks from a conference title for the past two seasons, starting with disciplined defensive schemes and solid fundamentals. Michigan State's defense projects similarly to Stanford's. Many of the plays made in the video were players getting themselves into a position to make plays, then executing. Oregon uses plenty of misdirection in their spread system, but if Michigan State can keep the fundamentals they showed against Stanford despite losing six starters on that end, then we're all in for a fantastic match-up.