Breaking Down Michigan State’s Defense


Nov 8, 2014; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio talks to Michigan State Spartans linebacker Ed Davis (43) during the 1st half of a game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

When Maryland takes on Michigan State on Saturday, the Terps will face one of the top statistical defenses in the nation. The Spartans have a defense that ranks second in the NCAA in turnover margin (14 fumble recoveries, 10 interceptions), and plays smart and does a good job getting to the ball quickly with a stout defensive line and quick linebackers. So how does Maryland respond and put points on the board?

Defensive Line

Against Ohio State, Michigan State’s defensive line had a tough time breaking Ohio State’s big, powerful offensive line. Frequently throughout the game, Michigan State’s line was pushed around to open a whole for quarterback J.T. Barrett or running back Ezekiel Elliot to power through for a short gain. Although Maryland’s offense or C.J. Brown is not quite as athletic and powerful as the Buckeyes, the read option will actually benefit them. With weapons on the outside in wideouts Jacquille Veii, Deon Long, Marcus Leak and Amba Etta-Tawo, Maryland can counter Michigan State’s defensive line with quick, short passes that allow Maryland to gain a small chunk of yards.

Michigan State’s run defense is 23rd in the nation and allows 196.9 yards-per-game, including 11 rushing touchdowns given up. A large part of Michigan State’s ability to stop the run is the experience and size on the defensive line. While Michigan State’s defensive line is big, that doesn’t mean they’re slow. Led by Shilique Calhoun and Lawrence Thomas, the defensive line shifts around to confuse the offensive line and force mismatches. They’re a smart bunch. Maryland’s offensive line will face their biggest test since Wisconsin, and both times Maryland faced top-tier defensive lines, the Terps started out slow and allowed their opposition to build a big lead. The offensive line will have to put additional coverage on the outside in order to stop the rush on the edge. Calhoun showed off his quickness and strength last Saturday after beating his block almost instantly and bringing down the running back for a loss. With right tackle being the biggest weakness for Maryland, this could spell trouble.

One advantage I see Maryland having is Brown’s ability to escape the pocket. Brown is an exceptional runner, and it’s not far-fetched to say he’s a better runner than passer. This is what can wear down Michigan State’s defense and allow Maryland to have long, positive drives that will possibly end up with points on the board.


Led by Taiwan Jones and Darien Harris, this group helps the defensive line look better. The linebackers are good at protecting the middle of the field and giving the defensive line more time to get into the backfield. Often times, Taiwan Jones or Sam Davis blitz while the other linebackers stay back in coverage, but I noticed that Davis bit on the read-option numerous times to allow a big game.

For Maryland to take advantage of this, they will need to effectively spread the field and force the defense to cover everyone. If Maryland becomes one-dimensional, Michigan State will stack eight in the box and put all the pressure on Brown, forcing him into poor decisions. If Maryland gets the passing game going early, this will open up the offense for the Terps. Letting Michigan State send additional defenders to the backfield could spell trouble for Maryland, so the Terps will need to keep the Spartans on their toes and force them to play honest.

With star wideout Stefon Diggs out, Veii gets the start and will have a tall task ahead of him. In order to make an impact, Veii simply cannot drop easy passes. He’s had issues with that this season, but when he catches passes intended for him, Veii is capable of making a big play. Dropping easy passes will halt any momentum Maryland picked up on the drive, whereas Veii with the ball can allow Maryland to build on its momentum. He can make plays with his speed and agility and Michigan State’s linebackers will certainly not catch him. This can lead to large chunks of yards. I wrote more about Veii here.


Led by Darian Hicks and Trae Waynes, these two have a combined three interceptions this season, but their play has helped Michigan State weather opposing team’s passing attack. Both have decent size, but their high-IQ and footwork rarely allows them to get beat. Against Ohio State, the cornerbacks were sometimes sent in a blitz to try and disrupt Barrett. Within three seconds of the ball snapped, the corner was within inches of the quarterback and forced Ohio State to dump it off for a screen or check down.

For Maryland, you see that as a big disadvantage. Brown has trouble sometimes making the right decision under quick, heavy pressure. This goes back to the point where the screens to Brandon Ross or running back comes in handy. Maryland can try and implement a tight end to hold their block and then go out for a screen to give Brown an opportunity to gain something out of nothing. However, this route needs to be perfectly executed because if it doesn’t work, Maryland will get sacked.

Nonetheless, I can envision Maryland getting the passing game going. But Deon Long is the guy that has to step up in this situation. Although he will not have the size against Trae Waynes, Long’s route running and strong hands on the sidelines will allow him to pick up the most yards.

Overall, this is going to be a tough matchup. I hate to pull a classic Edsall quote, but this will come down to execution. Maryland can win and Michigan State is vulnerable, despite how talented they are. It will be a tough game and it may be ugly at times, but Maryland’s offense has the talent to take advantage of Michigan State’s weaknesses. Coming into the game, Maryland is the overwhelming underdog and not many give the home team a chance to beat Michigan State. Rarely are upsets called accurately. That’s why the game is played.