Defeating the Spartan Phalanx: Why Michigan State's defense is so strong - and how to break it

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

The Spartans' rugged defense is among the best in the country, but can the Cardinal find and exploit a few weak links?

As the legend goes, the ancient Spartan warriors used to protect one another while they fought, circled together in an unbreakable, deadly squad called a phalanx.

Or, as King Leonidas says in 300, "We fight as a single, impenetrable unit. That is the source of our strength."

Thousands of years later, not much has changed.

The Michigan State defense of today acts much the same way - with every member of the team functioning as both a spear and shield against opposing offenses. The Spartans are a tough, aggressive, smart, well-coached and fundamentally sound squad. It's hard to find any positive adjective that doesn't describe the nation's 4th-best scoring defense, 2nd-best run defense and 5th-best pass defense.

Combine that group with a capable, balanced offense that's been excellent during the second half of the season, and Michigan State has earned its formidable status and spot in the Rose Bowl.

So can Stanford beat beat this brutal defense? Perhaps.

First, let's look at what typically defines the Spartans' defense: a play where everyone fills their responsibility perfectly.

On 2nd and 10 in the first quarter of the Big Ten Championship game, Ohio State lines up with four wideouts, then motions the slot man into the backfield. From there, the Buckeyes run a basic inverted veer, with QB Braxton Miller keeping the ball and running with it. Here it is in action:

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Miller gets the ball with a head of steam and decent blocking from his line up front. However, no Ohio State lineman has truly whipped his defender and pushed him downfield.

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Miller takes another step forward and realizes that the line of scrimmage is a mess - he'll have to go somewhere else other than where the play is designed to go. Every Michigan State defender has filled his gap perfectly and forced Miller to hesitate for just a half-second - all the time that safety Isaiah Lewis (circled in yellow) needs.

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Lewis crashes through the line and wallops Miller in the backfield. This is a typical Michigan State defensive play: nobody gets beaten, and everyone is exactly where they need to be at the right moment in time. These are the kind of plays that have defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi taking calls to be a head coach.

On the outside, the Spartans boast one of the nation's most talented defensive players - Jim Thorpe award-winning cornerback Darqueze Dennard. Dennard, a native of Dry Branch, Georgia, has been able to lock down an entire half of the field all season long for Michigan State, and he presents a huge test for the Stanford offense in particular.

Here's a play where Dennard exhibits just why he was named the nation's best cornerback. He's matched up at the bottom of the screen:

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Dennard is pressing up at the line of scrimmage on 3rd-and-10, and he's a little slow getting into his backpedal, so the receiver gets a good release down the field.

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However, by the time the ball reaches its apex, Dennard has recovered and is in ideal position to make a play.

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Perhaps he should have been flagged for pass interference on the play and perhaps wideout Jeff Greene should have caught the ball anyway, but nonetheless, Dennard put himself in excellent position to make a play on the ball when it arrived. If you can't completely shut a receiver's route down, that kind of recovery and opportunity to make a play is all you can ask for from a cornerback. And, like a guy who's supposed to be a top-20 pick, he did that all day long against the Buckeyes.

Dennard laid the boom right as a receiver caught the ball, forcing an incompletion:

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Had his hand in a Buckeye's pocket on a deep throw:

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And never let off his man during a play where Braxton Miller tried a Johnny Manziel-like throw after a crazy scramble:

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Dennard's ability to shut down the other team's top receiver allows the Spartans' defense to play man coverage on the back end and keep up the pressure on opposing QBs with blitzing linebackers.

But the phalanx - and defensive superstar - that have come to characterize the Spartans this season did show a few weak links in the very same game against Ohio State. Take two separate runs by Braxton Miller that exposed a weakness right in the heart of the Spartans. Late in the 2nd quarter, Ohio State was trying to put together a scoring drive before halftime, and sent Miller on this quarterback keeper:

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He follows a pulling guard and his fullback - who crosses the formation - and finds a massive hole in the middle of the Michigan State D.

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Here's the fullback slicing in front of Miller, while the Buckeyes' right tackle gets a great seal block at the second level against a linebacker.

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And here's Miller scampering through that hole with a convoy of blockers leading him. This play goes for a 15 yard gain, and Ohio State was back in business after being stuck in 2nd-and-16.

Later in the 3rd quarter they use the exact same play out of the exact same formation to gash the Michigan State D again.

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Again, the guard pulls and the fullback slices in front of Miller, who races into the hole.

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And there he goes again. Miller takes this run all the way down inside the 25.

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After this huge run and another short run, the next play came out of the same formation - but it was a play-action pass that went for a first down. Out of just one spread formation, the Buckeyes were able to gash the Spartans twice with one of their base plays and then set up a successful play-action pass play off it.

All told, Ohio State's interior run game was simply dominant in the Big Ten Title game - OSU averaged 6.8 yards per carry and had 11 run plays that went for 10 yards or more, rolling over an MSU D that gives up only 2.7 yards per carry on average. However, as the game went along, OSU may have gone back to the well too often - eventually MSU caught on to the fact that any empty set like this was a QB run, and Miller and running back Carlos Hyde couldn't do it all on the ground.

But Miller couldn't make the Spartans pay through the air at all - he was a dreadful 8/21 for just 101 yards through the air - and that was probably the reason the Buckeyes lost this game. Part of Miller's struggles were Dennard's lockdown coverage, and part of that was missed opportunities.

So what's the trick for Stanford to defeat Michigan State's defense?

First and foremost, the Cardinal has to run the ball - and Ohio State proved you can move it on the Spartans. Stanford has to diversify its run game, using a mix of sets and styles to keep Michigan State on its heels (which is generally not a problem for the Cardinal). Oddly enough, the Wildcat formation that Stanford loves so much is somewhat similar to that play where Miller was able to torch the Spartans for almost 50 yards on two plays, so maybe this is the time where the much-maligned formation finally pays off - especially with the Spartans missing middle linebacker Max Bullough.

Meanwhile on the outside, Ty Montgomery and Devon Cajuste have to separate themselves from the Spartans' physical corners on play-action passes that come off those run plays, and Kevin Hogan has to be able to find them, just like he did in the Pac-12 title game. If Braxton Miller had been able to connect on a few more throws - just even one or two more might have done the trick - the Buckeyes would be prepping for a national title right now.

Will the Michigan State defense show why the Spartans were regarded as the greatest warriors of the ancient world? Or will Stanford show why those very same Spartans are now just legends of the past?

That's for the Granddaddy of Them All to decide.

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