Unsung Heroes Play Vital Role on Nation's Top-Ranked Defense
'Play the next' mentality has helped MSU win nine consecutive games and a Big Ten Championship.
Dec. 27, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
LOS ANGELES - While psychoanalyzing the Michigan State football team, it would be helpful to know that these Spartans aren't equipped with a rearview mirror.
Looking back at past events serves no useful purpose; it's "on to next." That's the way it's been all season and even more so this week as No. 4 MSU prepares to play No. 5 Stanford in the 100th Rose Bowl Game with one of its key contributors back home in Michigan.
Experience is the greatest teacher of all, but really, it's just a reference book that eventually goes back on a shelf.
The Spartans have learned well that the team is bigger than any individual - even one as important as All-Big Ten middle linebacker Max Bullough, who violated team rules and was suspended for what would have been his final collegiate game.
But to even hint that Michigan State is so distracted and preoccupied with a woe-is-us attitude they may not be able to compensate strikes the Spartans as quite odd, especially since there's been no indication of brooding, mourning or self-doubt.
"Guys got to step up," Shilique Calhoun, the irrepressible defensive end, said during a media session held Friday morning at the LA Hotel Downtown. "That's what this team is about. (Max) is a great contributor to this team and he's always going to be one of our brothers, but we're looking forward to the Rose Bowl. I send my condolences out to him and his family, but we're focused on the goal at hand and that's accomplishing a win in the Rose Bowl."
Perhaps if the Spartans hadn't been through this drill before on several occasions, they would question their ability to function in the wake of such a loss.
However, there have been examples of other players picking up the shield throughout this season alone.
When sixth-year senior defense tackle Tyler Hoover missed three games with an injury, sophomore backup Mark Scarpinato filled in without missing a beat in wins against Illinois, Michigan and Nebraska, and he started the Big Ten Championship Game against Ohio State.
Senior strong safety Isaiah Lewis' absence from the lineup due to injury at times and a first-quarter ejection for a targeting foul at Northwestern was barely noticed because of the solid play of sophomore RJ Williamson.
The Spartans aren't even in uncharted territory when it comes to bowl games.
A year ago, when All-Big Ten cornerback Johnny Adams came up lame for the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, MSU didn't give replacing him with relatively untested red-shirt freshman Trae Waynes a second thought. Waynes effectively began his campaign for honorable mention All-Big Ten honors this season with his four-tackle, one-half sack performance in the 17-16 victory against TCU.
Assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who would welcome the challenge of dealing with a root canal, is actually looking forward to turning what many perceive to be a negative into a positive.
"That's kind of what we do as football coaches," Narduzzi said, "is move on and play the next, and that's what we'll do. (Adams) hurt his toe in practice and we didn't have him for the bowl game, and as coaches I just remember being anxious to see what Trae Waynes was going to do.
"And, I haven't looked back since."
The heady Bullough has been MSU's quarterback on defense over the course of a team-high 40 consecutive starts since 2011. It would be insulting to all concerned to suggest his knowledge and leadership won't be missed, as well his 76 tackles, which are third on the team behind outside linebacker Denicos Allen (91) and free safety Kurtis Drummond (86).
But, there's little doubt in Narduzzi's mind that fifth-year senior backup Kyler Elsworth and red-shirt sophomore Darien Harris, who are battling for the prestigious start against the Cardinal, will be capable replacements.
"I'm anxious to see what Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris can do at that Mike linebacker spot," Narduzzi said. "I don't remember the last game we had a different Mike in there, but I'm anxious to see what someone else can do at that position. I think (linebackers coach Mike) Tressel has done a great job of coaching those guys.
"I'm actually looking forward to it."
Elsworth, a square-jawed special-teams mainstay for the last four seasons, has a history of making plays. He posted a career-high 10 tackles against Nebraska as a sophomore in 2011, blocked a punt that led to a touchdown against Wisconsin that same season, and recorded a 13-yard sack in the fourth quarter last year against the Badgers. And, his personal record for tackles behind the line, two against Iowa last season, compares favorably with Bullough's all-time best of 2.5 against Wisconsin in '12.
The athletic Harris has played in every game this season and has seven tackles and one quarterback hurry.
"It is a competition," Narduzzi said. "We're going to find out really who's going to be the starter. I feel great with either one of them to be honest with you. If we had to flip a coin on Wednesday to see who's going to start, I'd be fine with that, too. I really feel good with how they practiced yesterday and what they've done the entire year."
If Michigan State didn't have a bona fide star lining up at middle linebacker since preseason camp, Elsworth and Harris would have been called in from the wings long before this latest development.
"Some guys just don't get a shot," Narduzzi said. "Trae Waynes didn't have a shot a year ago to be a starter because of Johnny Adams. He got his shot and like I said, he played phenomenal in the bowl game and he played phenomenal last spring, all camp, and I don't know if he's had a bad day of practice.
"It's the same thing with those guys. They just haven't had a shot to show that they can get it done and make those calls and be the leader of that defense. To have your name be a starter for the 100th Rose Bowl Game, I think that's a special moment, and those guys are going to work for it.
"It'll be fun."
The leadership void should be adequately filled by everyone else on a veteran, well-oiled defense pulling a little more of the weight. It's not as though everyone will forget what they're supposed to do without Bullough there to tell them.
"We've got a lot of smart guys out there," Narduzzi said.
And Allen, who's been justifiably deferential to Bullough for three seasons, has already been more verbally demonstrative in practice.
"I'm pretty confident in Darien Harris and Kyler Elsworth to step up and I'm pretty comfortable playing to them as well," Allen said. "Kyler Elsworth is a senior, too. He's been with us the whole time, so it's not like something new. We've played next to each other before. We're just going to have to make some adjustments, and that's what we do.
"As we all know, Max was the vocal point of our defense so everybody on this defense is going to have to step up and be more vocal, and I plan on being as vocal as I can be. Other players have been stepping up, learning the game plan more, and getting their confidence up with knowing Stanford more, and I feel like it's going to be a good challenge for us and nothing we can't handle."
Obviously, Narduzzi's influence is infectious and quite possibly the antidote to whatever it is the pop psychologists think they know about MSU's defense.