Dec. 28, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
TAMPA, Fla. - There were no index fingers pointed to the sky or claims of wanting to be No. 1.
Rather, Michigan State set its defensive goals during winter conditioning in a somewhat less subtle way.
"We came in with a blueprint this year to set the standard nationally as being one of the most disruptive, most reckless defenses known to man," All-America defensive tackle Jerel Worthy said after Wednesday's Outback Bowl practice. "This year, it's just always about no matter who makes a play, everybody's going to get a piece of the pie. We all go out there and enjoy it, and have fun and do it together."
The defensive line has validated its contribution the Big Ten's top-ranked defense, which is fifth nationally, in ways that aren't always obvious.
Sophomore defensive end Williams Gholston leads the unit in tackles with 63, but he's sixth on the team. Worthy has 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks, but the gaudy numbers belong to linebackers and defensive backs.
What MSU's front four has done so well this year is blow up blocking schemes to make it easier for the backers to get to the ballcarrier.
As a result, the Spartans lead the Big Ten in rushing defense by a 104.3-129.1 margin over second-place Michigan. Michigan State is allowing just 2.9 yards per carry; Illinois is next in that department at 3.3 yards allowed per carry.
"The thing about it is you have different kids every year who do different things," said defensive line coach Ted Gill. "And so, if you can continue to grow in those aspects, one guy getting a little more penetration, another guy doing a little bit more in his position, I think it complements each other.
"I think we're a little bit different team than we were last year. So I'm excited about where we are and it continues to get better and better as we continue to grow."
The Spartans have a chance to enhance their reputation in the Outback Bowl against Georgia, which is rushing for 172.7 yards rushing per game.
"We wanted to be most dominant front in the nation, actually," Gholston said. "I don't think we really care about the stats, but if you do want to compare stats, we are No. 5 in the county, and that's one thing."
It's something defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi is on record saying he couldn't care less about, but Gholston takes pride in the ranking.
"It shows that you're working hard and you're doing something," he said. "But really, it shows what we need to do for next season and how much better we have to get. If we finish in the top 5 this season, we've got to do it next season and keep it going."
Since MSU has already faced Wisconsin -- which features one of the nation's biggest offensive lines -- twice, Gill believes the Spartans will be unfazed by the Bulldogs, who are even bigger.
"Georgia presents a lot of problems against the run," Gill said. "They also throw the ball real well, so the mixture of things they do and the combination of changing those things up on different down-and-distances will give us a chance to really excel and maybe do things a little bit more-so unexpected from what they think we're going to do.
"They present a challenge, but I think our kids are up for the challenge and I think we'll be ready to go."
NOTES & QUOTES: Worthy said that whether he forgoes his senior season to enter the NFL Draft is a "50-50" proposition at this point. He won't decide until after the bowl and he gets a chance to consult with draft experts.
"I'm just trying to continue to build, and if God tells me to go, and if I pray about it and my support staff and everything backs me, then I'm going to go," Worthy said. "But if I feel a little uncertainty, I'm going to come back."
Worthy said that dealing with a constant stream of questions about what he's going to do has made his life a little more hectic, but he has been avoiding elements that could get him in trouble with the NCAA.
"It's crazy how the game has changed a lot as far as that goes," Worthy said. "I'm just trying to keep my nose clean. There are a lot of players around the country who've gotten mixed up in that situation and I definitely don't want to bring a black eye to this program or my teammates.
"When the time comes for picking an agent, whether it's this year or next year, I'm gonna do it the right way. A lot of people want to know what my future's going to be like when at the end of the day it might benefit their future. You just have to take it all in stride."
With Kevin Pickelman sidelined by a knee injury sustained in the Big Ten Championship Game, Anthony Rashad White will start at nose tackle, but sophomore Micajah Reynolds, who returned to defense from offense, will play a supporting role.
"I tell ya, the sky's the limit for that guy," Gill said. "He continues to get better and better. He's a big guy who can run. You never know what a big guy who can run will do. So, I'm excited about his opportunities."