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Spartans D-line overcomes size with smarts

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan State defensive end Trevor Anderson is the team's resident historian on defensive line play.

He's a YouTube junkie and often watches clips of his favorite NFL pass-rushers, trying to pick up things for his own game. He nearly went to Chuck Smith's training center for defensive linemen and linebackers this summer after researching the program on the Web. Anderson also is a sponge when it comes to advice, like the tip he received last summer from former Michigan State defensive tackle Ogemdi Nwagbuo, who now plays for the San Diego Chargers.

"He told me, 'Defeat the hands, defeat the man,'" Anderson said. "I tried to remember that."

The pointer has helped Anderson and his fellow lineman during their midseason renaissance. The Spartans have recorded 10 sacks and 18 tackles for loss in their previous two games, eclipsing their totals (8 sacks, 17 TFLs) from the previous four contests.

It's hardly a mystery why Michigan State has posted back-to-back wins after starting the season 1-3.

No one will confuse the Spartans' defensive line with the Minnesota Vikings' front, and there's no Williams Wall in East Lansing. Michigan State's four starters average 273.5 pounds; they're not petite, but they're not behemoths either.

Anderson is generously listed at 260 pounds, while fellow end Colin Neely checks in at 248.

"We're not the biggest defensive line," Anderson said, "so we've got to excel at rushing the passer. Being able to stop the run, that's a bonus, and we've been doing a pretty decent job there, but rushing the passer is where we've got to excel. We've got to give our [defensive backs] time to cover."

Michigan State has linebackers who can get in the backfield. Greg Jones and Eric Gordon have combined for 5.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss this year.

But Anderson and his linemates have spent the past few weeks focusing on generating a solid rush solely from the front four so Jones, Gordon and others don't need to blitz as much.

"We're trying to do the little things right up front," Anderson said, "working your hands, getting off on the ball. We've been doing a good job of doing that with our one-on-one pass rush. We've been watching a little bit of extra film on the individual linemen you have to play.

"That's where it all starts, the individual matchups you have to win, whether it be an end, a nose tackle or a D-tackle."

The Spartans are winning most of those matchups right now, and their younger players have stepped up. Redshirt freshman Jerel Worthy leads the team and all Big Ten defensive tackles with 4.5 sacks, tying for second in the league overall.

True freshman Blake Treadwell, the son of Michigan State's offensive coordinator Don Treadwell, recently entered the rotation at nose tackle, and sophomore Kevin Pickelman has 12 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

"It's been really exciting to watch them grow and mature," Anderson said. "To see the little things they were messing up on for weeks, to be able to do them right, I can tell they've got a nice little swagger about them."

Michigan State still struggles to force turnovers, ranking last in the league in takeaways (6), but the Spartans have forced 10 three-and-outs in their last two games.

"[Opponents have] been unable to run the ball, and it's left them with long-yardage situations on second down if they have tried to run it, and then we've gotten off the field pretty much on third down," head coach Mark Dantonio said. "A lot of three-and-outs. The field position, you see us punting the ball near the 50 and them punting the ball on the 15. So there's a big field position swing, and I think we're winning that war."