November 23, 2011

Tressel on Northwestern: 'They pick on linebackers'

EAST LANSING - Spartan assistant Mike Tressel has challenged his linebackers to play their best game of the year at Northwestern this weekend.

"They pick on linebackers," said Tressel of the Wildcats. "They have the option running game, quarterback keeps and all of that. Their passing games is what we call jerk routes and snag routes and underneath change of direction routes where they are trying to match-up receivers on linebackers. Certainly for my guys in particular it is a challenge.

"The other spread teams that we've faced have been primarily run. These guys are primarily pass when Persa is in there. Although like I said, you have the option problems. The pass game is different than we've faced and I have been stressing to the backers, 'hey you need to put this game on your shoulders this week.'"

With a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game guaranteed , neither a win or loss at Evanston will affect Michigan State's path to a Rose Bowl berth. That said the Michigan State defense is a prideful bunch that has regained some momentum during the past two weeks. The Spartans hope to continue on that track against Northwestern and generate a good head of steam in the lead up to the conference championship game in Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 3.

As a group Michigan State's linebackers have played as well during the past two weeks as they have at any point in 2011. Having Chris Norman back at 'Star' linebacker has sparked the Spartans' recent success.

"Our defense has confidence in each other in every position group across the board," said Tressel. "But I feel good about the 'backers. Chris is back 100 percent, Denicos (Allen) has been playing fantastic, and Max (Bullough) runs the show. I feel great about that group, but also they are playing well because of the group in front of them and the group behind them. It is nice right now."

Michigan State has held each of their past two opponents under 100 yards rushing since Norman's return from the disabled list. Getting Norman back at 'Star' has allowed the Spartans to move Allen back to his natural position at Sam linebacker.

"There is no doubt about it, Denicos is more comfortable at Sam," Tressel explained. "He loves being right there in the run action any time there is a run. He is chomping at the bit when we put him out there in space, not athletically, but mindset-wise."

Norman has played well since returning to the field at Iowa. Tressel is pleased with the progress of the junior from Detroit.

"His reaction when he has a play-action pass is much better," explained the fifth-year Spartan linebacker coach. "He sort of froze in the past. When he is coming from outside the box into the box on a run play, he has the confidence to try and knock you out. You look at the last two games, and we look at our big hits from the game, he has a bunch of them.When he comes from outside the box, there is no stutter step, he is coming."

Bullough continues to impress Spartan coaches with his knowledge of the game and his ability to get his teammates lined up in the best position to make plays.

"He is the best I have seen," answered Tressel, when asked how good Bullough was at getting the defense lined up. "We can do things on defense that in my seven years with coach Dantonio and (Pat) Narduzzi we haven't been able to do before in terms of getting in and out of things and changing fronts. It is getting a little bit crazy, but it's been fun."

Bullough is also making his fair share of plays.

"Each week he is getting more physical in terms of attacking blockers," explained Tressel, "as opposed to thinking he is Greg Jones, running around out there,who is a different linebacker. I think the big thing for him is developing his still and understanding that he is a 250-pound linebacker. And that is the way he should play, attacking linemen and he is getting better and better."

Bullough has also become one of the most important leaders on the Spartan defense.

"He has always run the show, but each week you can see that the other 10 guys (in the huddle) are listening," Tressel said. "He could speak in a whisper and everybody would hear him because he is the guy, he is the leader."

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