Michigan State has a comfortable margin to lead the nation in rushing defense.
The Spartans (7-5) head into the Redbox Bowl against Oregon (8-4) on Monday afternoon at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., allowing 81.3 yards per game on the ground, 10 fewer than any other team in the nation.
Bowl games count in the national rankings, but MSU has allowed 128 fewer rushing yards than second place Texas A&M, which plays North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl on Monday.
“That is as good of a defensive line as you will see in college football,” said Oregon coach Mario Cristobal, who reunited with his team in the Bay Area on Wednesday following a short Christmas break. “The part that stands out the most, and people will talk about how physical and strong they are, but to me the most impressive thing is when they rotate players, you don’t see a drop-off. There is a reason why they are No. 1 in the country against the run and it is because of their defensive line and the way their linebackers play.”
MSU junior defensive end Kenny Willekes was named the Big 10 defensive lineman of the year. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder has 20½ tackles for loss, including 8½ sacks.
“The best in the Big 10 so he will test our offensive line and what we are capable of,” said Oregon freshman tackle Penei Sewell, who will return after missing the final six games of the regular season with an ankle injury. “Their whole defensive front is big so we will get prepared for a dogfight.”
Junior nose tackle Raequan Williams was a third-team, all-conference selection while junior defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk earned honorable mention.
“They have a certain way of playing football that is as impressive as it gets,” Cristobal said. “Watching them against some of the Big 10 powers on the road and what they have done and how they controlled the game by what they have done is impressive.”
Senior linebacker Andrew Dowell earned honorable mention for the Spartans, who rank 14th in the nation by allowing 18 points per game. Safeties Khari Willis and David Dowell were both third-team, all-conference picks.
Northwestern beat MSU 29-19 to become the Big 10 team that scored the most points against the Spartans. Ohio State beat Michigan State 26-6 while Michigan won 21-7.
“Real good defense led by some all-conference guys,” UO offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo said. “Experienced guys who are well-coached and play hard coming from a good culture there. That is a team that has been around a long time and had a lot of success. They play a physical brand of football, which we pride ourselves on. It will be a great test.”
Oregon ranks third in the Pac-12 with 191.2 rushing yards per game led by freshmen CJ Verdell and Travis Dye with 975 and 721 yards, respectively. The Ducks run on 56.6 percent of their plays.
“When you go into a game plan, you have to be right,” Arroyo said. “Your guys are looking at guys in the gap who are playing sound, disciplined football with their hands, feet, leverage, pad level ... They do a nice job in the run game so we have to find our strokes in there and then play ball.”
Michigan State is allowing 230.2 passing yards per game while Oregon averages 254.7 through the air. All-conference junior cornerback Justin Layne will not play in the bowl game after declaring for the NFL draft.
“We have been watching a lot of film,” Oregon junior quarterback Justin Herbert said. “That is about as good of a defense as you will see in the nation. They fly around and play smart. That is a team that gets after it ... They have big, athletic guys who can cover so it will be a good matchup for our wide receivers.”