Strength vs. strength for Old Brass Spittoon

Tom Allen wanted an Indiana offense known for running the ball. Through three games, the second-year coach has exactly that.

Now, the Hoosiers face their stiffest test yet.

It’ll be good-on-good, strength vs. strength when IU’s rushing attack meets No. 24 Michigan State’s front seven for ownership of the Old Brass Spittoon on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.

“Something’s gonna have to give,” Allen said.

The past two weeks have brought forth an offensive revelation for the Hoosiers, who have found a renewed identity as a team capable of establishing — and riding — the run, pounding the ball on the ground as needed. Improved line play coupled with the emergence of freshman running back Stevie Scott have given Indiana a reason to believe its offense possesses the critical components it lacked merely a season ago.

For Allen, winning offensive football starts with running the ball effectively. So far, that’s what his team is doing.

The Hoosiers have rushed for at least 200 yards in all three games, they are averaging 5.6 yards per carry across their past two games, and Scott ranks eighth nationally with 129.3 rushing yards per contest.

“We’ve run the ball, and we need to run the ball well,” Allen said on his radio show.

And no team in college football has stopped the run as effectively as Michigan State.

That’s been the Spartans’ defensive identity across their 12 seasons under coach Mark Dantonio, with strong, tough defensive lines and linebackers that scheme to drive offensive coordinators mad.

In two games this year, Michigan State has allowed a national-best total of 69 yards on the ground. While other areas of the Spartans’ roster have disappointed across their 1-1 start to the season — the offensive line, the running game and the secondary, to name the areas most glaring — their rush defense is up to par with what that program expects.

Michigan State has led the Big Ten in rushing defense in five of the previous seven seasons.

“Their front seven is their strong suit,” IU left tackle Coy Cronk said. “They have a really, really good front seven. Experienced guys. Big strong guys in the middle. Great linebackers. Their ends play extremely hard football. It’s going to be a great matchup for us. They’re really good up front.”

IU knows from experience.

The Hoosiers didn’t score a single touchdown in last season’s 17-9 loss at Spartan Stadium, a contest that was up for grabs until Michigan State scored 14 unanswered points to close the game.

IU managed 94 total rushing yards that afternoon, averaging 2.7 yards across 35 carries.

“That’s a testament to them,” Cronk said. “That’s a chip on our shoulder. As an O-line, we pride ourselves on being able to run the ball and score touchdowns. If you don’t do that for 60 minutes of an entire Big Ten football game, it’s simply not good enough. We have to have a little chip on our shoulder. But they’re good up front, so we’ll have our hands full.”

What makes this year’s matchup interesting is that IU is much more equipped to run the ball this season than last, when injuries and general ineffectiveness plagued the Hoosiers up front all year.

IU will present a much better offensive line than Michigan State saw against either Utah State or Arizona State and also has change-of-pace potential between Scott and fellow freshman Ronnie Walker.

In his decades of college football experience, veteran coordinator Mike DeBord has never overseen an offense where two true freshmen running backs were featured so prominently. But he might do so now.

“Never had that,” DeBord said with a smile. “But, you know, it’s a good thing. We’ve got depth there and we’re glad we have the depth.”

Although it remains to be seen just how much Walker is featured this week after debuting in the Ball State victory last Saturday, scoring a touchdown from 18 yards out on his first collegiate carry, his speed and strength looks to be an ideal complement to the power and poise of Scott.

Add freshman athlete Reese Taylor to the mix and IU could very likely throw three rookie runners at the Spartans this week, while looking to make the most of spacing and creases.

Senior Mike Majette is likely to be a factor in passing situations, but Scott and Walker could combine for a two-headed attack against Michigan State’s strength up front.

“Really looking forward to playing against them,” Scott said.

At the same time, the flip side to the rushing matchup could prove to be just as interesting.

Michigan State has found little traction on the ground, with a rush offense that ranks last in the Big Ten with only 228 yards in two games.

IU’s defense has also been prone to yielding chunk plays on the ground, and the Hoosiers rank 13th in the Big Ten with 187.3 rushing yards allowed per game.

In Allen’s words, something will have to give.

Offensively, it would be consistent with the personality of this IU program under Allen to see the Hoosiers come out eager to see how their running attack stacks up against the nation’s top rush defense. Allen wanted a running game that he could lean on.

Now he’s got it.

“They’ve done a good job,” Allen said. “But that’s what we do.”