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Stout MSU rush defense poses steep challenge for Rutgers

<p>Senior Paul James and the Rutgers running backs rotation will face its tallest task of the season against a physical MSU defensive line.</p>

Senior Paul James and the Rutgers running backs rotation will face its tallest task of the season against a physical MSU defensive line.

Before the Rutgers football team's season began, the Scarlet Knights' running back room declared itself one of the best groups of backs in not only the Big Ten, but the nation.

With four different running backs that all bring something different to the table, it was hard to take a side against the Knights' backfield.

This Saturday, No. 4 Michigan State's defense presents a challenge unrivaled to what the running backs at Rutgers (2-2, 0-1) have seen before.

The run defense for the Spartans (5-0, 1-0) does not need to make claims to be the best in the Big Ten. They have ranked first in run defense in the Big Ten the last four seasons. In 2014, that same defense led the FBS, allowing only 88.5 yards per game.

Acting head coach Norries Wilson, who also serves as the Knights’ running back coach, acknowledged the challenge Michigan State presents defensively.

“They are very good against the run,” Wilson said of the Michigan State defense. “They have two tackles on the inside that are very good players. The two ends on the outside are on par with the inside guys. Their linebackers play downhill and attack the run to tear offensive lineman off the double-teams. They are well-coached, so our guys are going to have to do their best job.”

Sixth-year senior fullback Sam Bergen serves as one of the most tenured members of the Knights. He said he's prepared for top defenses throughout his career.

But this Spartans defensive front might be one of the most prolific he has ever prepared for. From top-to-bottom, the Michigan State defense measures up with all other top programs in the country.

“They are an overall good team,” Bergen said of Michigan State. “From the defensive line, to the linebackers to the secondary, they have a lot of good players. But we also have a lot of good players. It’s just a matter of us executing and doing our job on offense. If we do that well enough, we are pretty confident we can be successful.”

With four different running backs listed as co-starters, Rutgers can offer a flurry of force in the running game. Alternating between different running styles can play to the Knights advantage offensively.

Senior tailback Paul James said rotating between running backs and not taking a step back plays to Rutgers’ advantage Saturday against the Spartans. The rotation doesn’t give Michigan State the opportunity to adjust or acclimate to one running back.

“Our running back room gives them something different to play against each time,” James said. “With four different running backs, it gives the defense something different every single time. If the same running back is in every time, they kind of learn the tendencies — they know when he is going to make a certain cut or something. It throws them off and it helps us move the ball.”

With all the hype about the Michigan State run defense, Bergen takes it with a grain of salt. He knows what preparation and practice can do to prepare for an opponent.

To the fullback, the stats are just stats.

“Personally, I don’t pay attention to any of the statistics,” Bergen said of the Spartans' top-ranked run defense in the Big Ten over the past four seasons. “I don’t care what ESPN has to say. Every day, I get out here and try to get better. If I do my job, that’s all I can do to put us in the best position possible and give us the best chance to win.”

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @TylerKaralewich and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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