James Franklin didn't have to study the Michigan State defense too closely to realize that the Spartans are exceptional when it comes to stopping the run.
"I think the biggest thing is up front," the Penn State head coach said. "Their [defensive] tackles and their defensive ends are big, are strong, are physical and very, very aggressive. When you watch the tape and you're looking at all those thighs and legs and rear ends, I mean, they are massive."
The Spartans, who will visit Beaver Stadium on Saturday, lead the nation in rushing defense, allowing an average of 33.8 yards per game after giving up eight in last week's loss to Northwestern. They have held eight straight opponents to less than 100 rushing yards.
For eighth-ranked Penn State, which is 12th in the nation in rushing at 261.2 yards per game and owns a streak of eight consecutive games with 200 yards on the ground, the task at hand is an enormous one.
"When you watch film on them, all 11 players, their eyes are in the backfield," junior running back Miles Sanders, the Nittany Lions' leading rusher, said Wednesday. "All the linebackers and the safeties, instead of reading the actual play, they read the guards and tackles. They can tell if it's a run play or a pass play.
"They react fast to the run game, so I see why their stats are the way they are. They're pretty good up front. They're a pretty good team. We know what they're like in the run game, but we're up to the challenge."
Sanders is part of the Lions' 1-2 rushing punch. The other half of that pairing is quarterback Trace McSorley, who established career highs of 175 yards on the ground and 25 carries in the team's 27-26 loss to Ohio State on Sept. 29. He has rushed for 410 yards – sixth in the Big Ten – in just five games, only 81 yards short of his personal best for a season.
While 25 carries seems like a big load for a quarterback, especially against the rugged defenses in the Big Ten, the 6-foot, 203-pound McSorley said he has no problem with it.
"It doesn't really concern me, honestly, during the game," he said Wednesday. "I didn't even realize that I ran it that much. Obviously, it's one of the things that I'm going to have to do. If that's going to help us win the game, then it's something that I'm going to have to do and commit to. So I'm not necessarily too worried about it."
The members of the Spartans' front four average nearly 6-foot-4 per man. Raequan Williams, a 300-pound junior tackle, has six tackles for loss. Junior end Kenny Willekes, who goes 260, leads the team in sacks with four and in tackles for loss with eight.
McSorley may have better success passing against the Spartans, who are last in the Big Ten and 122nd out of 129 FBS teams in pass defense, allowing 305 yards per game. But he won't allow those statistics to give him comfort.