Michigan State's Max Bullough is more than just the quarterback of the defense. Coaches say he knows the system as well as they do. (Dale G. Young)
East Lansing — Early in the third quarter of last weekend’s 14-0 victory over Purdue, Michigan State fans got a glimpse of something they haven’t seen in some time — somebody other than Max Bullough in the middle of the defense.
Bullough, a senior middle linebacker, rolled his ankle and limped off the field, giving way to senior Kyler Elsworth.
It lasted just a few plays — not even an entire series — but the thought of not having Bullough directing the defense and piling up tackles was one the Spartans don’t like to think about.
In fact, when linebackers coach Mike Tressel was asked about it before the season began, he quickly dismissed the thought, preferring to focus on one more season with Bullough instead of wondering who might try and replace him.
“He’s a centerpiece for our football team,” coach Mark Dantonio said as Michigan State prepared to face Illinois on Saturday. “He’s a very controlling figure, has been a three-year starter now, played on special teams as a true freshman in 2010. He knows our defense inside and out. He knows it as well as our coaches.”
It’s easy to understand, considering what Bullough — a third-generation Spartans player — has meant to Michigan State since taking over as the starter as a sophomore.
As a freshman in 2010, he was the understudy to All-American Greg Jones and when he took over, the defense didn’t miss a beat. In fact, it has reached an even higher level, ranking as the No. 1 overall unit in the nation.
“He’s a vital part of the defense,” linebacker Denicos Allen said. “Even if he’s not making the tackle he’s getting everyone in the right spot, orchestrating the defense. That’s what’s really good about him, and he’s a great leader, too.”
Added Tressel: “There’s no question Max runs the show on the field. He gets all 11 guys on the same page. It doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, but Max regularly puts guys in positions to make plays. So he might not get credit for the sack or tackle for loss, but he put his teammate in position to make that play.”
But to think of Bullough as simply quarterback of the defense would be selling him short. He was first-team all-Big Ten last season with 111 tackles after earning second-team honors as a sophomore.
And, after 10 tackles against Purdue, including a sack of quarterback Danny Etling that forced a fumble returned 45 yards for a touchdown, Bullough was named Big Ten defensive player of the week.
“Max spent much of the game playing on the other side of the line,” Tressel said. “He ran through blocks and made plays. He made a game-changing play early in the second quarter, with a sack resulting in a fumble that Denicos Allen returned for a touchdown.”
In his typical style, however, Bullough paid little attention to the honor, one that is all the more impressive considering the collection of playmakers on the Michigan State defense.
“I was just happy we got the win and I was able to do well,” he said. “I made some plays and that one sack was a big play for our football team. It’s an honor any time you get an award like that because we play in the Big Ten and guys are really good players on every other team and our team.”
Bullough received more notoriety Wednesday when he was named one of 20 quarterfinalists for the Lott IMPACT Trophy, given to college football’s defensive impact player of the year.
And with the toughest part of the schedule ahead for Michigan State, the Spartans will be counting on the same type of impact from Bullough, second on the team with 42 tackles and shares the top spot with 6.5 tackles for loss.
“I think he’s all over the field, and the bigger the game, the better he’s going to play usually,” Dantonio said. “Because of his past and the traditions that are held in his family, this is very important to him.”
As for the injury, Bullough insisted it was no big deal. In fact, he was certain it was the first time he had missed a play because of an injury, dating to high school.
“I just rolled the ankle a little bit, nothing big,” he said. “I just put some extra tape on it. It’s one of those things that scares you at first then you get over it.”
And with Bullough back in his usual position, barking out calls to the rest of the defense, that fear will likely lie with the opponents.