Star junior defensive end Shilique Calhoun’s futuristic face mask earned him the nickname Bane, for Batman’s nemesis in The Dark Knight Rises. After pillaging opposing backfields for 7.5 sacks, 14 tackles for a loss and three defensive touchdowns last season, his play matched his persona. “I see myself as a villain on the field,” he says. The 6’5”, 256-pound Calhoun will have to break in some new partners in crime, but it’s hard to doubt coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who produced the Big Ten’s best defense for the third straight year. Though he lost Darqueze Dennard, the country’s best defensive back, Narduzzi expects junior Trae Waynes to slide into Dennard’s spot without much dropoff.
For Michigan State to repeat as conference champs, the offense must catch up with its defense. Junior quarterback Connor Cook proved his big-game mettle in the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl -- five TD passes and two interceptions against Ohio State and Stanford -- and he’ll have almost all of his top targets back, including senior receiver Tony Lippett (44 catches, 613 yards) and second-year tight end Josiah Price (17 for 210). Bruising senior running back Jeremy Langford (1,422 yards) returns as well. The highest priority: quickly and effectively replacing three O-line starters. Because wasting all that defensive talent would be criminal.
Opposing coach's take
The hardest thing about playing the Spartans is that they challenge every single throw. There are no gimmes, anywhere. Their secondary does a great job in press coverage -- it’s their role and the team’s identity. Those players own it because they do it all the time, and the coaches recruit great athletes who are physical just for that purpose. The way that they cover you man-to-man out on an island sets up the rest of their defense. It’s not terribly complicated, as they really only have three or four different blitzes. The hard part is that you can’t tell when the blitz is coming because they do such a good job holding the disguise until the last possible second.
The most important thing about Michigan State is that they really play hard. That’s good coaching. They control the ball on offense. They throw it just enough to keep you honest. It’s always a challenge to win the turnover battle with them. They are happy to punt. And when you’re on offense, if you overthrow or underthrow one ball, they’re going to pick it off.
Coach Mark Dantonio values field position and ball control. That’s why receiver R.J. Shelton’s 34-yard run against Indiana last season, highlighted by a leap over a Hoosier, popped off the screen. Shelton, a sophomore who converted from running back to slot receiver, brings 4.4 speed to spice up a traditionally bland offense. Look for co-coordinator Dave Warner to find creative ways to get Shelton (7.3 yards per carry) touches on short passes, reverses and handoffs from the slot.
A Sept. 6 visit to Oregon will swing MSU’s season. A win establishes the Spartans as a playoff favorite; a loss raises early questions about whether the Big Ten will be the one Power Five conference left out of the playoff. If the Spartans do stumble in Eugene they’ll need to run the table, which would mean home victories over Nebraska (Oct. 4), Michigan (Oct. 25) and Ohio State (Nov. 8) and a win against the West champ in the Big Ten title game. Would that be enough for the committee?
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