Darqueze Dennard and Michigan State boast the country's top-ranked defense. (Mike Carter/USA Today Sports)
The success of Michigan State’s defense in 2013 shouldn’t come as a surprise. When theSpartans won seven games last season, they had the nation’s fourth-ranked total defense and allowed just 16.3 points per game. What's happening this fall is exactly what the team envisioned.
“When you have a year like last year,” senior linebacker Max Bullough said, “you have to remember how to be that good again, and then build on that. But we expected to be this good. Fortunately, things have turned out that way.”
Michigan State (7-1, 4-0 Big Ten), which is now ranked 24th by the AP, leads the country in three defensive categories, including total defense ( 215.5 yards per game), rushing defense (54.9) and first-down defense (12.8 first downs per game). The Spartans' defense also ranks no worse than third in four other categories (pass efficiency defense, opponent third-down conversions, scoring defense and passing defense). Two weeks ago, Michigan State blanked Purdue 14-0 -- the Spartans’ first Big Ten shutout since 1999. They followed that up last Saturday with a 42-3 rout of Illinois, holding an offense that was averaging more than 35 points a game to only a field goal.
Now, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's group is preparing for perhaps its stiffest test to date. Twenty-third-ranked Michigan (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) will make the 65-mile trip to Spartan Stadium on Saturday and the Wolverines, led by quarterback Devin Gardner, pose a threat to Michigan State's perfect conference record. Factor in a little off-field ribbing, such as when Michigan tailback Fitz Toussaint dusted off the “little brother” designation in reference to the Spartans this week, and there’s plenty of tension between the two rivals.
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“There’s always a little bit more attention this week,” Narduzzi said. “It’s a big rival for us. There’s a little bit more enthusiasm.”
Narduzzi is now in his seventh season as the defensive coordinator in East Lansing, and he’s quick to point to the end of the 2011 campaign as a turning point. Facing Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game on Dec. 3, the Spartans had allowed a season-high 42 points in a three-point loss. But in the Outback Bowlon Jan. 2, they edged Georgia 33-30 in triple overtime. The Bulldogs rushed for only 51 yards on 39 carries. Michigan State's ability to stop the run that day was a sign of what Narduzzi considers the key to any good defense. “They just couldn’t run the ball,” he said. “We’ve just kind of rolled ever since then.”
While the Spartans' offense stumbled last year, their defense shone. Michigan State ranked first in the Big Ten in passing defense, rushing defense and total defense in 2012. Still, several veterans felt that the unit had room to improved, and they focused on getting better in the offseason.
“We’d look at last year, with how many plays we left on the field, and we knew how many plays we could have made,” senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard said.
The Spartans are the only FBS team to have limited every opponent this season to fewer than 100 rushing yards. With the exception of the Boilermakers, Michigan State has also held every opponent to a season-low in average yards per play. Much of that success is a result of experience; nine of the Spartans’ 11 defensive starters are juniors or seniors. And Narduzzi says that his unity has plenty of talented reserves who might be starting at other schools.
How the Michigan State defense handles Gardner will go a long way toward determining the Spartans' fate. Bullough -- who has faced Michigan's Denard Robinson, Notre Dame's Everett Golson and Nebraska's Taylor Martinez in his career -- says that Gardner is just another player for whom he must prepare. But preparation is one thing. Execution is another.
“That’s the hard part,” Bullough said. “You play a guy that can run, and you can have all your guys in the right spot, but at the end of the day you’ve got to make the play. That’s tough against a guy like Devin.”
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Bullough and fellow linebacker Denicos Allen are two of the primary reasons that Michigan State’s defense has been so effective. Narduzzi said the Spartans don’t have to waste time switching schemes to defend the pass. Instead, the athleticism of his linebackers frequently allows Narduzzi to stick to his base package, even against a spread attack.
“We’re able to stay in that base [defense] because our athletic linebackers can play in base,” Narduzzi said. “We’re able to defend the pass out of that. We don’t feel like we have to put another DB out there to stop the pass.”
Gardner has thrown for 1,779 yards, rushed for 520 yards and had a hand in 22 total touchdowns (13 passing, nine rushing) in 2013. He also has 10 interceptions on the season, including five in narrow wins over Akron and Connecticut. In order to pressure Gardner into poor decisions, Michigan State will have to be able to get by left tackle Taylor Lewan and the rest of the Wolverines’ offensive line.
Narduzzi knows that he must also keep Michigan's running game in check. The Wolverines have lost in each of their last two trips to East Lansing, in 2009 and '11, rushing for only 28 and 82 yards, respectively. If the Spartans' defense is equally smothering on Saturday, they could make it three home victories in a row over Michigan, a first for them in the history of the rivalry.
That would be a major step forward for the team that currently leads the Big Ten Legends Division.
“We’ve got all our goals in front of us,” Dennard said. “We’re undefeated in the Big Ten, and if you win out in November, that means you’re going to play in a good bowl. Maybe even a championship game.”
The other big ones
• No. 7 Miami at No. 3 Florida State: We all know about Jameis Winston, but which Stephen Morris will show up under center for Miami? If it’s the Morris who threw four picks and completed 54 percent of his passes in a near-loss to North Carolina two weeks ago, the Hurricanes could be in trouble, especially against cornerback Lamarcus Joyner and the Seminoles’ secondary.
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• No. 18 Oklahoma State at No. 15 Texas Tech: The last time Oklahoma State visited Lubbock, the Cowboys trounced the Red Raiders 66-6. But in Kliff Kingsbury’s debut season, Texas Tech is averaging 39.8 points per game. The Raiders will have to minimize turnovers, though. They’ve already lost 19.
• Florida vs. Georgia: A week ago, this game didn’t hold much water in the SEC East. But Missouri’s deflating loss to South Carolina changed that. Perhaps no two programs are as banged-up as the Gators and Bulldogs, but the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party could serve as a springboard for one’s late run in the division.
Time to bounce back?
• Missouri: The Tigers’ dreams of an undefeated season came to screeching halt when Andrew Baggett’s 24-yard field goal attempt bounced off the upright in overtime against South Carolina. Still, Missouri is in the driver’s seat in the SEC East heading into its matchup with Tennessee, which is set to start freshman Josh Dobbs at quarterback. Dobbs will be the third passer to start a game for the Vols this season.
• Virginia Tech: The Hokies lost to Duke last week after the Blue Devils failed to convert a single third down (0-for-11) and were outgained 387 yards to 198. Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas tossed four interceptions. Tech is only a game back in the ACC Coastal Division, however, and this Saturday’s meeting with Boston College offers a chance to turn things around.
• Nebraska: The pressure mounts on Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini. Nebraska fell to Minnesota last weekend for the first time since 1960. Can the Huskers get back on track against a reeling Northwestern squad?
Upset brewing?No. 22 Wisconsin at Iowa:
The last time these regional rivals met in 2010, Wisconsin won 31-30 after Montee Ball scored the game-winning touchdown with just more than a minute to play. The Badgers
boast another potent ground game, but Iowa has found success against the run; the Hawkeyes
have given up only two rushing touchdowns in 2013. Interestingly, the century-old series is knotted up at 42-42-2.