EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) About a month ago, Michigan State's secondary cost the Spartans a shot at an undefeated season, and a Big Ten title seemed unlikely unless things improved quickly.
Now, that maligned group of defensive backs is gaining confidence - and preparing to take the field for the conference title game.
''I think that we're playing fast, we understand what to do, we have good skill back there,'' coach Mark Dantonio said. ''Things hang by inches, by threads, a misstep here or misstep there can cost you, especially in the back end, or a missed play on a deep ball, whatever the case, missed tackle. I just think we're having less and less of that.''
The Spartans had to rely on less experienced players after losing defensive backs Vayante Copeland and RJ Williamson to major injuries. The problems in the secondary finally cost Michigan State when Nebraska went 91 yards in only four plays to steal a win over the Spartans in the final minute, but since that Nov. 7 game, the defensive backfield has shown signs of improvement, and it's fair to wonder if this weak link has become more stable.
The next big test comes this weekend when the fifth-ranked Spartans (11-1) face fourth-ranked Iowa (12-0) in the Big Ten championship game Saturday night.
Copeland went down in September with a fractured vertebra and is out for the season. Williamson hasn't played since Oct. 3 because of a torn bicep. Dantonio said this week that Williamson is practicing but probably won't be available against Iowa.
The defensive backs atop the depth chart this week include two juniors and a fifth-year senior, but that doesn't mean it's a terribly experienced bunch. Cornerback Arjen Colquhoun and safety Demetrious Cox had started one game between them before this season. They've combined to start 21 in 2015.
Since the 39-38 loss to Nebraska, Michigan State has allowed only 37 points total to Maryland, Ohio State and Penn State.
''They have always had good talent back there,'' Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard said. ''They're a well-coached team. We know that we're going to have to bring our best.''
It's fair to wonder how much of Michigan State's defensive improvement was because of the opposition. Maryland won only one Big Ten game this season, and Ohio State was criticized for not trying harder to exploit Michigan State's vulnerability to the deep pass. It was also raining when the Spartans beat the Buckeyes.
Against Penn State, the Spartans had trouble tackling in the open field, but Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg wasn't able to hurt them much with deep passes over the top.
Michigan State actually allowed fewer yards passing in conference play this season than Iowa, although the Hawkeyes had a Big Ten-best 12 interceptions in league games. In 12 games overall, Iowa's Desmond King had eight interceptions - the Detroit product is tied for the national lead in that category.
''He's got some good size, he's got speed, everything you want in a cornerback,'' Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said. ''I would say for sure looking at their defense, Iowa's defense, I think their secondary is for sure their strong point.''
Few people would say that about Michigan State's secondary, even now, but there's been some progress over the last few weeks, and the Spartans' defensive backs are looking more comfortable with each additional game.
And that could make Michigan State even more formidable as the season draws to a close.
''I think Arjen Colquhoun is playing very, very well,'' Dantonio said. ''And all four of those guys back there have made plays in these last three weeks that indicate we have a cohesive unit right now.''
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