With one month to go before the conference championship game, we're looking around the Big Ten for a team that can match up against the Ohio State Buckeyes. They keep chugging along as the winners of 21 straight games. Usually we would say Michigan would be that challenger, but not this season.
Not after what Michigan State did to the Wolverines last week, recording seven sacks and holding them to minus-48 yards rushing in a 29-6 win.
The Spartans are in the driver's seat in their division at 5-0 in league play. There a couple tests coming up for them, including a visit to Nebraska next week, but I think they'll pass the tests and should meet Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game.
A dominant defense has allowed Michigan State, despite an offense that has been anemic, to position itself for that battle -- the two teams will not meet in the regular season.
MSU is the top-ranked defense in the FBS (210.2 yards allowed per game), and Alabama (9.8) and Louisville (10.6) are the only teams that allow fewer points per game (11.6).
This is not unusual for the Spartans, though. They have consistently been one of nation's stingiest defenses under coordinator/assistant head coach Pat Narduzzi, who is more than ready for a head-coaching opportunity. They're one of just five teams to rank among the top 10 in total defense in each of the past two seasons.
In this day and age, what they're doing on that side of the ball is really unusual, but not that surprising when you consider they have great talent at every level of the defense.
I hate that I'm going to leave out some people, but for purposes of this article, I'll highlight five prospects, four of whom are seniors, that are representative of this dominant unit as a whole (listed in alphabetical order):
OLB Denicos Allen
Allen is a speed guy off the weak side. He was all over the field against Michigan and leads the team in tackles with 57, including 11 for loss, which is tied for the team high. Allen is solid in pass coverage and can rush the passer (he has five sacks this season). He tackles well in the open field and is a bit undersized, but a really good player.
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MLB Max Bullough
Before Max, there was Hank and Shane Bullough -- Max is a third-generation Spartan. He's a true middle linebacker and runs the defense as a two-time team captain. He's really an extra coach on the field. They make adjustments through him on the field, and they don't necessarily come through the coaching staff. A lot of times if a play breaks down and they give up some yardage, he knows where the breakdown occurred and how to fix it. Bullough is third on the team with 52 tackles.
DE Shilique Calhoun
Calhoun, who leads the team with 6.5 sacks and 17 QB hits, is the lone underclassmen on this list (he's a sophomore), but he's a stud. Michigan State had DE William Gholston, a fourth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this year, last season and people were talking highly about Gholston. Privately, the Spartans' staff was talking highly about Calhoun, too, saying you better keep an eye on this kid. He is a force. Offenses have to account for him.
CB Darqueze Dennard
Dennard, a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award -- an honor given to the nation's top defensive back -- is a press-man cover corner. He has quick feet, a strong upper body and good hands. Part of the reason Calhoun and other Spartans pass rushers are so productive is because Dennard takes away a lot of the quick routes. Quarterbacks can't just get rid of ball fast when receivers are covered. He had an interception against Michigan -- his team-leading third of the season -- and has been terrific all year.
S Isaiah Lewis
Lewis, a third-year starter at strong safety, is a typical Spartan, and I mean that as a compliment. He's hard-nosed. The rangy senior can drop down in the box vs. the run and cover in pass game. He's tied for sixth on the team in tackles (31) and is second to Dennard in pass breakups (five).