What Makes MSU's Defense So Good?

The narrative for this week's Ohio State-Michigan State Big Ten title game clash is largely about the matchup between OSU's record-setting offense and MSU's dominating D. We know what makes the Buckeyes tick, but what makes the Spartans so good? We take a look.

Any discussion of just how good the Michigan State defense is begins with Al Davis.

You read that right.

When discussing his team's game last week with the Spartans, Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill referenced the late Oakland Raiders owner – a savvy football guru in his day – when breaking down the talents of the MSU defense.

"Anytime you play man-to-man on the corners and get nine in the box – I think Al Davis said when he was with the Raiders, ‘Get lockdown corners, and you can do anything you want on defense,' " Kill said.

That knowledge clearly didn't work too well – the Golden Gophers managed just three points in a loss to the Spartans – but Minnesota is not alone in not being able to rack up points against MSU.

The Spartans enter this weekend's Big Ten Championship Game game ranked first in the nation in both rushing defense, passing efficiency defense and total defense. MSU is also among the top 10 in the country when it comes to third-down conversions (second), first downs allowed (second), scoring defense (fourth) and passing yards (ninth).

So what makes the Spartans so good? Start with those corners. Senior Darqueze Dennard is the star, having just won Big Ten Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year honors after making four interceptions and 56 tackles on the season. On the other side, sophomore Trae Waynes has picked off two passes and broken up five more while making 43 tackles.

"They've got lengthy, long corners who can flat play," Kill said. "Probably both of them will be high-round draft choices, when it's their time."

And as the Minnesota coach alluded to, having two cornerbacks who are trusted in man coverage allows the Spartans to do a lot on defense, including playing press quarters coverage.

Michigan State has been a heavy press-man team the past two years, with Dennard joined on the outside by Johnny Adams a year ago. What that does is allow the Spartans' safeties – All-Big Ten choice Kurtis Drummond and hard-hitting senior Isaiah Lewis – to play the run aggressively.

"Press quarters is kind of their trademark, and it allows them to get the two safeties involved in the run game and basically say that you're going to play nine on nine football rather than 11 on 11," Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said.

That is one reason the Spartans' total of 64.8 rushing yards allowed per game is tops in the nation by almost 20 yards, but like any defense, there are weaknesses. At the top of the list is the fact that the single coverage can be beaten by outside receivers – just like last year, when Devin Smith blew by Adams on the way to a game-winning 63-yard TD.

"That was good," Herman said with a smile, "but our O didn't beat very many X's last year."

Still, he thinks the improvement this season out of Ohio State's wide receivers could allow the Buckeyes to take advantage of the tight, one-on-one coverage.

"We have to try to take advantage of that and we have to see it as an advantage for us," Herman said. "If you look at it as a hindrance, then I think you're kind of waving the white flag a little bit. I see that as a very positive thing for us, and how improved we've gotten at the wide receiver position.

"You certainly have to look at it as an advantage and say, ‘Hey, we are going to, if you think your O is better than our X, we're going to prove you wrong.' But at the end of the day, the percentages tell you, you can't just make a living (running streak routes), either."

For the year, teams have completed only 47.9 percent of their passes against MSU with 16 interceptions and 29 sacks against, so clearly the strategy works for the Spartans.

And that, then, plays into the rush defense. One reason quarters coverage has become so in vogue is that it allows teams to handle both the pass and the run, with the right personnel; the two safeties are not just deep pass defenders responsible for the middle of the field but they also key downhill to stop the run, one reason Drummond is second on the team with 81 tackles.

Both Herman and head coach Urban Meyer also mentioned how gap sound the team is, which is the main reason Michigan State has allowed a national-best mark of 19 runs of 10 or more yards this season – 11 less than second-best Alabama and 15 less than OSU's very solid run defense.

Simply put, when teams stay gap sound, hitting the big play is much tougher. Add in strong defenders like middle linebacker Max Bullough, a first-team All-Big Ten choice, and you get the MSU defense.

Then there are a few wild cards. While Meyer praised the MSU defense for looking alike no matter the call, the Spartans do bring a fair bit of pressure as well.

"About a third of the time on first and second down, you'll see some kind of pressure, especially if you start to get a little momentum," Herman said. "They want to try to keep you off schedule, behind the sticks, so to speak."

But on top of that – and perhaps most important – is the bit of swagger the MSU defense plays with. Watching the Spartans at times this year, the defense has looked almost suffocating, racking up negative plays, big hits and turnovers on. The imagine of a helpless Devin Gardner – his white jersey turned brown – taking sack after sack was quite jarring, especially considering his dominating performance vs. OSU last week.

In Herman's words, he's not sure there's a first-team All-American on the MSU side, but Meyer has been impressed with the "toughness and fundamentals" that the Spartans have played with this season.

"They have 11 guys that know exactly what they are doing and they do it really well and they tackle well and they are always in the right spot," Herman said. "They are about as sound a defense as you'll see."

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