Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- If you blacked-out Michigan State's win-loss record from 2008 and just examined where the team ranked statistically in the Big Ten, you'd probably peg the Spartans for no more than six or seven wins.
Michigan State finished no higher than fifth in any of the major statistical categories. In most cases, the team finished right in the middle of the pack.
Sixth in scoring (25.1 ppg)
Fifth in points allowed (22.1 ppg)
Fifth in turnover margin (plus-.15)
Ninth in rushing offense (130.2 ypg)
Seventh in rushing defense (142.5 ypg)
Sixth in pass offense (213.3 ypg)
Seventh in pass defense (213.4 ypg)
Eighth in total offense (343.5 ypg)
Seventh in total defense (355.8 ypg)
So how did the Spartans go 9-4, finish third in the league and reach the Capital One Bowl? They won close games and buckled down in the red zone, leading the league in red zone defense (75.6 percent).
"We've got goals where we'd like to do this in the run game and this in the pass game, but ultimately, in the end, it's all about wins," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "When you look at those stats, they're deceiving, but they're important because it does let you know where we are."
Narduzzi recalled several big plays that skewed Michigan State's defensive statistics, including a 78-yard touchdown run by Indiana's Marcus Thigpen at the end of the first half in Bloomington. Thigpen's run serves as a reminder that while the defense made strides from the year before, better consistency remains a goal.
For the players, the numbers hold some value.
"We know that high statistics mean we're going to win games," cornerback Ross Weaver said. "We don't want a whole bunch of picks just so we can say we got 'em. We know that if we do get picks, it means our secondary will do better and help win games. We do like to be the best in what we do."
Added defensive end Trevor Anderson: "Being in the middle of the pack is OK, but it's time we take the next step and try to be [No.] 1 or 2, preferably 1."