- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Michigan State defense has few weakness. It is powered by talented, veteran players and led by a defensive coaching staff that has stuck together for nearly a decade. The defense is well thought-out and masterminded by head coach Mark Dantonio, who learned under such coaches as Earle Bruce and Nick Saban.
Dantonio describes his defense as being "tied together," meaning every piece works in unison. Little is left to chance. So it makes sense that one of Dantonio's biggest concerns heading into this week's game against Ohio State is Braxton Miller's ability to improvise.
Miller has excelled at making major plays out of seemingly broken plays, like when he scrambled away from pressure against Cal before finding Devin Smith for the game-winning 72-yard touchdown. He did the same to beat Wisconsin last year and can break off a huge run at any time.
"That's the biggest thing you're trying to eliminate, what we always call 'loose' plays," Dantonio told ESPN.com. "Those are the toughest ones. You sort of hold your breath, because at that point you're sort of loose and both sides are sort of loose and what's going to happen? Those are the things [Miller] brings to the table, so it's a big concern of ours."
The Spartans' defense has allowed three touchdowns so far this season. Two of those came in the Notre Dame game when quarterback Everett Golson got outside the pocket and created a play on his own.
That brings up a dilemma for this week: how much do you try to pressure a quarterback who can burn you with his feet? Michigan State has excelled at both bothering and containing Michigan's Denard Robinson the past two years, but Miller is a little different breed of cat with his ability to run with power and moves.
"Braxton is a tailback playing quarterback," Dantonio said. "When he gets outside, he looks like a tailback running the football, but yet he can throw it. Our main focus is going to be containing him and limiting his opportunities, but that's easier said than done."
Michigan State had an easy time of doing so in last year's 10-7 victory at the Horseshoe. They registered nine sacks, and Miller's longest run of the day was three yards. Yet he was making just his second career start as a true freshman, and Ohio State's offense has changed considerably under Urban Meyer.
Dantonio hasn't coached against a Meyer-style offense since the second game of his first season as Spartans head coach in 2007. Michigan State beat Bowling Green and former Meyer offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon 28-17. But Dantonio said several opponents have incorporated aspects of Meyer's offense, and his defenses have been pretty good over the years against high-tempo spreads.
"We've worked at it, and [defensive coordinator Pat] Narduzzi has played against it going back to when we played Michigan with Rich Rodriguez," Dantonio said. "We even had that experience when we were at Cincinnati, going against teams like West Virginia. So it's not something that is completely foreign. I think we have a pattern of how to practice it and the way we work on things with our guys."
Michigan State ranks No. 6 nationally in total defense, which is where it finished last season. The Spartans are also No. 6 in pass efficiency defense, No. 10 in rush defense and 11th in points allowed (11.75 per game). Yet, curiously, they have only three sacks this season, a year after finishing with a Big Ten-best 44.
"We've gotten pressure, but teams have either eluded us or gotten the ball out quickly," Dantonio said. "We have gotten tackles for loss, and we're tough to score against. So as long as that remains true, especially in that scoring aspect, you can't argue with the results."
The results are usually predictable for Michigan State's defense. The question is, what happens when an unpredictable force like Miller tests it?