- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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While watching the five-pack of bowl games involving Big Ten teams Monday, I looked for the units that had the speed, athleticism, explosiveness and playmaking ability to be branded as nationally elite.
Sorry, Big Ten fans, but this is a speed game now. It's plainly obvious. And overall, the league seems to be lacking in that category.
Anyway, the one unit that stood out above the rest -- yes, even above Wisconsin's offense -- was the Michigan State defense.
That crew can step on the field with any team in America and hold its own.
The Spartans' defense has elite athletes, like sophomore end William Gholston, who put himself on the national radar with a huge performance featuring five tackles for loss, two sacks, a fumble recovery and a pass breakup. Gholston overpowered Georgia's offensive line in the Outback Bowl, much like he did with Ohio State's offensive line and other groups. Defensive tackles Jerel Worthy and Anthony Rashad White both had excellent games, and Darqueze Dennard showed why he's one of the league's emerging cornerbacks with two interceptions, including a pick-six.
Michigan State's defense has stockpiled playmakers and depth at all three levels. It's a credit to the team's recruiting efforts, as the unit didn't miss standout linebackers Greg Jones and Eric Gordon much if at all this season. Even if Worthy departs for the NFL, which I expect him to, the Spartans have shown they can reload because of their recruiting.
The number of young Spartans defenders who have seen the field and contributed in the past two seasons also signals a shift. Michigan State started only one senior on defense Monday -- safety Trenton Robinson -- and had six sophomores or freshmen in the starting lineup.
I don't know how long the Spartans can hang onto defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, but he's got it going right now and will be rewarded with a raise later this winter.
We've seen other great defenses in the Big Ten, both this season and in other years. Ohio State soon should be able to elevate its defense to traditional levels. Nebraska had elite defenses in 2009 and 2010 before falling off this season. Iowa's defense was brilliant in 2009, but since has taken significant steps backward. Penn State's defense held its own in Big Ten play but showed its weaknesses against Houston's wide-open spread in the TicketCity Bowl. Michigan's defense is on the way up under Greg Mattison. Illinois' defense performed at an elite level for much of the season, but now moves on without coordinator Vic Koenning.
But if Big Ten squads are looking for examples to compete nationally in bowls on the defensive side -- looking at you, Wisconsin -- Michigan State should be it.
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