- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State's rise as a nationally elite defense can be traced to its success in statistical categories such as INT (interceptions), TFL (tackles for loss), PBU (pass breakups) and QBH (quarterback hurries).
But if you've read about the Spartans' defense or watched it play the past few seasons, you've probably heard a different three-letter acronym attached to the unit: S-E-C.
An SI.com story from last year read: "An SEC-style defense could help the Spartans claim the Big Ten title this season." CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd wrote, "There are very few places nationally where they still play defense like this -- quick, rugged, right on the edge, if not over it. Most of the others are concentrated in the SEC."
Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi understands why the label is used.
"They’re talking about that we have speed on the field, they think," Narduzzi told ESPN.com. "Whether we do or not, our kids are playing fast. It looks like they're playing fast."
Michigan State indeed boasts tremendous speed on the field in all three phases of its defense. And the SEC tag applied to the Spartans is, to a degree, a dig at the Big Ten, a league perceived to be a step or two behind the other elite conferences.
But the label also acknowledges how strong Michigan State's defense has become. The Spartans finished fourth in the nation in total defense in 2012 and sixth in 2011. They've also ranked in the top 10 nationally in points allowed both seasons.
Three SEC defenses finished in the top eight nationally last season. Four of the nation's top five defenses in 2011 came from the SEC.
"You make that comparison and you look at most of the teams in the SEC and they've got great defenses," Spartans senior linebacker Max Bullough said. "So why not take it as a compliment? Those guys are flying around, they're aggressive, they take chances. That's a lot like we are. There's a lot of good defenses in that conference."
Narduzzi and the defensive staff studied one of them during the offseason. They went to LSU during the winter to spend some time with Tigers defensive coordinator John Chavis and his assistants. The year before, Alabama's staff visited Michigan State's coaches in East Lansing.
"They look like we do," Narduzzi said of LSU. "Four-man front for the most part. They play similar coverage and Chavis likes to blitz. So when I saw it, I saw some different blitzes that I said, 'Ooh, that's one I’d like to use.' They're very similar."
Spartans cornerback Darqueze Dennard is somewhat conflicted about the SEC comparisons. When the Dry Branch, Ga., native heads home to SEC country, his friends don't put Michigan State and SEC teams in the same category.
"They pretty much hate on us," Dennard said. "When I go home, I get a lot of mocking, pretty much saying we can't beat this team or that team. But the last time we played an SEC team, we won [in the 2012 Outback Bowl against Georgia]."
The SEC label "kind of bothers" Dennard, but it also "gives us pride" because SEC defenses are known for toughness and produce so many NFL players. Michigan State is gaining the same reputation.
"We're the Michigan State defense, first and foremost," Bullough said. "We're not trying to be like anybody else. We think we're up there with the best in the country."