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Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Spartans brace for Georgia's cast of stars


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi didn't help his conference in the never-ending Big Ten-SEC debate when he provided his scouting report of Georgia's offense to head coach Mark Dantonio.

  

"Their skill guys, their receivers, their running back, their quarterback, it's like the Big Ten All-Star team that we get to play against," Narduzzi told Dantonio.

Georgia wide receivers A.J. Green and Mohamed Massaquoi matched or surpassed any pass-catching combo Narduzzi saw in Big Ten play this year. Bulldogs quarterback Matthew Stafford trumped first-team All-Big Ten quarterback Daryll Clark of Penn State.

And while Narduzzi, like everyone associated with the Spartans football program, thinks the world of Javon Ringer, Georgia's Knowshon Moreno isn't too shabby. If Georgia has a weakness on offense, it's the offensive line, and that's largely because of youth.

"It's obviously going to be a challenge for our defense," Narduzzi said. "Everybody's got to step up. Certainly, if you're looking at something that might be their weakness, you look at their O-line. I don't know what they see as our weakness, but obviously pressure on the quarterback and pressure at the line of scrimmage by our linebackers and defensive line is going to be a key in the game."

Narduzzi's unit lacks the headliners of Georgia, but it has helped Michigan State to nine wins and a Capital One Bowl appearance Thursday against the preseason No. 1 team (ABC, 1 p.m. ET).

This fall, the Spartans held eight teams to 24 points or fewer, including two bowl champions (Notre Dame and Florida Atlantic). What happened in the other four games, though is a cause for concern.

Michigan State struggled against elite offensive competition, allowing a combined 94 points in losses to Ohio State and Penn State.

The Penn State loss, in the regular-season finale Nov. 22, sticks with Narduzzi and the Spartans defenders for several reasons.

Obviously, it's the most recent game they played. But of any Big Ten opponent Michigan State faced this season, Penn State might have the most parallels with Georgia.

"The personnel groupings are very similar and what they present offensively is very similar," Narduzzi said. "We bring it up as a motivation factor, No. 1. That was the last game out, and there's a pride factor that goes with that. That's not the way we expect to play. That's not our defense out there. That's not our football team out there, so this is a game where we've got something to prove."

Greg Jones gets the message. The Spartans' All-Big Ten outside linebacker was one of a few bright spots in the Penn State game (15 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss) and will play a crucial role against Georgia.

Jones, who can play either on the strong side or in the middle, will have to contain Moreno and occasionally put pressure on Stafford. Ringer in practice provides Michigan State's defenders a sense of the speed they'll see on New Year's Day, but Moreno has a different style.

"Moreno likes to spin and stiff-arm a whole lot, Javon just likes to run right over you," Jones said. "The key for us is to be confident and don't overthink things."

The Spartans' secondary should get a boost on the health front against Green and Massaquoi. Top cornerback Chris L. Rucker is 100 percent after playing only a handful of snaps against Penn State because of an injury. And Narduzzi said All-Big Ten safety Otis Wiley, who was banged up for the second half of the season, is back to full strength.

Narduzzi will lean on seniors Wiley, defensive tackle Justin Kershaw and defensive end Brandon Long against Georgia, but with the rest of the starting defense coming back next fall, he also has an eye on the future.

"We've gotten better," Narduzzi said. "I think we're going to be even better next year as a unit. I thought we were young this year and we had a bunch of guys playing that hadn't played in the past. This will just build for 2009."

After falling short against elite competition during the regular season, Jones sees the Georgia matchup as a chance for redemption -- and to peel off the S.O.S label once and for all.

"The old saying, 'Same ol' Spartans,' we can erase that by winning this game," Jones said. "We're starting to get rid of it, but I just want to erase it."