NCF Nation: Isaiah Lewis

PASADENA, Calif. -- No one would dispute that Michigan State's defense is the primary reason for the program's ascent. Especially after Wednesday's performance in the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeConnor Cook
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsWith many weapons returning, Michigan State should be able to rely on Connor Cook and the offense more in 2014.
The Spartan Dawgs showed they can be great even without a great player in Max Bullough, and stifled Stanford's power run game for the final three quarters of a 24-20 win. The fourth-down stop of fullback Ryan Hewitt, where a swarm of MSU defenders leaped over the pile, typified why Michigan State has gone from good to great.

But if you're searching for why MSU could keep the momentum going in the 2014 season, take a look at the other side of the ball. Michigan State's offense, which went from dysfunctional in September to efficient and, at times, explosive, could fuel the team this fall.

The Spartans return virtually all of their skill players, including quarterback Connor Cook, running back Jeremy Langford and wide receivers Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery, Macgarrett Kings and Aaron Burbridge. Bennie Fowler likely would earn a sixth year of eligibility -- he missed the entire 2009 season and part of 2011 with injuries -- if he wants one.

The tight end group, used more late in the season, returns completely intact. Fullback Trevon Pendleton, who had a touchdown catch in the Rose Bowl, is only a sophomore.

"It's been a long journey, and seems like a long time ago that we were being asked that question about what's wrong with our offense," co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner said last week. "It's been a process without a doubt, and it seemed like it took a long time, but it was a necessary process, and we're still not a finished product by any means now because I think we can continue to grow and get better."

MSU showed against Stanford that it can win big games by throwing the ball, as Cook repeatedly attacked the seams of the Cardinal defense to players like Kings and Lippett.

"They were very vulnerable," Kings told ESPN.com on the field afterward. "We weren't looking to attack it, but as the game went on, that's what was open so we just took it. I caught a couple over the middle … Guys were sagging off, sometimes they play regular Cover 2. It's all about reading coverages on the run and making plays."

A receiving corps that struggled to simply catch the ball, much less make plays, in 2012 went through a dramatic transformation when Cook took control. Cook will enter 2014 as one of the Big Ten's top quarterbacks after recording his first two career 300-yard passing performances in the league title game and the Rose Bowl.

Dual threat Damion Terry likely will enter the mix in some form in 2014. Perhaps MSU incorporates a package of plays for Terry, who redshirted this season after nearly playing in September.

It will be important to build depth behind Langford, a solid back but one who could platoon with a guy like Delton Williams, if Williams remains on offense.

MSU loses three fifth-year seniors along the offensive line, including co-captain Blake Treadwell, but the line subtly took a major step in 2013. This had been the unit holding back MSU from reaching levels like Wisconsin, Iowa and others had. The line seemed to turn a corner and can build behind players like Travis Jackson, Jack Allen and Jack Conklin, a redshirt freshman who started the final 10 games at left tackle.

The defense loses much more -- six starters, including standouts like Bullough, All-America cornerback Darqueze Dennard, linebacker Denicos Allen and safety Isaiah Lewis. MSU certainly can reload but might not be quite as elite as this year's unit.

The Spartans likely will lean more on their offense in 2014. And they should.
LOS ANGELES -- Michigan State's defense is preparing vigorously for Stanford's offense as well as for life without its leader, middle linebacker Max Bullough.

Despite Bullough's shocking suspension, the standards haven't changed for the "Spartan Dawgs," who, as linebacker Denicos Allen noted Sunday, want to show everyone why they're the nation's No. 1 defense.

[+] EnlargeMax Bullough
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsHow will Michigan State's defense adjust without Max Bullough?
But before the Rose Bowl Game presented by VIZIO, MSU's defenders might want to set aside some time to examine Stanford's defense, specifically the way the unit adjusted without one of its best players. The Cardinal lost defensive end Ben Gardner to a season-ending torn pectoral muscle in late October.

Like Bullough, Gardner is a captain and one of the defense's top performers, racking up 4.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss and eight quarterback hits, the most on the team at the time. He's so good that he earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors despite missing Stanford's final five games.

Twelve days after Gardner's injury, Stanford held Oregon's dynamic offense scoreless for three quarters in a 26-20 win. The Cardinal surrendered just 62 rush yards and 312 total yards and recorded three sacks.

Stanford's defensive statistics without Gardner weren't dramatically different than they were with Gardner. The Cardinal allowed less than 75 rush yards in four of the final five games and finished with an outstanding effort against Arizona State's explosive offense in the Pac-12 championship. Arizona State had just 14 points and 311 yards, well below its season averages (41.0 ppg, 460.8 ypg).

"You feel for your teammates, but at the same time, you have to keep your vision on what the team goal is," Stanford linebacker Shayne Skov said. "You recognize that, unfortunately, somebody is gone, is no longer an active participant, but you have to keep moving forward.

"Whenever you lose someone as talented and as important a leader and integrated into your team, as I'm sure Max was and Ben [are], you have to find ways to, not replace them, but work and make an adaptation."

The circumstances of the losses are different -- Gardner was injured and remains with his teammates for the Rose Bowl; Bullough was suspended right before the team left for California and will not attend the game. But the realities are the same: There's shock and disappointment, and then there's another tough game to play.

"I kept a coldblooded approach," Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy said, "and kept moving forward and knew there were still games to be played and work to be done. Then, at the senior banquet, [Gardner] spoke and got everyone choked up a little bit and then it was like, oh man.

"Other than that, I kept moving forward."

Stanford benefited from replacing Garnder with Henry Anderson, a senior who had earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors in 2012. Anderson suffered a knee injury in September but returned for the Oregon showdown, Stanford's first game without Gardner.

Michigan State's Kyler Elsworth isn't as decorated as Anderson, but the fifth-year senior who could start in Bullough's place brings experience and familiarity to the role. He's not Bullough in terms of system knowledge and communication -- no one is -- but he understands the scheme and the personnel around him.

"We've won because of chemistry here," Spartans coach Mark Dantonio said Sunday. "There's an opportunity for somebody else to lead."

Elsworth, primarily a special-teams player during his career, embraces that opportunity "ten-fold."

"[Stanford] lost a player, and that's an adverse situation, that's something you've got to overcome," Elsworth said. "Our team has been doing that for a while now."

He mentioned safety RJ Williamson stepping in for safety Isaiah Lewis because of injury and a targeting ejection against Northwestern, and the way the coaching staff handled Dantonio's health-related absence during the 2010 season.

"There's countless times where our team has rallied around everybody," Elsworth said, "stepped up and came into the game with the mind-set that, 'Hey, no matter what is thrown at us, we can handle it.'

"This is no different. It's another curveball. Guys have stepped up their leadership, I'm stepping up my leadership, and we're very prepared for this game."

INDIANAPOLIS -- How does a good team become a championship team? It starts with a message from the head coach to the defensive coordinator.

"We need you down here," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio told Pat Narduzzi.

Narduzzi, the Spartans' defensive coordinator, spends the majority of games in the coaches' booth before joining the team on the sideline for the closing minutes. But after Ohio State scored four times on six possessions to take a 24-17 lead in Saturday night's Big Ten championship game, Dantonio needed his top assistant with the unit, pronto.

Quarterback Braxton Miller and the Buckeyes were piling up yards against the nation's top-ranked defense. Ohio State appeared unstoppable, wiping out a 17-0 deficit and building the narrative of a team bound for the national championship.

Instead, Michigan State changed the script. The Spartans were the ones who finished, the ones who took that final step from good to elite, the ones who handed Urban Meyer his first loss at Ohio State. The ones who, as Dantonio had proclaimed at the team banquet following a disappointing 2012 season, became The Ones.

A 34-24 win secured Michigan State's first outright Big Ten title and its first trip to the Rose Bowl since the 1987 season.

"We just made history today," senior safety Isaiah Lewis said on the field afterward. "I never thought in a million years that I'd be a part of something like this. We finally did it.

[+] EnlargeMark Meyers, Lawrence Thomas, Trevon Pendleton
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesMichigan State celebrated its return to the Rose Bowl after creating a "lifetime moment" Saturday.
"This is a lifetime experience."

The title game felt like a lifetime with several plot twists. Michigan State dominated the first 20 minutes, and Ohio State dominated the middle 20 minutes.

When Narduzzi made his way to the sideline with about four minutes left in the third quarter, linebacker Denicos Allen did a double-take.

"I'm like, 'Oh, man, it's getting real. We've gotta step up,'" Allen said.

The Spartan Dawgs finally got a stop, stuffing Miller on third-and-4. After Michigan State reclaimed the lead on a beautifully designed Connor Cook touchdown pass to tight end Josiah Price, the defense recorded a three-and-out.

But how long could Michigan State keep the nation's No. 3 scoring offense at bay? When Ohio State partially blocked a punt and took possession at the Michigan State 47, a score seemed inevitable. Three plays later, the Buckeyes faced fourth-and-2.

"G Hot Cyclone Gun," Narduzzi said of the play he called. "We had a timeout, and I switched the call right at the last second. It was Denicos coming off of one side, and Taiwan Jones coming off the other edge. I figured whichever [way] they came, at least we had two great linebackers coming off the edge."

Meyer sent Miller to the short side, and Allen brought him down shy of the marker. Michigan State allowed just 25 yards in the fourth quarter to a Buckeyes team that consistently had eroded its opponents with Miller's shiftiness and Carlos Hyde's power.

"Teams wear down when they play us," Spartans linebacker Max Bullough said. "Shoot, we practice faster and harder than a lot of stuff out here today, not in terms of hitting, but speed between plays."

Michigan State's course correction on defense helped secure the win, but so did an offense that completed an incredible turnaround after becoming a national punch line in September. Cook, the quarterback who wondered if the coaches had lost faith in him following the team's Sept. 21 loss at Notre Dame, claimed title-game MVP honors after passing for 304 yards and three touchdowns.

Cook consistently made plays on the move, spreading the ball to eight different receivers, as Ohio State bottled up the run before giving way late.

"I learned to never give up, to keep pushing no matter what the circumstances are," Cook said. "Score, situation, whatever stage you're on. I really didn't learn anything about our team, because this is the way we've been all year."

Perhaps the rest of us are learning that Michigan State is the next force in the Big Ten. Dantonio has guided the Spartans to 11 or more wins in three of the past four seasons. Michigan State has dominated Michigan under his watch and tormented Wisconsin, as well.

But a championship had been fleeting until Saturday night.

"My dad used to always say, 'Complete your circles,'" Dantonio said, referring to his father, Justin, who passed away days before the 2011 season. "I thought we did that. I never get too excited. I don't ever get too down. I live for my players.

"They made a lifetime moment tonight for all of us."

When it ended, players scrambled for roses to place between their teeth. As they've done after every win this season, they danced to rap songs in the locker room.

"We're doing things that haven't been done here in a while," safety Kurtis Drummond said. "We're trying to go down as never forgotten."

That much is certain. They'll go down as the group that took the Green and White back to Pasadena.
There's only one game on tap this week, but it's a very big one. Let's take a look at five things to watch in Saturday night's Big Ten championship game between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 10 Michigan State:

1. Something's gotta give: The nation's No. 1 defense in Michigan State goes up against the nation's No. 3 scoring offense in Ohio State. But has either unit really been tested? The Spartan Dawgs have been pretty special, but they've yet to face an offense ranked in the top 50 in yards. Ohio State's attack also looks the part, and the Buckeyes have faced two top-10 defenses (Wisconsin, Iowa), but no others in the top 35. Behind running back Carlos Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes lead the nation in yards per rush (7.1) and runs of 10 yards or longer (130). Michigan State leads the nation in fewest rush yards allowed (64.4 per game), fewest yards per rush (2.2) and fewest rushes of 10 or more yards (19). Who will gain the edge at the line of scrimmage?

[+] EnlargeBraxton Miller
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCan Braxton Miller and Ohio State's high-powered offense move the ball against Michigan State's stingy defense?
2. Buckeyes back on the big stage: It has been a while since Ohio State played a game of this significance on a stage as big as Lucas Oil Stadium. Miller has been brilliant the past two seasons, but he has yet to play in the postseason with a spot in the national championship on the line. Nebraska came into last year's title game tight and it showed in a disastrous performance against Wisconsin, which played loose and ran the Huskers up and down the field. Although no one expects Ohio State to lay an egg, Michigan State has been here before, and the Spartans are likely heading to the Rose Bowl no matter what happens in the game. MSU is the first top-15 team Ohio State will play since its win streak began under Meyer. Are Miller and the Buckeyes ready for the challenge?

3. Shutdown showcase: The title game features two of the nation's elite cornerbacks in Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard and Ohio State's Bradley Roby. Both have the ability to shut down a side of the field and make game-changing plays if quarterbacks dare to throw their way. Dennard, a likely first-round draft pick, will press Ohio State's receivers and try to eliminate the deep passing game. Roby is playing his best football and can be a difference-maker not only on defense but on special teams. Dennard has four interceptions and a forced fumble in an All-American-caliber senior season, while Roby has a pick-six, a fumble return for a touchdown, and a blocked punt and recovery for a touchdown.

4. Cook's big moment: Asked to make a brief opening statement on a media teleconference earlier this week, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said, "Hello, I'm Connor Cook." The Spartans sophomore will introduce himself to the nation Saturday night and can make a strong statement about himself and the MSU offense. No one pegged Cook to be in this position before the season, but he has taken control in Big Ten play, passing for 1,708 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions in eight league contests. Cook said that after Ohio State's defensive struggles, "you're licking your chops" about Saturday's game. He hasn't played in a game this big, but he doesn't lack confidence. It will be interesting to see how he fares.

5. Special attention: Michigan State's first appearance in the Big Ten title game came down to a special-teams play, and it didn't end well for the Spartans as Isaiah Lewis was flagged for running into Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman. Don't be surprised if the kicking game once again plays a big role in determining Saturday's winner. Both teams have excellent punters (MSU's Mike Sadler, OSU's Cameron Johnston), and Roby has been a special-teams star with three blocked punts and two recoveries for touchdowns. Kickers Michael Geiger (MSU) and Drew Basil (OSU) both have shown good accuracy on field goals with limited opportunities. Lewis' performance as he returns home to Indianapolis also is worth monitoring.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- It doesn’t take much to get Pat Narduzzi fired up. But if you really want to get him going, ask about this year’s Notre Dame game.

In September, the Irish took advantage of four pass-interference penalties and a defensive-holding call to hand Michigan State its only loss of the season. Asked during a recent visit from ESPN.com whether that game prompted any changes to his aggressive style, the Spartans’ defensive coordinator loaded film of the questionable calls onto his computer and grew more animated as the plays unfolded on the screen.

[+] EnlargePat Narduzzi
AP Photo/Al GoldisThe defense run by Pat Narduzzi seems simple but the complexities are beneath the surface.
“We didn’t make any adjustments,” he said. “I think the officials had to make adjustments. Just because guys can’t get open doesn’t mean it’s on us.

“After that game, I continued to say to our guys, ‘Hey, that’s what we do, and that’s how we do it. We’re not going to change.’”

Why would Narduzzi change a thing? Michigan State leads the nation in total defense and rushing yards allowed and is No. 4 in the FBS in scoring defense, giving up just over 11 points per game. The Spartans are understandably confident in their way of doing things heading into Saturday's Big Ten title game against Ohio State.

“We’re going to play our game of football,” senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard said. “We’re going to make those guys play our game.”

Continuity is a core belief for Narduzzi, who is in his seventh year at Michigan State and ninth straight season running a defense under Mark Dantonio. There’s no real secret to Narduzzi's system, which seems simple in its appearance but is complex beneath the surface.

Michigan State lines up in the same 4-3 base on almost every down except for third-and-long, when it will move to a three-man front. Against spread teams and passing attacks, the Spartans (unlike most defenses) will leave their three linebackers on the field instead of adding more defensive backs. They demand that their cornerbacks defend receivers one-on-one, freeing up safeties to help against the run.

“People know how we’re going to line up, for the most part,” Narduzzi said. “They now where our DBs and our LBs are going to line up. But that’s an advantage to us, too. You may know where we are, but so do we.”

Sounds pretty basic. And it is -- except for the zone blitzes that Narduzzi dials up out of that base package. A fellow Big Ten defensive coordinator called Narduzzi earlier this season, looking for tips to stop a common opponent. Narduzzi said the coordinator told him, “Man, that pressure you bring, I don’t know how you do it.”

That’s one reason why few other teams have copied Michigan State’s defense, despite its dominating statistics in recent years. Another reason is that not every coach is comfortable playing his corners on an island and blitzing, opening the defense up to potential big plays.

“People know what we’re doing, but they don’t know how we do it,” Narduzzi said. “We’re the only team in the country that does zone pressure like this. There’s a risk to it if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

That’s not a problem for these Spartans.

Since defenders mostly stay at the same spot on the field during almost every situation, they can master their particular craft. This year’s defense has certified experts at their jobs who have been in the system for years, such as Dennard, linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, safety Isaiah Lewis, and defensive end Marcus Rush. As Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman said Monday: “They’re like a fine wine. They get better with age.”

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
Matthew Holst/Getty ImagesCornerback Darqueze Dennard led Michigan State in passes defended (14), pass break-ups (10) and interceptions (4) this season.
“That’s been really the main part of our success,” Dennard said. “Just knowing each other and playing with each other for such a long time.”

The veteran players have taken ownership of the defense. Led by Bullough, they're able to make their own adjustments during a game when something isn't working, which is one reason why Michigan State hasn't allowed a second-half point in seven of its 12 games. Dennard had "No Fly Zone" T-shirts made for all the team's defensive backs.

Narduzzi and Dantonio both agree that this is the best defense they've had in their seven years at Michigan State. And this Ohio State team may be their toughest challenge in that time.

The Buckeyes are averaging 48.2 points and 321 rushing yards per game. While Narduzzi says some opponents this year have abandoned the running game against his defense, that won’t happen Saturday versus RB Carlos Hyde and QB Braxton Miller. Narduzzi is so concerned about stopping them that he has gone to full tackling in practice this week, something the Spartans didn’t do before last season’s 17-16 loss to the Buckeyes.

“For me to sit here and tell you it’s not our biggest test, I’d just be lying to you,” Bullough said. “But it’s something that in all reality, we look forward to.”

Different year, different teams. But last year, Michigan State did hold Ohio State to its lowest point total in two years under Urban Meyer, while Narduzzi still laments a fumble return for a touchdown by his defense that was blown dead by the officials.

“Obviously, it’s a bigger challenge in who you’re playing,” he said. “But we played them a year ago, so it’s not like we don’t know who we’re playing against. It’s an opportunity for us to go clean up something from a year ago.”

Narduzzi hopes the result is different this time around. But little else will change for him or the Spartans' defense.

College football coaches are the kings of qualifying statements, hesitant to let the evidence stand on its own without mentioning mistakes or the room for improvement.

[+] EnlargeEd Davis, Denzel Drone, Joel Heath
AP Photo/Al GoldisTalent and confidence have helped make Michigan State's defense elite this season.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi are no different. Which is what made their assessments following Saturday's 29-6 victory against Michigan so notable. The Spartans didn't shut out Michigan, but they smothered the Wolverines, who had the lowest net rushing total in team history (minus-48 yards), surrendered seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss and recorded only 168 total yards.

Of the key national stories in Week 10 -- Florida State's latest destruction of a top-10 foe, Nebraska's Hail Mary, the bad blood between Georgia and Florida -- arguably nothing resonated more than Michigan State's defense.

Narduzzi, who has orchestrated a top-10 defense for the past three seasons, was asked Saturday whether the unit -- ranked No. 1 nationally in total defense (210.2 ypg), rush defense (43.4 ppg) and pass efficiency defense (90.3 rating) and third in scoring defense (11.6 ppg) -- is exceeding his expectations.

"There's no question," he said. "You never think you're going to be that good."

Dantonio used the word dominant several times, noting that Michigan State hasn't allowed a touchdown in its past three games.

"In modern-day football, you just don't see that very often," he said.

Indeed, this is unique. Michigan State's defense has been among the nation's best the past two seasons, finishing in the top-10 in points allowed, yards allowed and rushing yards allowed. The self-titled Spartan Dawgs have gained respect both in the Big Ten and nationally.

They were near the top, but not quite at the top. A step separated MSU between great and elite, one many programs struggle to take.

In 2012, Michigan State created a blueprint for its defense, defining the Spartan Dawgs as: "An Elite Group United to Wreak Havoc, Instill Fear and Dominate the Country." The Spartans are reflecting their mantra this season.

How has it happened? Three factors have contributed.

1. An elite pass rusher and more overall pressure

Lost amid all the impressive numbers the Spartan defense put up last season is a rather ugly one: 20 sacks. Michigan State tied for 93rd nationally in sacks per game, and only Iowa (13) recorded fewer sacks than the Spartans among Big Ten teams.

MSU didn't get the season it expected out of end William Gholston, who had 4.5 sacks, and no other defensive lineman had more than two. But the pass rush picked up toward the end of the season, as the Spartans recorded 14 sacks in their final five contests.

It has continued this fall, as the Spartans already have 16 sacks after Saturday's surge. Sophomore Shilique Calhoun leads the Big Ten with 6.5 sacks, providing a fearsome presence on the edge. Linebacker Denicos Allen, an effective blitzer who finished second in the Big Ten in sacks with 11 in 2011, has recaptured his former form. Allen recorded two sacks against Michigan and earned national defensive player of the week honors, in addition to becoming the fourth Spartan this season to earn Big Ten defensive player of the week honors.

"That's what we want to do, attack 'em for four quarters," Narduzzi said.

Five MSU players have multiple sacks this season, including linemen Marcus Rush and Tyler Hoover. The swarm looks a lot more like 2011, when the Spartans led the Big Ten and finished seventh nationally in sacks.

"We're a pressure team, but we're getting better pass rush collectively from four guys," Dantonio said.

2. Takeaways (especially takeaways for points)

Michigan State stifled opposing offenses in 2012, but it didn't take away the ball at an exceptional rate. The Spartans had 20 takeaways, a more respectable number than their sacks total but one that still ranked in the middle of the Big Ten. Although seven different players had interceptions and nine different players recovered a fumble, none went on to score touchdowns. Michigan State's only defensive score came on a Gholston safety against Northwestern.

The opportunistic play is back this fall, as Michigan State already has 16 takeaways, including a Darqueze Dennard interception Saturday that essentially sealed the win. MSU leads the nation with five defensive touchdowns, three by Calhoun (two fumble, one interception).


Last year, statistically, we were very, very good, and not a lot of people scored on us. But we didn't get the turnovers that we had the previous year, and we didn't get the sacks. We're getting both those aspects more this year.

-- Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio

It's a lot like the 2011 defense, which had four pick-sixes.

"Last year, statistically, we were very, very good, and not a lot of people scored on us," Dantonio said. "But we didn't get the turnovers that we had the previous year, and we didn't get the sacks. We're getting both those aspects more this year.

"Those are the two things we worked on that we knew we needed to improve on. We're getting that production."

3. Embracing excellence

Michigan State's ascent from a great defense to an elite one isn't simply statistical. It's also cultural.

The Spartans aren't becoming a top-10 defense. They've already been one for several years. Seniors like linebacker Max Bullough, Allen, Dennard, Hoover, safety Isaiah Lewis and nose tackle Micajah Reynolds understand the expectations for the unit. Younger players like sophomore cornerback Trae Waynes, sophomore tackles Mark Scarpinato and Damon Knox, and sophomore linebacker Ed Davis, who had 2.5 sacks against Michigan, have been indoctrinated into the system.

"We've grown," Dantonio said. "We've been good for three years: 2010 we were very good as well, '11, '12. Now those guys who were freshmen in 2010 or 2011 redshirt freshman, 2012, they're now growing up and they're three years into the system, so they're able to adjust. We've got a good pass rush, we're not afraid to pressure, we've got a good scheme, but it's the players who make plays."

The Spartans have playmakers in all three units. When Dantonio looks at the defense as currently constructed, he wouldn't trade any of his pieces.

"We've got a certain amount of talent out there," Dantonio said, "but when you tack on confidence to that talent level, and the belief in the system, and the belief in each other, great things are possible."

Elite things, too. That's what Michigan State's defense has become in 2013.


EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The debate about Ohio State hasn't been where the Buckeyes will spend their postseason, but when.

For months, Ohio State has been pegged for Pasadena, Calif. Its dominant performances in recent weeks, combined with what seems to be a weak league, only validate the belief. The only drama is whether Urban Meyer's crew will be there Jan. 1 for the 100th Rose Bowl Game or Jan. 6 for a game with greater significance, the BCS national championship.

The Buckeyes' path to Pasadena, with Wisconsin in the rear-view mirror, has seemed as wide and unobstructed as a tarmac in the dead of night. A Big Ten title was a formality.

But there is something standing in Ohio State's way. A big, green wall -- a green monster, if you will.

Michigan State is on a collision course with Ohio State and likely will face the Buckeyes on Dec. 7 at the Big Ten championship game. And as Michigan found out Saturday afternoon, colliding with the Spartans and their defense isn't pretty.

Ohio State might be the Big Ten's best team, but the league's best unit belongs to Michigan State, which smashed Michigan 29-6 at Spartan Stadium.

[+] EnlargeDevin Gardner, Denicos Allen
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesThe Spartans harassed Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner all game, sacking him seven times.
"That's a complete game for us," MSU senior linebacker Max Bullough said.

"A dominant day by our defense," coach Mark Dantonio added.

Complete is holding Michigan to the lowest net rushing total (minus-48) in team history. Dominant is holding Michigan to its lowest points total in the series since a 34-0 shutout in 1967. Complete is recording seven sacks, 11 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and an interception. Dominant is allowing 2.8 yards per play, 12 first downs and 168 total yards.

Michigan came into the game averaging 6.4 yards per play, 19.8 first downs and 446.4 yards, not to mention 42.4 points.

"You never think you're going to be that good," coordinator Pat Narduzzi said.

Michigan talked during the week about being bullied in its last trip here, when Michigan State racked up six personal fouls in a 28-14 victory. The Spartans were much more composed Saturday, committing only one personal foul, on special teams in the closing seconds.

But they pushed around Michigan all afternoon.

"We basically lived in the backfield," cornerback Darqueze Dennard said.

Linebackers Denicos Allen and Ed Davis, filling in for Jairus Jones in the nickel package, combined for 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Defensive end Shilique Calhoun did his best Bane impression and tormented Wolverines quarterback Devin Gardner, recording 2.5 sacks and three tackles for loss.

Calhoun, who now leads the Big Ten with 6.5 sacks, gives Michigan State the elite pass rusher it has lacked the past few seasons.

"Four-man pressure, it helps you out when you've got a guy who can make something happen," Narduzzi said. "Julian Peterson's in the locker room afterward, and that's the kind of guy [Calhoun] looks like. He's a great player."

The defense's signature stretch in a signature performance came late in the third quarter, when Michigan found a sliver of hope following a Raymon Taylor interception return to the Spartans 41-yard line.

First down: Calhoun and safety Isaiah Lewis drop Gardner for a 5-yard loss.

Second down: Allen sacks Gardner.

Third down: Allen and Davis sack Gardner.

Punt. Ballgame.

Narduzzi noted that sudden-change plays, such as the interception, can spark panic. His defense relishes them.

"They think they have the advantage; they think they're going to score," Bullough said. "It's a momentum change for them. So if we go out there and stuff them, and we keep 'em out of even scoring a field goal, it's double: It takes away theirs and it gives us momentum.

"It's an opportunity for us to change the game."

Michigan State has changed the game in the Big Ten. The Spartans don't have the Legends division title locked up, as Nebraska is just a game back and Minnesota isn't out of it. But if Michigan beats Nebraska in Ann Arbor next week, when the Spartans are off, MSU will be two games clear of everyone else in the division with three to play.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State, Michigan
AP Photo/Al GoldisMichigan State has celebrated after five of its last six meetings with rival Michigan.
It will be a surprise not to see the Spartans in Indianapolis for the second time in three seasons, especially with the emergence of quarterback Connor Cook and a serviceable offense to complement the defense.

Ohio State-Michigan State would be good for the Big Ten, which desperately needs some sizzle in its signature event.

The Buckeyes offense is on fire behind quarterback Braxton Miller and a bruising offensive line. The Spartans defense is surging behind Calhoun, Allen, Bullough, Dennard and others.

"You want a shot at the best," Bullough said. "If you want to be considered the best, you've got to perform and play against the best in those moments, and Ohio State seems to be the team that's doing that.

"If we have that opportunity, we'll take it head on."

One team unlikely to appear in Indy is Michigan, which, by its own championship-or-bust standards, seems headed for another failed season. The Wolverines' young offensive line was no match for Michigan State, and Gardner's season of extremes took another dip.

Michigan still gets a shot at Ohio State, but its inability to beat Michigan State, which has won five of the teams' past six meetings, likely will extend its Big Ten title drought to a staggering nine seasons.

"They've got a good football team," Narduzzi said, "but we've got a great football team."

Chants of "little sister" rained down in the closing minutes, a reference to the "little brother" comments made by Michigan running back Fitzgerald Toussaint during the week. But Michigan State has moved beyond the name-calling.

"Call us little brother, big brother," Allen said, "but when it's on the field, we show who's the big brother and who's the little brother."

Call Michigan State the biggest threat to Ohio State. Beating Michigan isn't new for the Spartans under Dantonio. Neither is winning the division.

There's one item left: a Rose Bowl appearance.

"We have confidence right now," Dantonio said. "As long as we handle success, we'll be just fine."

Dennard was asked afterward about a Gatorade-dumping attempt on Dantonio, but corrected the reporter, saying Narduzzi was the intended target.

"We're saving one for Coach D," he said. "Somewhere in Cali."

Are the Buckeyes listening? They should be.
Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard made his 29th career start last Saturday against Youngstown State. Safety Isaiah Lewis missed the game with injury but still has 30 starts under his belt, tied for the most of any Spartan.

But when it comes to The Bus, Dennard and Lewis are glorified special teamers, barely hanging onto roster spots. See, The Bus doesn't care about career starts. All of its regular riders have those. You need to bring something more: All-Big Ten honors, All-America honors, a national award or two. Helping your team to a Big Ten championship -- and possibly more -- moves you up a few rows.

What is this magic bus? Let's let Pete Townshend, er, Mark Dantonio explain.

[+] EnlargeDarqueze Dennard
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsCB Darqueze Dennard, like many other MSU players, wasn't considered an elite prospect coming out of high school but has developed into a top performer.
"I tell them I've been a secondary coach all my life, for 30 years," Dantonio told ESPN.com in August. "I kid them that we only travel 10 on my bus, on the All-Coach Dantonio secondary team. And Isaiah and Queze, they're both on the bus.

"So they're traveling, they're playing on special teams, but they've got to become a starter this year."

It won't be easy, looking at the group sitting at the front of The Bus.

There's Mike Doss, the former Ohio State safety who Dantonio coached in Columbus, a three-time first-team All-Big Ten selection and a unanimous consensus All-American in 2002, when the Buckeyes won the national title. Next to Doss is former Buckeyes teammate Chris Gamble, a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2002 who also contributed on special teams and offense before becoming a first-round NFL draft pick. Other D-Bus starters include Kwamie Lassiter, who Dantonio coached at Kansas; and safeties Aric Morris and Renaldo Hill, who Dantonio mentored at Michigan State during his first go-round as an assistant for Nick Saban.

"It's very humbling," Dennard said. "Me and Isaiah, we both think we are very blessed to be mentioned with those guys. Those are great players he always mentions on his bus. It’s a great thing to even be talked about at the same time. We have to have a mindset how it is, we have to be the top of the top of the top of the bus."

It's a lofty goal, but one that Dennard could reach as a senior. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches last year after recording 52 tackles, three interceptions and seven pass breakups for one of the nation's best defenses. More impressive, he played most of the season with a sports hernia, likely suffered in September. Dennard underwent surgery after the season.

"He could have had his intestines hanging out, and he wouldn't have done anything about it," defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said. "The kid's that tough."

Dennard entered the fall on the watch lists for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation's top defensive back, as well as the Bednarik and Nagurski awards, which go to the top defensive player. The 5-11, 197-pound senior should push Ohio State's Bradley Roby for the Big Ten's Tatum-Woodson Defensive Back of the Year award.

He's also a potential high pick in next April's NFL draft.

"He's probably the best corner we've coached," Narduzzi said this spring. "And he's a fun kid to coach."

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Lewis
Mike Carter/USA TODAY SportsIsaiah Lewis ties up South Florida running back Marcus Shaw.
Lewis also is on the Thorpe Award watch list after earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors as a junior. He has recorded 154 tackles, six interceptions and nine pass breakups the past two seasons as Michigan State has blossomed as a top 10 defense.

Dantonio doesn't bring up names like Doss and Gamble with his current players, but he lets them know where they stand.

"For Coach Dantonio to tell you you're one of the best guys he has ever seen play this position, one of the best guys he has ever coached at this position, it means a lot, man," Lewis said. "You want to be the best and want to do better."

Dennard knows firsthand how preseason praise, whether it stems from his coaches or the outside, means nothing unless he can back it up on the field. Last year, he played opposite cornerback Johnny Adams, who entered the season projected as a potential first-round pick -- Mel Kiper had Adams at No. 14 on his initial Big Board -- but didn't take his game to the next level. Adams earned All-Big Ten honors but missed Michigan State's bowl game with an injury, wasn't drafted and twice was waived by NFL teams last month before making the Buffalo Bills' roster.

"Knowing all the things he did throughout his career here, it kind of gets you down," Dennard said. "But at the same time, I too much don’t think about it. … It's definitely motivation. Just going in every day, from my standpoint you can't be complacent with everything. Preseason is preseason."

Lewis is expected to join Dennard this week when Michigan State faces its first major test of the season on the road against No. 23 Notre Dame. Although the Spartans finally looked like a functional offense last Saturday against Youngstown State, they'll lean on their defense against an Irish team averaging 236 pass yards a game and deep threats T.J. Jones, DaVaris Daniels and Chris Brown.

Big plays have been a theme early this season for the "Spartan Dawgs," who already have eight takeaways, tied for sixth most nationally and nearly half of their total (20) from all of 2012. Dennard and Lewis look to continue to trend in South Bend.

"We have to make more plays," Dennard said. "We have to make more interceptions for touchdowns and have to do more exciting things, like forcing fumbles or scoring touchdowns or doing whatever, big hits or whatever to make Coach D happy."

If they do, they'll earn permanent spots on the bus, seated toward the front.

" After this year, are they going to belong with the likes of Mike Doss, Chris Gamble, Kwamie Lassiter, Aric Morris, Renaldo Hill?" Dantonio said. "Those guys who are starting in front of them right now, guys that we've coached, they're very, very good players. [Denard and Lewis] are making their way onto the field, onto that team."

Predictions: Big Ten Week 3

September, 13, 2012
9/13/12
9:00
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Redemption Saturday is nearly upon us. That certainly goes for the Big Ten, which went 6-6 in a miserable Week 2, and for the Big Ten bloggers, who didn't fare much better (Rittenberg went 8-4; Bennett went 7-5).

This week's slate certainly looks a lot more manageable for the Big Ten, and several teams -- looking at you, Wisconsin, Iowa and Penn State -- definitely need a W.

It's prediction time ...

WESTERN MICHIGAN at MINNESOTA

Brian Bennett: The Gophers improve to 3-0 -- barely. Jordan Wettstein nails his second game winner of the young season after MarQueis Gray leads the team down the field in the final two minutes. Minnesota overcomes three turnovers to escape at home. ... Minnesota 27, Western Michigan 24

Adam Rittenberg: Broncos quarterback Alex Carder provides the first real test for Minnesota, which gives up two early touchdowns before settling down. It'll be a close one, but Gray and the run game do enough as Minnesota goes to 3-0. ... Minnesota 30, Western Michigan 24

ARKANSAS STATE at NEBRASKA

Adam Rittenberg: It'll take more than a week for Nebraska to fix its defensive woes against fast-paced, spread-ish offenses. Gus Malzahn's team makes some plays, but Arkansas State can't stop anyone, and both Taylor Martinez and Ameer Abdullah rush for more than 100 yards. ... Nebraska 41, Arkansas State 21

Brian Bennett: I think the Huskers come out angry after the loss to UCLA and take it out on Malzahn's team. The defense gives up some big plays but keeps Arkansas State under 400 total yards. Martinez has four touchdowns, including two scoring tosses to Kenny Bell. ... Nebraska 45, Arkansas State 24

CALIFORNIA at No. 12 OHIO STATE

Brian Bennett: No rest this week for Braxton Miller, but he'll enjoy running and passing against Cal's shaky defense. The Golden Bears hang around for a while, but two more picks by an opportunistic Buckeyes defense kills any upset thoughts ... Ohio State 35, Cal 21

Adam Rittenberg: I grew up in Berkeley going to Bears games, and it's sad to say the Cal program is in free fall under coach Jeff Tedford. Ohio State has some initial trouble figuring out the Cal defense, but Miller gets going eventually and accounts for three touchdowns. Cornerback Bradley Roby records his first interception of the season as Ohio State pulls away in the third quarter. ... Ohio State 31, Cal 17

CHARLESTON SOUTHERN at ILLINOIS

Adam Rittenberg: We ranked this as the worst Big Ten nonconference game, and it won't disappoint (not sure if that's possible). Josh Ferguson eclipses 200 rushing yards, and at least two Illinois quarterbacks fire touchdown passes as the Illini roll. ... Illinois 45, Charleston Southern 3

Brian Bennett: I'd be more interested in watching the Illini stage an intrasquad scrimmage than this yawner. Doesn't matter if Nathan Scheelhaase or a line cook from Nathan's Famous starts at quarterback. Illinois will win in a rout, and we won't learn a thing. ... Illinois 49, Charleston Southern 0

EASTERN MICHIGAN at PURDUE

Adam Rittenberg: Eastern Michigan looks like the perfect opponent for Purdue's offense to recharge against. Akeem Shavers rushes for 150 yards and three scores against the nation's No. 118 rush defense, and Caleb TerBush fires two touchdown passes. ... Purdue 38, Eastern Michigan 14

Brian Bennett: The Boilers, still smarting from the Notre Dame loss and the Robert Marve injury news, get off to a slow start. But their defense and running game take over and wear down Eastern Michigan. Shavers runs for 100 yards and two scores. ... Purdue 42, Eastern Michigan 17

BOSTON COLLEGE at NORTHWESTERN

Brian Bennett: I love the way the Northwestern defense stepped up against Vandy, and Venric Mark is becoming a star. But ... history tells us the Cats usually slip up after good things happen. So I'm picking the mild upset here, with Chase Rettig throwing the winning score late in the fourth quarter. ... BC 31, Northwestern 28

Adam Rittenberg: Toughest game of the week to predict. (I haven't been right on Northwestern yet.) I like Pat Fitzgerald's approach to ward off a letdown, and while Boston College jumps ahead early and attacks Northwestern's secondary more, I don't think the Eagles can slow down Mark and the run game for four quarters. Expect another Trevor Siemian-led rally as Northwestern improves to 3-0. ... Northwestern 28, Boston College 27

MASSACHUSETTS at No. 17 MICHIGAN

Adam Rittenberg: This isn't the same UMass team that nearly stunned Michigan in the Big House in 2010. The Minutemen are awful. Fitz Toussaint gets back in the groove with three rushing touchdowns, and Denard Robinson puts up more sick stats in a total laugher. ... Michigan 65, UMass 0

Brian Bennett: If Brady Hoke wanted Robinson to get 700 yards in this game, he could. Instead, Robinson puts up 100 yards rushing and three total touchdowns before sitting in the third quarter, while Toussaint finally gets going against what is likely the nation's worst FBS team. ... Michigan 55, UMass 3

NAVY at PENN STATE

Brian Bennett: OK, I incorrectly picked the Nittany Lions to win the first two weeks (although they won everywhere but the scoreboard at Virginia). I'm guaranteeing that Penn State gets off the schneid against the Midshipmen. The Lions' problems on defense have revolved around stopping the pass, which won't be an issue against the option. Matt McGloin helps PSU find the end zone three times. ... Penn State 24, Navy 14

Adam Rittenberg: Penn State has played well enough to win, and the Lions finally get over the hump this week. I like the matchup for Penn State's defense, which doesn't have to worry too much about the pass. McGloin fires two touchdown passes, and Sam Ficken connects on a 50-yarder as Penn State finally celebrates. ... Penn State 17, Navy 13

NORTHERN IOWA at IOWA

Adam Rittenberg: I've wanted to pick against Iowa twice now and hesitated, getting burned last week. This time, I'm going against the Hawkeyes, even though the opponent is Northern Iowa. The FCS Panthers have nothing to lose, while Iowa continues to play tight on offense. UNI nearly beat a good Iowa team in 2009. It beats a bad one this year. ... Northern Iowa 17, Iowa 16

Brian Bennett: The Hawkeyes fail to score a touchdown yet again, but get by on four Mike Meyer field goals. Iowa blocks a three-point try by the Panthers on the final play to survive. ... Iowa 12, Northern Iowa 9

BALL STATE at INDIANA

Brian Bennett: The 2-0 start for Indiana is a nice story, but the schedule hasn't been very good. Ball State is a major step up, and with Cameron Coffman getting his first start at quarterback, this is a dangerous assignment for the young Hoosiers. They lead early but can't control the Cardinals' running game in the fourth quarter. ... Ball State 35, Indiana 28

Adam Rittenberg: I really think the Hoosiers are getting better, but I agree with you about the schedule. Ball State is a significant jump in competition, and while Coffman fires two touchdown passes, he also fires two interceptions in his first start. The Cardinals rally to make it three straight against the Hoosiers. ... Ball State 31, Indiana 30

No. 20 NOTRE DAME at No. 10 MICHIGAN STATE

Adam Rittenberg: Get ready for another defensive struggle at Spartan Stadium. Michigan State's defense has been as advertised, and coordinator Pat Narduzzi told me this week that the unit is nowhere near its potential. Isaiah Lewis and the Spartans make it a rough night for Notre Dame's quarterbacks, and Le'Veon Bell rushes for two scores as MSU improves to 3-0. ... Michigan State 17, Notre Dame 10

Brian Bennett: This one will come down to defense, as Michigan State hasn't allowed an offensive touchdown all year and the Irish front seven will give Andrew Maxwell some problems. The Spartans' D is just better, however, and creates one score off a turnover. Bell does the rest with two touchdowns. ... Michigan State 21, Notre Dame 17

UTAH STATE at WISCONSIN

Brian Bennett: No Badgers assistant coaches will lose their jobs after the team gets back in the winning column. But it won't be easy against an Aggies team that just beat Utah. The Wisconsin offensive line looks a bit better, and Montee Ball runs for 125 yards and two scores. ... Wisconsin 23, Utah State 14

Adam Rittenberg: If Wisconsin's offensive linemen have any pride, they come out angry in this one. And a bunch of angry 300-pounders means bad things for the Aggies. The Badgers start quickly and get their swagger back, racking up 250 rush yards. ... Wisconsin 31, Utah State 17

SEASON RECORDS

Rittenberg: 18-6 (.750)

Bennett: 17-7 (.708)

Michigan State quarterback Andrew Maxwell had the luxury of being able to learn from a shaky performance that still resulted in a key win for his team.

Despite three interceptions and no touchdown strikes in his first career start last week against Boise State, Maxwell walked out of Spartan Stadium a winner -- with plenty of work ahead of him. He took advantage this week and delivered a much more polished performance Saturday as Michigan State crushed Central Michigan 41-7 on the road.

After a few hiccups in the first quarter, Maxwell came alive and finished the first half with more than 200 passing yards. He spread the ball around to his receivers, namely Bennie Fowler, who recorded his first 100-yard receiving performance. Michigan State's coaches also got more pass-catchers involved, namely Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett, who had a 48-yard reception in the third quarter that helped set up a touchdown. Maxwell finished the game 21-of-32 passing for 287 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. A solid performance.

Michigan State received typical play from its defense, the top unit in the Big Ten, which recorded a pair of interceptions (Isaiah Lewis and Johnny Adams) and held Central Michigan to 14 first downs and 238 total yards. If not for a late pick-six by the Chippewas, the Spartans would have recorded the shutout.

Junior running back Le'Veon Bell made a couple of trips to the end zone, and backup Larry Caper had a nice day (9 carries, 66 yards).

But this game was all about Maxwell and getting him more on track before next week's showdown against Notre Dame in Spartan Stadium. Most agree Michigan State looks like a championship team on defense and boasts a major weapon in Bell. But if the quarterback situation isn't settled and the Spartans don't have a threat in the passing game, they'll have a tough time getting to Pasadena. Maxwell took a step Saturday. He'll have to take another as the competition level goes way up again with the Irish coming to town.
The Big Ten doesn't announce an official preseason all-conference team. But that doesn't mean we can't.

Here are our picks for the 2012 preseason All-Big Ten team:

Offense

QB: Denard Robinson, Michigan
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
WR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
TE: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
OT: Taylor Lewan, Michigan
OT: Ricky Wagner, Wisconsin
OG: Spencer Long, Nebraska
OG: Chris McDonald, Michigan State
C: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin

Defense

DE: John Simon, Ohio State
DE: William Gholston, Michigan State
DT: Kawann Short, Purdue
DT: Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
LB: Gerald Hodges, Penn State
LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin
LB: Jonathan Brown, Illinois
CB: Johnny Adams, Michigan State
CB: Ricardo Allen, Purdue
S: Isaiah Lewis, Michigan State
S: Jordan Kovacs, Michigan

Specialists

K/P: Brett Maher, Nebraska
KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue
PR: Abbrederis

Thoughts: The first thing that likely jumps out at you is that we have three running backs and just one receiver on our first-team offense. No, we haven't forgotten the rules of football. It's just that we continue to feel the wide receiver crop is weak this season, and no great candidates for the second spot leap out at us. Perhaps Keenan Davis of Iowa or one of Northwestern's many receivers will have a great season, but no one has proved anything on a consistent basis. We'd rather have Bell -- who we believe is primed for a huge year -- on the team than any of the receiver candidates. Plus, isn't running the ball what Big Ten football is all about? ... Some of the toughest omissions came at linebacker, where Michigan State's duo of Denicos Allen and Max Bullough and Wisconsin's Mike Taylor were among those left out. At least we know we'd have an outstanding second-team unit at that position. ... Fiedorowicz is a bit of a projection pick, but we love the way he finished last season and how he fits into Greg Davis' new scheme. You certainly could make a strong case for Wisconsin's Jacob Pedersen or Ohio State's Jake Stoneburner there as well. ... Some of these players won't live up to expectations, and others will explode on the scene this fall. But for now, we'd feel pretty good about throwing this team on the field.
It was one of the defining plays of Michigan State's season, and the Big Ten year as a whole.

Michigan had the ball on the Spartans' 9-yard line late in the fourth quarter, trailing by a touchdown and needing a yard on fourth down. Denard Robinson faked a handoff, dropped back -- and was immediately wrapped up and brought to the ground by Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Adams
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireJohnny Adams should help make Michigan State tough to beat through the air in 2012.
If Robinson and the Wolverines were surprised, they shouldn't have been. Few teams successfully employ the corner blitz more than the Spartans, and few players are better at pulling it off than Adams.

"It's a lot of fun," Adams said. "A lot of corners don't really get to blitz, but in our system we get to do some different things and play a little free. I just thank my defensive coordinator for letting me come off the edge a couple times."

Pat Narduzzi and the rest of the Spartans are glad they still have Adams. The two-time All-Big Ten honoree explored his NFL draft options in the offseason, but decided to return for his senior year in East Lansing. He has a chance to be "a premier cornerback," head coach Mark Dantonio says, and should enter the year as the best in the Big Ten.

Adams wasn't a must-have type recruit out of high school in Akron. He was rated by most as a three-star prospect, and he had offers from schools like Illinois, Indiana and Syracuse. When Michigan State's coaches went to scout one of his games in person, Adams' team had the then-160-pounder lined up at defensive end, trying to shed some 250-pound offensive tackles.

"We wondered, what the heck are we getting ourselves into?" says Narduzzi, the Spartans' defensive coordinator.

But Adams fit the Michigan State style right away, starting a couple of games as a true freshman in 2008 before needing a medical redshirt for a shoulder injury the following year. The Spartans like their cornerbacks to mix things up, not just cover receivers, and that's something Adams enjoys.

"He plays with an attitude," Narduzzi said. "You've got to have that when you're pressing up on people just about every down."

Cornerbacks aren't always known as the world's best tacklers. But when Adams comes flying in off the edge on a blitz, quarterbacks have to be on their guard.

"Johnny's only about 170-something pounds, but he hits like a linebacker," safety Isaiah Lewis said. "He's not a punk. He'll go out there and hit anybody."

Adams had 51 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions and six passes defended last season, showing his all-around game.

"I want to be able to come up and support the run as well as cover downfield," he said. "Just be that overall player."

Michigan State also wants more leadership out of him as the most experienced player in the secondary, especially with safety Trenton Robinson moving on to the NFL. Adams isn't naturally vocal outside his clique, and doesn't always enjoy giving interviews, so it's a process. At a spring practice this month, he was given the privilege of addressing the team on the field before drills. Adams kept it short and sweet, using a Muhammad Ali quote to try and get his teammates fired up.

At least one early 2013 draft projection has Adams ranked as the top NFL cornerback prospect in the country.

"I definitely think I can be that level of player," he says.

Adams will be on every pro scout's radar this season. Opposing quarterbacks better know where he is at all times, too.
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan has garnered a lot of positive attention this offseason thanks to its Sugar Bowl victory and success in attracting highly-ranked recruits to Ann Arbor.

Up the road in East Lansing, however, Michigan State shrugs off talk about the Wolverines regaining their superpower status under Brady Hoke. The Spartans are confident of their own standing and future prospects.

"We're laying in the weeds," Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio says with a half smile. "We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?"

Truth is, the rest of the Big Ten had better be on high alert for these Spartans in 2012. There's a quiet sense of self-assurance around the team this spring, borne of recent success, coaching cohesion and a deep well of talent.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Andrew Weber/US Presswire"We're laying in the weeds," Mark Dantonio said with a half smile. "We've beat Michigan the last four years. So where's the threat?"
Dantonio's team has gone 22-5 over the past two seasons, winning a share of the Big Ten title in 2010 and claiming the first Legends Division championship a year ago. The program finally got over the postseason hump in January, beating Georgia in the Outback Bowl for the school's first bowl win since 2001.

It's the best two-year run by the Spartans in nearly half a century, and only six other FBS teams have won more games since the start of the 2010 season. Of course, one elusive goal remains: Michigan State's first trip to Pasadena since 1988. Rose Bowl logos are plastered all over the team's football facility, serving as a constant reminder.

Even with a small senior class and the losses of three-year starting quarterback Kirk Cousins, all-time leading receiver B.J. Cunningham and All-America defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, this year's team believes the Rose is within reach.

"Our goals keep climbing every year, and I think they're very attainable," new starting quarterback Andrew Maxwell said. "I feel like we have all the pieces in place."

That's a tribute to both the building job and the stability Dantonio has carefully constructed.

While other Big Ten staffs have undergone tumultuous turnover the past couple of years, the Spartans coaches have mostly stayed intact. Dantonio, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi and several key assistants are entering their ninth straight season together, dating back to their time at Cincinnati. The benefits of that constancy can really be seen on defense, where Dantonio and Narduzzi have been able to reinforce their philosophy year after year without changing terminology or schemes. The Spartans finished No. 6 nationally in total defense in 2011.

"That helps a lot," junior middle linebacker Max Bullough said. "So much of the game is mental, and having [the same coaches] allows you to just focus on getting better as a football player and not having to learn new things every year or two."

Dantonio said the continuity means that if he turns to, say, a redshirt sophomore, that player has received the same teaching in the same system for three years. And few teams in the Big Ten have redshirted as many players as Michigan State, which put only two of its 2011 signees on the field last season.

That patience, along with very few recruiting mistakes, has led to a situation that every other Big Team would envy: terrific depth, especially in the trenches. The Spartans have eight starters back on defense, plus Anthony Rashad White, who started the bowl game at nose tackle. The talk of the spring has been about young guys making a move behind the starters, like linebacker Darien Harris, defensive end Joel Heath and cornerback Trae Waynes -- all redshirt freshmen.

"When we go against the twos [the second string defense], I feel like those guys would start at a lot of places in the Big Ten," offensive tackle Dan France said. "We definitely have a lot of depth on both sides of the ball."

Defense has been a hallmark under Dantonio, but he may now have the deepest and best offensive line of his tenure. After a season of shuffling and injuries, that unit returns six players who have started, along with some promising newcomers. Ask Dantonio about either line, and he says what every coach would love to say about those positions: "We've got numbers."

Like every team in the spring, Michigan State has its questions, too. Maxwell is well-groomed to take over at quarterback after three years in the system, but he'll have to prove he's as unflappable under adversity as Cousins was. The receiver position is barren tract for experience, though there are plenty of athletes trying to emerge. And while the Spartans feel they can go seven- or eight-deep at defensive tackle, they have yet to discover someone there who can take over a game the way Worthy could when he was switched on.

"I didn't realize what a difference he made until he left," defensive end William Gholston said. "The first couple of practices I was like, 'Man, it's not the same.'"

Still, this is a team that's loaded at the most important positions and with a strong sense of its identity. Michigan's rise may be a fact; the Spartans don't plan on going away any time soon.

"People should be looking forward to Michigan State being one of the top teams every year," safety Isaiah Lewis said.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State's William Gholston is so large and seemingly so perfectly suited for defensive end that it's hard to believe he was a linebacker in high school or that he originally wanted to play that position in college.

That is, until Pat Narduzzi flips on the film.

The Spartans' defensive coordinator eagerly pulls up footage of Gholston lined up at linebacker during a recent spring practice. On the first play, the offense goes with a running play to the right side. Gholston, who'd begun the play on the far left side, uses his long strides to gobble up the distance and get in on the tackle.

Not bad for a 6-foot-7, 280-pounder. But the show is just getting started.

"Watch this one," Narduzzi says, switching to another practice play.

This time, the offense is in the I-formation, and the handoff goes to tailback Nick Hill on an isolation play up the middle. Gholston shoots through the gap untouched and rams into the fullback, pushing him backward into Hill, who spins around and falls down.

That's about the time you realize Gholston isn't like normal human beings. Though Narduzzi doesn't necessarily plan on using him at linebacker this year, he says that Gholston "can do whatever he wants" on a football field.

"I was feeling it that day," Gholston says of his recent turn at linebacker. "I told them if they ever need a backup Mike [linebacker], I may not be able to cover the slot [receivers] like I used to at 280, but I think I could check some tight ends."

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gholston and Aaron Murray
J. Meric/Getty ImagesMichigan State's William Gholston is looking to build off his two-sack performance in the Outback Bowl.
For now, Michigan State is quite happy to have Gholston stay at defensive end, where the junior has a chance to erupt as one of the most dominant forces in the Big Ten, if not the country. That became obvious in the Jan. 2 Outback Bowl against Georgia, when Gholston was nearly unstoppable in recording five tackles for loss and two sacks in the 33-30 overtime win.

His regular season was by no means subpar -- Gholston earned second-team All-Big Ten honors on a defense that finished in the top 5 nationally. Still, he said he went into that bowl game looking to "prove a point to everybody and myself."

The Detroit native is well aware of the immense recruiting hype that accompanied his arrival to East Lansing. He was ranked among the top prospects in the country by every major scouting service and chose the Spartans in a close call over Alabama.

Gholston played in 10 games as a true freshman before needing season-ending shoulder surgery, and he describes his first year of starting last season as "OK, but not as productive as it could have been." So he said he used the practices leading up to the Outback Bowl to focus on finally maximizing his full potential.

"I guess that game showed me what I could do if I put my mind to it," he said.

Penn State defensive tackle Devon Still similarly motivated himself for a huge 2011 Outback Bowl showing, and Still carried that over into last season for an All-America and Big Ten defensive player of the year campaign. Many now forecast Gholston to follow the same kind of upward trajectory and to take over leadership of the Michigan State defensive line with Jerel Worthy off to the NFL.

Gholston embraces such lofty projections.

"I feel like I can really do something this year," he said. "I feel a lot more comfortable, and I know the defensive schemes 100 percent. I also know that with the pressure of expectations and everybody expecting me to do well, it opens up stuff for the rest of my team."

Physical ability has never been an issue. Playing with proper technique has. With his power-forward height, Gholston has to constantly remind himself to get his pads low for leverage. He called his burst off the line of scrimmage last year "horrible," and he's been working on improving that this offseason.

"He'll get to the next level," Narduzzi said. "It's just a matter of how good his fundamentals will be when he gets there."

Still, Narduzzi says Gholston never hurts the defense even when he's having an off day because he's so big and strong. And Gholston is one of the few players who can elicit awestruck praise from his teammates.

"Man, that guy is incredible," safety Isaiah Lewis said. "We're on the same side, so I don't always see what he does. But when I do, I'm like, 'Wow, that dude's a ballplayer. He's going far.'"

"This guy is unreal," said right tackle Fou Fonoti, who has to block him in practice every day. "He's literally the best of the best. They don't get any bigger."

Linebackers don't come in Gholston's size, but Michigan State promised him he could try the position when he first got to campus as a freshman. The way head coach Mark Dantonio recalls it, Gholston -- who weighed 232 pounds at the time -- came up to him one day after a few practices and asked if it were all right to take a shot at defensive end during pass skeleton.

Dantonio could hardly suppress a smile. Gholston might be athletic enough to play anywhere, but he's most dangerous where he is now.

"William obviously can be very special," Dantonio said. "As scary as it sounds, he's getting better."
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- A funny thing happened to Michigan State on the way to Indianapolis last year.

The Spartans finished 11th in the Big Ten in rushing yet came within a running-into-the-punter penalty of potentially going to the Rose Bowl. Teams aren't supposed to win big in the Big Ten without a powerful running attack.

But Michigan State did things a different way last season, relying on a seasoned quarterback (Kirk Cousins) and two senior receivers (B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin) to make up for a subpar ground game. Mark Dantonio's team doesn't have the luxury of experience in the passing game in 2012, but the Spartans could lean on a more effective running game this season.

[+] EnlargeLe'Veon Bell
Reese Strickland/Getty ImagesRunning back Le'Veon Bell (6-foot-2, 242 pounds) is a load for defenders to take down.
"I definitely feel like that will happen," lead tailback Le'Veon Bell said.

That's more than just the usual spring optimism. The Spartans struggled to produce rushing yards early last season in large part because of an inexperienced offensive line that was plagued by injuries. It was easier to get that group to pass block for a few seconds, which was all the time Cousins needed to unload the ball.

Those early 2011 troubles, though, have led to an advantageous 2012 situation for the offensive line. Six players who started games last year are back and healthy this spring, allowing the unit to concentrate more on run blocking.

"We want to show everyone that we can run the ball and be a great O-line, one of best in the Big Ten," senior guard Chris McDonald said. "So we're trying to focus on that and put it on our shoulders. If we can do that, our running backs can do great things."

Michigan State has runners who are capable of greatness. Even with Edwin Baker unexpectedly leaving early for the NFL, the backfield is in good hands with Bell, senior Larry Caper and sophomore spark plug Nick Hill. Bell's potential in particular gives reason for excitement.

He got off to a strong start as a freshman before fading down the stretch and reversed that curve as a sophomore. Bell took over as the Spartans' primary back late last season, running for at least 86 yards in five of the last eight games, including a 106-yard effort against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. He led the team with 948 yards on the season.

Baker's departure cleared the way for Bell to be the unquestioned starter this spring, but Dantonio raised eyebrows earlier this month with comments about "complacency" when asked about his junior running back. Dantonio told ESPN.com that his remarks were misinterpreted, but they sure made their way to Bell's ears no matter the intent.

"I definitely took that as motivation," Bell said Thursday. "Coach D doesn't really direct his words toward anyone, but he makes sure people know they don't have a starting job locked up. I don't want to be complacent, and I see myself as a leader of the running backs."

By all accounts, Bell has turned up his play in recent days. Teammates were buzzing about his performance in Thursday's practice, in which they said he ripped off several long runs.

"Le'Veon is juking people out of their shoes and jumping over people," tackle Dan France said. "It's pretty impressive to watch."

His moves are especially impressive given his size. Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar said the 6-foot-2 Bell is up to 242 pounds this spring, though Bell said that measurement came "after a big dinner." He plans to play more in the 235-pound range. Still, that is a load to bring down in the open field.

"I don't know how he does it, to be that big and move like that," safety Isaiah Lewis said. "He's just gifted."

Roushar said Michigan State will have the capability of putting both Bell and Caper, a 211-pounder who was one of the team's top rushers in 2009, in the backfield together at the same time. The 5-foot-8, 190-pound Hill can offer a change of pace with his quickness.

"We've got to get our tailbacks touches this season," Dantonio said.

And if so, the Spartans should finish higher than 11th in the league in rushing.

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