NCF Nation: Trenton Robinson

The postseason position rankings are hitting the home stretch, and today we take a look at the Big Ten secondaries. It's a little tricky to evaluate secondary play from 2011. While seven Big Ten teams ranked in the top 18 nationally in pass defense, only two squads ranked in the top 29 in pass efficiency defense.

Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was the lone Big Ten defensive back to appear on both the coaches' and media's first-team all-conference squad, so there was some disagreement.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Lewis
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioIsaiah Lewis' interception against Michigan helped the Spartans beat their in-state rival and propel Michigan State's secondary to elite status in the Big Ten.
The top seven units are solid, while the bottom three are among the worst in the FBS.

Michigan State once again tops a defensive chart, but the top four or five squads here were all strong in the secondary. Be sure and check out our preseason secondary rankings.

Let's get to the rundown:

1. Michigan State: The Spartans had three of four starting defensive backs — safety Trenton Robinson, cornerback Johnny Adams and safety Isaiah Lewis — selected first-team or second-team All-Big Ten, illustrating the depth coach Mark Dantonio has built in recent years. Michigan State's secondary also continued to be a playmaking unit, recording a league-best 18 interceptions, returning four for touchdowns. The Spartans had five defensive backs record two or more interceptions. Adams will enter the 2012 season pegged as the league's top cornerback.

2. Penn State: Like the other defensive units, Penn State's secondary shouldered a heavy burden because the team's offense struggled for so much of the season. The Lions had veteran leadership with D'Anton Lynn, Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, and they led the Big Ten and ranked sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense (107.2 rating). Penn State finished third in the league in interceptions (14) and tied with Michigan for the fewest passing touchdowns allowed (12). Sukay earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.

3. Illinois: Although Illinois' strength on defense could be found in the front seven, the secondary held its own as well. The Illini ranked third nationally in pass defense (162.3 ypg), and opposing teams completed just 54.9 percent of their passes against the Orange and Blue. Illinois finished 30th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Although the safety play looked spotty at times, Illinois boasted a strong cornerback tandem in Terry Hawthorne and Tavon Wilson.

4. Michigan: Arguably no single position group in the Big Ten made more dramatic strides than Michigan's secondary, a lightning rod for criticism the previous three seasons. The Wolverines finished 16th nationally in pass defense and 36th in pass efficiency defense. Although they didn't record many interceptions, they tied for the league low in passing touchdowns allowed (12). Safety Jordan Kovacs emerged as an effective blitzer and playmaker and cornerback J.T. Floyd blossomed with two interceptions, eight pass breakups and a forced fumble. Corner Blake Countess is an exciting young talent.

5. Nebraska: The Huskers had the Big Ten's best defensive back in Dennard, who shut down arguably the league's top two receivers (Marvin McNutt, B.J. Cunningham) in Nebraska victories. But the group's overall performance was a bit underwhelming, as opposing teams attacked the deep middle and caused some personnel shuffling. Opposing teams completed just 53.2 percent of their passes against Nebraska, the lowest number in the Big Ten. Hard-hitting safety Daimion Stafford emerged for a group that loses Dennard and veteran safety Austin Cassidy.

6. Wisconsin: For the second straight season Wisconsin displayed good playmaking ability in the secondary, finishing second in the Big Ten with 16 interceptions. Safety Aaron Henry (coaches) and cornerback Antonio Fenelus (media) both received first-team All-Big Ten recognition. The Badgers also played most of the season without one of their starting cornerbacks, Devin Smith. But the unit also had some high-profile lapses at the end of games. Speed also became an issue in the Big Ten title game against Michigan State and in the Rose Bowl against Oregon.

7. Ohio State: The numbers aren't bad -- Ohio State ranked 14th in pass defense and 53rd in pass efficiency defense -- but the Buckeyes seemed to be missing something in the secondary, and throughout their entire defense, for that matter. There were some bright spots, like freshman cornerback Bradley Roby, and some hard hits delivered by safety C.J. Barnett and others. But Ohio State finished just eighth in the league (53rd nationally) in pass efficiency defense, as opposing teams completed more than 60 percent of their pass attempts against the Scarlet and Gray.

8. Purdue: We had high hopes for a group that returned all four starters, headlined by All-Big Ten candidate Ricardo Allen at cornerback. At times, Purdue's secondary looked solid, but the unit's overall performance fell in line with the team's average theme for 2011. Allen struggled to contain some elite wideouts but still finished the season with 81 tackles (62 solo), three interceptions, four pass breakups, a blocked kick and a forced fumble. He and Josh Johnson form an exciting cornerback tandem entering the 2012 campaign.

9. Iowa: Much like Ohio State, Iowa didn't have a typical season on defense, and the secondary had its share of struggles. Iowa had average numbers (58th in pass yards allowed, 72nd in efficiency), and allowed opposing teams to complete 62 percent of their passes. The Hawkeyes saw a big drop-off in playmaking, as they recorded only 10 interceptions and allowed 21 touchdown passes. Safety Micah Hyde earned second-team All-Big Ten honors from the media, while cornerback Shaun Prater didn't have the huge senior season some expected.

10. Northwestern: The Wildcats would finish last in some leagues, but they're the best of a bad bunch at the bottom of the rankings. Despite an All-Big Ten safety (Brian Peters) and a four-year starter at cornerback (Jordan Mabin), Northwestern suffered breakdowns in both scheme and execution. The Wildcats endured a particularly bad stretch to begin Big Ten play, as they couldn't stop Illinois receiver A.J. Jenkins, admittedly got confused against Iowa and let Penn State quarterback Matthew McGloin go off. The secondary has to be a huge priority for Pat Fitzgerald and his staff during the offseason.

11. Minnesota: It's a close call for the last spot, but Minnesota avoids the basement, thanks in large part to safety Kim Royston, who made the most of his sixth season with a team-high 123 tackles. But Royston was the lone bright spot for Minnesota's secondary, which stung from the loss of cornerback Troy Stoudermire to a broken arm. The Gophers recorded the fewest interceptions in the Big Ten (4), and allowed opponents to complete 67.7 percent of their passes, the highest total in the league. Minnesota finished 107th nationally in pass efficiency defense.

12. Indiana: The Hoosiers' historic struggles in the secondary continued in 2011, as they surrendered a league-high 26 passing touchdowns and finished 116th out of 120 FBS teams in pass efficiency defense. Opponents averaged 8.5 yards per completion against an Indiana team that played more freshmen than any squad in the FBS. There's some hope with players like safety-linebacker Mark Murphy and cornerback Greg Heban, and Indiana brings in two junior college defensive backs for 2012.
A Big Ten coach recently told me that the league will be more wide open in 2012 than it has been in recent memory.

He's absolutely right.

While Ohio State's personnel issues changed the complexion of the league race in 2011, things went more or less as expected. Wisconsin, projected by many as the preseason favorite, won the Big Ten championship and advanced to its second consecutive Rose Bowl. Michigan State was a mini surprise, but more because of the Spartans' brutal schedule than their talent level. Michigan exceeded expectations, while Ohio State, Nebraska, Illinois, Northwestern and Iowa fell short of them.

The forecast for 2012 is cloudy at best. Every potential frontrunner has some significant hurdles to overcome.

Let's look at seven of them:

Michigan's challenges: Brady Hoke's crew plays arguably the league's toughest schedule, opening against Alabama, playing road games against Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State, and hosting Michigan State, which has won the teams' past four meetings. The Wolverines also lose standout defensive linemen Mike Martin and Ryan Van Bergen, as well as center David Molk, the Rimington Trophy winner, and top receiver Junior Hemingway.

Michigan State's challenges: The schedule isn't as treacherous, but Michigan State loses several key pieces, most notably quarterback Kirk Cousins, a three-year starter and a three-time captain. The Spartans also must replace their top two receivers (B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin), their top offensive lineman (guard Joel Foreman), All-Big Ten safety Trenton Robinson and two players making an early jump to the NFL draft (defensive tackle Jerel Worthy and backup running back Edwin Baker). The Spartans say goodbye to six All-Big Ten performers.

Wisconsin's challenges: Although the Badgers regain the services of running back Montee Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist, they will be adjusting to plenty of new faces both on the field and on the sidelines. All-Big Ten quarterback Russell Wilson departs along with three starting offensive linemen, headlined by All-America center Peter Konz. While the defense returns mostly intact, Wisconsin will be replacing at least five assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator Paul Chryst and offensive line coach Bob Bostad, two of the best in the business. On the bright side, Wisconsin doesn't have to visit Spartan Stadium.

Nebraska's challenges: Along with Michigan, the Huskers return the most offensive firepower in the league and could take a significant step if the line comes together and the wide receivers and Taylor Martinez continue to mature. But if Big Red doesn't play the type of defense it did in 2009 and 2010, it could be another long season in Lincoln. Nebraska loses its top two defenders, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, and must upgrade the defensive front seven to handle the more physical Big Ten offenses. The schedule might be a little easier, but not much as Nebraska visits both Michigan State and Ohio State.

Ohio State's challenges: Urban Meyer inherits a young football team with the chance to make big strides in 2012, but the Buckeyes are ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA rules violations. It wouldn't shock me to see Ohio State have the best record in the Leaders Division, but its season will end Nov. 24 against Michigan as the Scarlet and Gray can't play in the Big Ten title game. There also could be some growing pains as players adjust to new systems.

Penn State's challenges: The Bill O'Brien era begins in 2012, and it's hard to know what to expect from a Penn State team going through a transition period. The Lions once again should be strong on defense, although they lose Big Ten defensive player of the year Devon Still and most of their starting secondary. O'Brien and his staff will upgrade the offense eventually, but there could be some struggles initially with a unit that has underachieved since 2008. Although the Leaders Division is up for grabs, Penn State has no shortage of hurdles.

Iowa's challenges: Kirk Ferentz's program reaches another crossroads in 2012 after losing momentum from the 2009 Orange Bowl run. Will Iowa move into the Big Ten's lead pack or take another step backward? There are significant concerns along the defensive line, and Iowa must replace the league's top receiver in Marvin McNutt. If Marcus Coker returns, the offense should be decent, but quarterback James Vandenberg must show he can be more consistent away from Iowa City.

The Big Ten doesn't have an obvious team to beat in 2012, like Wisconsin in 2011 or Ohio State in 2010.

If I had to pick a favorite at this point, I'd go with Michigan State because of the Spartans talent-stocked defense. But the Legends Division race will be extremely competitive -- undoubtedly the tougher division to win. Ohio State's bowl ban, Wisconsin's player/coach losses and Penn State's transition make the Leaders race nearly impossible to predict. While Wisconsin will be a popular pick, I could see several teams, including a sleeper like Purdue, make a run in 2012.

The season kicks off in 235 days.

When it does, buckle up and get ready for a wild ride.
Halftime has arrived in Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville.

Let's take a look at how the Big Ten teams are faring in the Florida bowls so far.

Nebraska-South Carolina, Capital One: A really good half for Nebraska ended in disaster, as the Huskers allowed a 51-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery on the final play. Rather than leading 13-9, the Huskers go to the locker room down 16-13 -- and Bo Pelini has to be beside himself. His defense simply couldn't let a star like Jeffery get in position to make a play. Nebraska should have been leading by more had Ameer Abdullah not fumbled in the South Carolina red zone. Credit Nebraska's defense for preventing disaster after a long Jeffery reception set South Carolina up to completely change the game. The Huskers' defense forced a field goal try inside their own 10-yard line, and South Carolina missed. The offense has been balanced so far and has found some room against a very good South Carolina defense. Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead both are making plays, and until the final seconds, the Blackshirts did a decent job against Connor Shaw and the Gamecocks' passing attack.

Michigan State-Georgia, Outback: The Spartans' defense actually played a phenomenal half but had little to show for it, as an anemic offense has hurt Michigan State against an SEC opponent in a bowl for the second straight year. A special-teams breakdown capped a horrendous second quarter, as Georgia leads 16-0 at the break. Michigan State fell behind 2-0 after a questionable swing pass from inside its own end zone resulted in a safety. The defense kept the score that way until late in the half, when Georgia's Tavarres King beat Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson for an 80-yard touchdown. After the offense stalled yet again, Michigan State allowed a 92-yard punt return for a touchdown. Kirk Cousins and the Spartans' offense must get something going soon after recording only two first downs and 72 total yards in the opening half. Georgia's defense looks faster and more physical, and Michigan State's play calling has been unimpressive. The Spartans are staring at another humbling bowl performance.

Ohio State-Florida, TaxSlayer.com Gator: Buckeyes fans won't be sorry to see offensive coordinator Jim Bollman go. Ohio State didn't pass the ball in the first quarter -- it took one sack -- even though freshman quarterback Braxton Miller threw the ball well in a Nov. 26 loss at Michigan. Things opened up a bit in the second quarter, and Miller finished the half 4-for-6 passing for 53 yards and a touchdown. Florida leads 14-10 thanks to a 99-yard kick return touchdown by Andre Debose. Ohio State entered the game ranked 10th nationally in kick coverage. The Buckeyes' defense has been so-so, letting Florida quarterback John Brantley get a bit too comfortable but forcing a pair of turnovers. Ohio State must get better on third down, as Florida has converted 4 of 6 opportunities. These teams are evenly matched, and Ohio State should have a shot to win if it can limit the major breakdowns.
Editor’s Note: Tune into the “AT&T ESPN All America Team Show” on Saturday (ABC, 1:30 p.m. ET) to see who ESPN’s writers and experts selected.

The envelope, please ...

OFFENSE

QB: Russell Wilson, Wisconsin
RB: Montee Ball, Wisconsin
RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska
WR: Marvin McNutt, Iowa
WR: B.J. Cunningham, Michigan State
TE: Drake Dunsmore, Northwestern
OL: David Molk, Michigan
OL: Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin
OL: Peter Konz, Wisconsin
OL: Joel Foreman, Michigan State
OL: Reilly Reiff, Iowa

DEFENSE

DL: Whitney Mercilus, Illinois
DL: Devon Still, Penn State DL: Jerel Worthy, Michigan State
DL: John Simon, Ohio State LB: Lavonte David, Nebraska
LB:
Gerald Hodges, Penn State
LB: Mike Taylor, Wisconsin
CB: Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska
CB: Johnny Adams, Michigan State
S: Trenton Robinson, Michigan State
S: Nick Sukay, Penn State

SPECIALISTS

P: Anthony Fera, Penn State
K: Brett Maher, Nebraska
KR: Raheem Mostert, Purdue
PR: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin

Comments: We said before the season that the strength in the Big Ten lay in the interior lines, and that is illustrated in our picks. Still and Worthy had All-American seasons, and Simon was great as well. We didn't even have room for Michigan's Mike Martin, who had a terrific season. Our offensive line has two centers in Molk and Konz (two Rimington Trophy finalists) because we thought that position was much stronger than tackle. (Konz has played guard in his career, so we could figure it out if we actually had to play with this team). Some of our toughest choices came at the second receiver spot, where we liked Cunningham's production down the stretch far more than A.J. Jenkins' early numbers for an Illinois team that faded badly; the third linebacker spot, where we could have gone with Taylor's teammate Chris Borland or Illinois' Jonathan Brown; and the second safety selection, where we chose Sukay over Northwestern's Brian Peters, Minnesota's Kim Royston or Wisconsin's Aaron Henry because we felt Sukay made a big impact on a better defense. Lastly, only eight players who we chose on our preseason All-Big Ten team ended up on our official postseason squad. That shows how much things can change from season to season -- and it also shows that maybe our prognosticating skills need some improvement.

3Q update: Spartans still in command

December, 3, 2011
12/03/11
11:10
PM ET
INDIANAPOLIS -- We've got another good one brewing between No. 13 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin here at Lucas Oil Stadium, where Michigan State leads 36-28 after three quarters of play. The offenses have slowed down a bit, but Michigan State hit on a huge play at the end of the quarter to regain its 8-point advantage.

Some notes:
  • Kirk Cousins is having another huge performance against Wisconsin. The Spartans senior quarterback has completed 21 of 25 pass attempts for 270 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Aside from the pick, Cousins has been brilliant, continuing his surge from November.
  • Jared Abbrederis has been Russell Wilson's favorite target for much of the season, but Abbrederis had no catches and wasn't targeted at all in the first half. Wisconsin needed to get No. 4 involved and delivered as Wilson evaded a face-mask-tugging Johnny Adams and found Abbrederis wide open for a 42-yard touchdown on the Badgers' opening drive of the second half.
  • It has been a struggle for Wilson, who still doesn't have 100 yards passing. He's having trouble throwing over the Michigan State defensive line and caught a deflected pass for his second reception of the game late in the quarter.
  • After taking several risks in the first half, Spartans coach Mark Dantonio passed up a fourth-and-3 situation from the Wisconsin 35-yard line and instead took a delay-of-game penalty. The decision looked a bit questionable, but Mike Sadler pinned the Badgers at their own 1-yard line.
  • Wisconsin's offensive game plan has been a bit puzzling since the first quarter. The Badgers haven't really emphasized the run with Montee Ball, who had 105 rush yards in the first quarter but just 10 since. Also, tight end Jacob Pedersen has been a nonfactor, while Wilson continues to look for Toon, being covered by one of the league's top cornerbacks in Adams.
  • Receiver/returner Keshawn Martin was one of my players to watch for Michigan State, and he has been a huge part of the game plan. Michigan State has hurt Wisconsin with swing passes and laterals to Martin, who has nine catches for 115 yards and four rushes for 22 yards. Martin has tortured Wisconsin throughout his career and looks to be having another big night against the Badgers.
  • Michigan State linebacker Denicos Allen has had an outstanding game with three sacks. Other big contributors for the Spartans defense include linebacker Chris Norman, safety Trenton Robinson, defensive end William Gholston and defensive tackle Jerel Worthy.
  • Wisconsin fans did the "Jump Around" here at Lucas Oil at the end of the quarter.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio held his pregame news conference Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Here are some notes and nuggets:
  • Cornerback Darqueze Dennard will return to the starting lineup after missing the past two games with an ankle injury. Dantonio said Dennard practiced all week and is full-go. Redshirt freshman Tony Lippett would be the next man in at cornerback. Safety Kurtis Dummond (head) also will play and split time at nickel safety with Jairus Jones.
  • Dantonio had roses placed at each player's locker this week to remind them of what's at stake Saturday night: the program's first trip to the Rose Bowl in 24 seasons. "We've got Rose Bowl things up around our facility," Dantonio said. "[Assistant coach Mark Staten] was out there recruiting in the summer and brought back a bunch of rocks from the Rose Bowl. So we gave everybody a little rock. We'll do whatever it takes to keep that focus in front of them."
  • Dantonio had high praise for sophomore safety Isaiah Lewis, who is tied with fellow Spartans safety Trenton Robinson for the Big Ten interceptions lead with four. Lewis is an Indianapolis native. "Isaiah Lewis is, to me, one of those guys who can take over a football game and be an impact player," Dantonio said. "... He's one of our finest football players as a sophomore, and he has great things in store for him as a player in this league, and has a future beyond this league. He tackles, great ball skills, big-play ability. He will make some big plays out there tomorrow night."
  • Although Michigan State will be the home team Saturday night, Dantonio had the team prepare for a normal road game this week. The routine didn't change, and Dantonio reiterated a point he has made about stress vs. pressure. "Pressure is good," he said. "You can succeed with pressure. It makes you have greater attention to detail. You're more focused. Stress is not. Stress is the enemy. We don't want to stress out about this."
  • One oddity of Michigan State's season is that the Spartans won the Legends division despite having the Big Ten's worst rushing offense (139 ypg). Dantonio stressed the need to be balanced against Wisconsin and get top backs Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker in space. "We've got to have explosive plays," he said. "When we get eight-plus explosive plays, we're 37-5 as a program."
  • Dantonio talked this week with Spartans men's basketball coach Tom Izzo, whose team played at Lucas Oil Stadium in the 2009 NCAA tournament. Izzo also talked to Dantonio about facing the same team multiple times in a season.
  • Dantonio talked about how Michigan State is changing its regional and national perception, pointing to the team's 14-2 mark in Big Ten play and its 24 Big Ten wins in the past four seasons -- the most in the league (Ohio State vacated its seven wins from 2010). Despite these numbers, the Spartans are once again underdogs heading into the title game. "We've been underdogs in six games this year, five or six, whatever it is," he said. "We're sort of unfazed by it. I tell our players, 'Don't worry about what the so-called experts say. The experts are in that locker room, and they're the coaches. We're the people who study that football field. We're the people who have to go out and play in it, live it. And in Wisconsin's locker room, they're the experts.'"
  • Dantonio on Wisconsin: "The respect is there for the University of Wisconsin and how they play. We recognize they're a very big challenge for us. They’re always going to be up there. They've got a great program, they’ve risen up the ranks and I think both of our football teams are going to be on top for a while."
Wisconsin and Michigan State will play for the Big Ten championship this Saturday in Indianapolis. Of course, it is a rematch of their Oct. 22 meeting, won by [spoiler alert!] the Spartans 37-31 in one of the best games of the college football season.

In order to understand all the storylines and key matchups of this week's game, it's crucial to know exactly what happened the first time. So I decided to go back and watch that initial encounter and, with apologies to Bill Simmons, provide my thoughts and observations in a retro diary. You can follow along through the magic of ESPN3.com here. Or you can just read.

This first installment will cover the first half of the game. I'll be back later on today with the second-half diary. Wonder if anything cool will happen late in the game?

Pregame

  • Kirk Herbstreit says, "This is what we've all wanted to see for a number of weeks." I think the same line could be used Saturday night.
  • Michigan State's Keith Nichol is one of the first Spartans to come out of the tunnel for introductions. I've got a hunch he could play a role in this one somehow.
  • I don't know how good the audio quality is on my replay, but it sounds extremely quiet when Wisconsin takes the field. No boos, just silence. Someone who was there will have to tell me if that's how it really went down at Spartan Stadium. If so, I think that's the best way to taunt an opponent; just ignore them. I recommend this for all home fans from here on out.
[+] EnlargeWisconsin's Montee Ball
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesWisconsin will be dangerous on the ground again in 2012 with Montee Ball and James White returning.
First quarter

  • 15:00: Wisconsin wins the toss and takes the ball first. The first play of the game is a handoff to Montee Ball, who runs 8 yards before plowing into Isaiah Lewis's shoulder. Lewis goes down and has to leave the game. Remember, Lewis gave the Badgers some major bulletin board material the week before after beating Michigan, saying the Spartans defense "was going to hurt" Russell Wilson. You think Ball remembered that as he slammed into Lewis?
  • 12:03: Russell Wilson throws his first pass -- complete to Jacob Pedersen -- after four straight Ball runs have softened up the defense. Lewis comes back in.
  • 8:48: On third-and-4, Wilson play-fakes to Ball and throws a touchdown pass to a wide-open Pedersen with Anthony Rashad White and Marcus Rush bearing down on the quarterback. That was the second straight completion off play-action for Wilson, as Michigan State's safeties and linebackers are biting hard on the run. It's a textbook, 80-yard Wisconsin style drive with almost perfect balance. The game could not have started off better for the Badgers. 7-0, Wisconsin
  • 8:33: Uh-oh for Sparty. Tailback Edwin Baker fumbles on Michigan State's first offensive play, thanks to a hit from linebacker Mike Taylor. The officials review whether or not Wisconsin's Marcus Cromartie touched the ball first while coming from out of bounds on the recovery, but the play stands and the Badgers take over.
  • 7:42: Wisconsin needs only three plays to cash in the fumble, as Ball rushes up the middle for a 9-yard touchdown. 14-0, Wisconsin. Wilson completed another pass off play-action immediately before. It was not a good series for Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson, who was fooled on the play-fake and then broke the wrong way before unsuccessfully trying to arm tackle Ball. Hey, the Badgers might win this game in a blowout!
  • 3:47: Michigan State picks up a pair of first downs but can't convert a third-and-14 and has to punt. At least its defense got a little bit of a breather, but if Wisconsin goes in for another score this one could get out of hand early.
  • 0:33: And we have our first Badgers mistake. After the offense drove to midfield, Wilson throws an interception to -- guess who? -- Robinson. It's only the second interception of the year for Wilson, who threw his other one on a meaningless play late in the Northern Illinois blowout. But I don't put this one entirely on him. Receiver Nick Toon appears to break the wrong way on the route, and he doesn't even start to look for the ball until it's nearly over his head. Remember that Toon missed the previous game with a foot injury he suffered two weeks earlier against Nebraska. He looked a little rusty/anxious, especially as he drew an uncharacteristic false start penalty later in the half. But the play was set up by a loss of 1 yard by James White on first down. The second-and-long prompted offensive coordinator Paul Chryst to put Wilson in the shotgun and not use play-action, allowing the safeties to stick in pass coverage. Even if Wilson and Toon had been on the same page, it was a low-percentage throw into double coverage, and that's not Wisconsin's game.
  • 0:26: I love, love, love the fact that Wilson sprints down the field and actually makes the tackle on Robinson, even though his form could use a little work.
  • 0:18: Michigan State, which has negative-9 rushing yards to this point, finally gets something going on the ground. The Spartans wide receivers blow up the right side of Wisconsin's defense, and Le'Veon Bell rushes 32 yards behind tackle Fou Fonoti, who's dying to find someone to block. Momentum seems to be changing.
[+] EnlargeMichigan State's Keshawn Martin
Andrew Weber/US PRESSWIREMichigan State's Keshawn Martin scores a 34-yard touchdown in the second quarter against Wisconsin.
Second quarter

  • 14:15: Kirk Cousins and Larry Caper can't quite connect for a screen pass on third-and-6, which was set up perfectly and might have resulted in an easy touchdown. The Spartans have another empty possession. But Bell's big run has flipped field position, leading to ...
  • 14:04: Mike Sadler punts the ball out of bounds at the Wisconsin 5. We didn't mention Sadler when we talked about freshmen of the year candidates in the Big Ten, but he has been a valuable weapon for Mark Dantonio all year long.
  • 13:58 to 13:10: Disaster strikes for Wisconsin. First, Jerel Worthy finally makes his presence felt, stuffing Ball for a 3-yard loss back to the 2. Then Wilson is called for intentional grounding in the end zone under heavy pressure from Denicos Allen. That's a safety, and it's now 14-2, Wisconsin. Chryst dialed up play-action again and looked to be going for a big throw over the top. But the call actually helped Michigan State, because the linebackers darted up field to stop the run. Ball has had an amazing season, but he whiffed on Allen to let "The Waterboy" get right to Wilson, who had little choice but to throw it away. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, there was no receiver on the side of the field where Wilson could get rid of the ball.
  • 11:22: Razzle, meet dazzle. After a beautiful throw from Cousins to tight end Brian Linthicum, Michigan State offensive coordinator Dan Roushar dials up some trickery. The Spartans line up in the I-formation. Cousins fakes a handoff to Bell, then hands it to receiver B.J. Cunningham on a reverse. Cunningham then pitches it to Keshawn Martin coming the other way. Wisconsin blitzed to the side Martin is now running toward, leaving no one left to tackle the Spartans' speedster except safety Aaron Henry. And he's sandwiched by three blockers. Martin scores from 34 yards out to make the score 14-9, Wisconsin. Martin has been on fire the latter part of this season.
  • 8:41: Wisconsin's offense mounts a good drive in response, and receiver Jared Abbrederis takes a jet sweep 21 yards. It's no coincidence that Abbrederis runs to the side where suspended defensive end William Gholston would have been. The Badgers have been attacking his replacement, Denzel Drone. Gholston's return is a big factor in this week's game.
  • 7:49 to 7:22: A tough sequence here for Ball. First, he misses another block, allowing cornerback Johnny Adams to blow up a play when he tackles Wilson from behind. Then he takes a Robinson shoulder to the head after a 7-yard run. Ball gets up from the tackle and then falls back down in a scary scene. He's escorted off the field and is given concussion tests on the sideline as Wisconsin fans hold their breath. Ball has 68 yards rushing and a touchdown when he goes out.
  • 6:42: On third-and-short from the Michigan State 14, White is stopped shy of the first down when Kyler Elsworth sheds a Pedersen block and makes the tackle. Great defensive play. No disrespect to White, but it makes you wonder if Ball would have gotten the extra few feet had he been in the game.
  • 5:55: Philip Welch's 30-yard field goal try is blocked by Darqueze Dennard, who ran in free from the left end. I'm not sure if Welch would have made the kick anyway, because Brad Nortman bobbled the snap, which disrupted the timing of the play. Wisconsin converted 62 of 65 trips in the red zone into points this season, second best in the FBS. But it comes up empty in a big spot here.
  • 1:40: Michigan State moves the ball down the field, but Baker is tackled for a loss to set up fourth-and-2 from the Wisconsin 35. Dantonio doesn't hesitate to go for it, and Roushar calls a great, if somewhat risky, play. Cousins waits for Cunningham to find a hole behind the linebackers in a long-developing route. But Wisconsin doesn't get any pressure on Cousins, and he hits Cunningham in the middle of three Badgers defenders. Taylor misses a tackle in a difficult matchup for him, and Cunningham is off for a touchdown to make it 16-14, Michigan State. It's the second straight year that Cunningham catches a fourth-down touchdown pass in a key spot. Think Wisconsin will know where he is if a big fourth down comes up again Saturday? The game's final play got all the attention, but this was just as big.
  • 0:45: Complete catastrophe for the Badgers. A fired up Spartans defense forces a three and out at Wisconsin 45, and then backup linebacker Ellsworth makes his second huge play of the game. He blocks Nortman's punt, and Bennie Fowler recovers the ball in the end zone to make it 23-14 Michigan State. The Spartans brought four defenders untouched up the middle against Wisconsin's three-man punt protection unit, and Ellsworth flew right by Robert Burge. In Burge's defense, middle protector Ryan Groy was slow to pick up his block, and Burge looked like he couldn't decide whether to chip Ellsworth or help on Kurtis Drummond right up the gut. "It was nothing special we haven't seen on film," Bret Bielema will tell Erin Andrews at halftime. "We've just got to block all four."
  • 0:00: The half mercifully ends for Wisconsin as Spartan Stadium is rocking. In a 15-minute span from the end of the first quarter to the final score of the half, the Badgers threw an interception, gave up a safety, had a field goal blocked, had a punt blocked for a touchdown, allowed a touchdown pass on fourth down and surrendered another score on a trick play. In basketball terms, it's a 23-0 spurt. Things can't get any worse for Wisconsin, or better for Michigan State. Can they?
Paul Chryst and Pat NarduzziGetty ImagesPat Narduzzi, left, and Paul Chryst coordinate elite units, which will lock horns in the Big Ten title game.

If your team has a head-coaching vacancy -- looking at you, Illinois fans -- you're probably hearing the names Paul Chryst and Pat Narduzzi right about now.

Chryst, the Wisconsin offensive coordinator, and Narduzzi, the Michigan State defensive coordinator, are the two hottest candidates among Big Ten assistants to become head coaches in the coming days and weeks.

Both men have been instrumental in Wisconsin and Michigan State becoming new powers in the Big Ten. Both men oversee units ranked in the top 15 nationally in several major statistical categories (scoring defense, total defense, pass defense, rush defense, scoring offense, total offense, rushing offense). And both should be fielding some calls from other programs.

If you're not familiar with Chryst and Narduzzi, there's some good news for you. They'll be coaching directly against one another Saturday night when No. 13 Michigan State takes on No. 15 Wisconsin in the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis.

While Chryst is working on another record-setting season with Wisconsin's offense, Narduzzi's defense has taken a significant step forward this year.

The Spartans' defense moved from good -- it ranked 43rd nationally in total defense and 39th in points allowed last year -- to nationally elite. Michigan State's defense leads the Big Ten in the following categories: rushing defense (102.5 yards per game), total defense (266.7 ypg), sacks (38), interceptions (16) and third-down defense (32.9 percent conversions). Narduzzi's crew has held seven opponents to 17 points or fewer and six opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards. Michigan State has allowed only eight rushing touchdowns all year and just 30 trips inside the red zone.

"I think he's a genius," Spartans senior safety Trenton Robinson said. "With how we watch film and how he breaks everything down -- him and the GAs and the coaches -- they do such a great job. Every game we go into, even the games that we've lost, we lost on not executing. It's not like bad coaching, play calls or anything, it’s just us missing a tackle or blowing a coverage ."

Narduzzi and the other Michigan State coaches were off-limits to the media this week, but he took some time this spring with ESPN.com to break down the Spartans' approach to defending the power run. Check out the videos here and here. Coincidentally, the opponent in the clips is Wisconsin.

Robinson said he and his fellow defenders are never shocked by a formation or a play an opponent showcases. They've already seen it in practice.

Narduzzi also keeps his players in mind when crafting game plans.

"Nothing's really complicated for us," said Robinson, who is tied with teammate Isaiah Lewis for the Big Ten interceptions lead with four. "He makes it as simple as possible, and if the guys aren't liking something, like a certain play, coach will be like, 'You guys aren't liking this? OK, scratch it. If you're not comfortable with it, we're not doing it.' So he makes sure all of us players are comfortable with the calls that he has. It's a great thing."

Wisconsin's offense has thrived in Chryst's five-plus seasons as offensive coordinator, averaging more than 34 points per game. Last year the Badgers averaged 41.5 points, shattering the team scoring record by more than a touchdown per game. This year's unit is on pace to surpass the mark, averaging 44.8 points a game.

Under Chryst's watch Wisconsin has produced the Big Ten offensive player of the year in two of the past three seasons (running back John Clay in 2009, running back Montee Ball this year). Quarterbacks like John Stocco, Scott Tolzien and more recently Russell Wilson are among the most successful in team history.

"Paul Chryst uses players' abilities as good as any coach I've ever been around," Badgers head coach Bret Bielema said. "As a head coach, you really appreciate coordinators that understand the skill set of your players and how to use them and maximize those skills. Everybody has a weakness, and if you can hide it or minimize it, you're going to be better overall. Paul really does a good job of that."

Montee Ball
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWith Montee Ball (28) and Russell Wilson (16), coordinator Paul Chryst has made Wisconsin's offense even more prolific than in past years.
Wisconsin's offense lacks glitz or gimmicks, and the Badgers make no secret about their intention to overpower their opponents from a one-back set. Although Wisconsin recruits to its vision on offense, Chryst has shown the ability to adjust, especially this year with Wilson, whose skills are unlike what the Badgers typically have at quarterback.

"We'll do some things that will become staples of your offense or of your program," Chryst said, "but each year, you adjust to the players you have."

Chryst played a big role in attracting Wilson to Madison from North Carolina State, and Wilson describes his coach as having "a calmness to him, but a competitive edge that most people can't match."

"He always wants his players to understand the whys of football," Wilson said. "That's what I love. ... I ask a lot of questions."

Wilson admits to peppering Chryst about his past experiences working with quarterbacks like Derek Anderson at Oregon State. Chryst also spent time with Drew Brees during a one-year stint as a San Diego Chargers offensive assistant.

"The value to coaching a lot of different players is it really just reinforces how different each guy is," Chryst said. "It's your job as a coach then to know the player and then adjust. There's a lot of different ways to have success. You realize Scotty Tolzien can have success different than Russell Wilson or Derek Anderson or other guys I've been around."

Chryst's name has come up before at this time of year for coaching vacancies elsewhere. Texas courted him for its offensive coordinator vacancy after the 2010 season, and Chryst was on Purdue's radar to replace Joe Tiller.

Earlier this week Chryst denied having contact with Illinois about its vacancy, and he remains focused on facing the Narduzzi-led Spartans defense on Saturday night.

"You can put yourself into a cocoon," he said. "Who cares what's being rumored about? I've got a job and that's to coach football here at Wisconsin. The best thing you can do is do your job well."

Both Chryst and Narduzzi have done their jobs very well this season, possibly setting them up for better things.
Five items to track Saturday night in the inaugural Big Ten championship game between No. 13 Michigan State and No. 15 Wisconsin.

[+] EnlargeMark Dantonio
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMichigan State coach Mark Dantonio might have some tricks up his sleeve in the Big Ten Championship game.
1. Third-down efficiency: Arguably no statistic has played a bigger role in Michigan State's past two victories against Wisconsin. Michigan State converted 50 percent of its third-down opportunities in each game -- 9 of 18 in 2010, 8 of 16 this year -- to repeatedly extend drives and put up points. The Spartans converted 8 of 13 third-down opportunities last Saturday at Northwestern but only rank No. 82 nationally on the season (38.5 percent). Wisconsin, meanwhile, leads the nation in third-down conversions (55.2 percent) and ranks 32nd in third-down defense (36.4 percent). "They're very good at converting third downs," Badgers defensive tackle Patrick Butrym said. "We need to come up with a good plan."

2. The R-word: For Michigan State, it's about respect, or lack thereof. Spartans players have been candid about the lack of respect they've received all season despite their success. "Every game we go into, we're the underdog," senior safety Trenton Robinson said. "Everybody says Michigan State is going to lose by this amount." Count the Vegas odds makers in that group, but Michigan State has used the outside view as fuel during its impressive season. Wisconsin, meanwhile, is downplaying another R-word -- revenge. Although Michigan State won the first meeting, Badgers players began stiff-arming the revenge story line immediately after last Saturday's win. They need to play with composure, especially since Michigan State drew no penalties in the teams' first meeting.

3. Neutral-site factor: The Big Ten has never had a title game before, and it will be interesting to see the atmosphere and how it impacts the game. Michigan State fans seem a bit more geared up than their Wisconsin counterparts, and the Spartans-Badgers fan split should be interesting. Will the game be a sellout? Should be close if it's not. Wisconsin hasn't been the same team outside Madison this season, but the Badgers won't be playing in a true road environment. Michigan State performed very well in its last two road games. The Spartans are the more tested team outside their own building this season. Wisconsin's best road/neutral-site win came against Northern Illinois, while Michigan State has beaten Iowa, Northwestern and Ohio State.

4. Special teams and The Gambler: Michigan State has held a decided edge in the kicking game in each of the past two meetings with Wisconsin. Keshawn Martin had a punt return for a touchdown in 2010, and the Spartans blocked a punt for a touchdown Oct. 22 to cap a huge second quarter. Wisconsin has had punts blocked in each of its two losses, and the Badgers can't let the dangerous Martin get free in the open field. Also, keep an eye on Spartans coach Mark Dantonio, who has shown he isn't afraid to call a trick play at key moments, particularly in the kicking game. Special teams is an area where Michigan State can capitalize.

5. MoneyBall's quest: Top Heisman Trophy candidates Trent Richardson and Andrew Luck aren't playing games Saturday, so Wisconsin running back Montee Ball gets one final big-stage opportunity to show why he's one of the nation's best players. Ball is five touchdowns shy of Barry Sanders' NCAA single-season record (39) and has scored at least twice in every game this season (seven games of three or more scores). Ball had 115 rush yards and a touchdown against Michigan State on Oct. 22 but missed some time after taking a shot to the head. Wisconsin's offense wasn't the same with Ball on the sideline. The Badgers will need Ball on the field for 60 minutes Saturday night, while Michigan State's defense must contain No. 28.

Michigan State survived.

That's the only real verb choice here, as nothing about this game was easy for the Spartans. Minnesota led 24-21 heading into the fourth quarter and had the ball in enemy territory in the final seconds, looking to pull off a "Rocket" type play of its own. But Trenton Robinson's interception with nine seconds left sealed the victory.

Michigan State made the plays when it needed them in the fourth quarter, but the defense that had been so dominant in much of October gave up more than 400 yards to the Gophers. The defense did have three new starters in, including former receiver Tony Lippett at cornerback for Darqueze Dennard, who was out with a concussion. But the Spartans didn't have a sack until the fourth quarter, as quarterback MarQueis Gray riddled them for 298 passing yards and three touchdowns and another 59 rushing yards before a poor decision on that last interception.

Minnesota appears to have found a leader in Gray, and Jerry Kill definitely has something to build on now. Even with this loss, the Gophers should take some confidence into the final stretch of the season.

The Spartans absolutely had to have this win to stay alive in the Legends Divison race. And with Michigan losing, that helps. But the offense needs to find more consistency, especially in the running game. Le'Veon Bell ran for 96 yards and two touchdowns, including a 35-yarder for a touchdown that proved to be the winner. But Minnesota's run defense has been atrocious most of the season, and Michigan State could have done more on the ground.

The Spartans will have to play better than this, especially on the road next week at Iowa. The Hawkeyes are a much better team at home as they showed in upsetting the Wolverines today. But at least Michigan State survived.

Video: MSU safety Trenton Robinson

October, 23, 2011
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Adam Rittenberg talks to Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson about the Spartans’ upset of Wisconsin.


EAST LANSING, Mich. -- When Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins scanned the team's 2011 schedule, one stretch of games practically glared back at him.

One month of games, in fact.

October brought a gauntlet of games that would make even the most confident teams shudder.

Oct. 1: at Ohio State
Oct. 15: Michigan
Oct. 22: Wisconsin
Oct. 29: at Nebraska

The four-pack would test Michigan State emotionally, physically and psychologically. It included a homecoming of sorts (25 Spartans are from Ohio), a genuine homecoming against a national-title favorite (Wisconsin), the biggest game of every Michigan State season (Michigan) and a game with major Legends division-title implications (Nebraska).

"Our schedule was going to be as challenging as anybody's," Cousins said. "We said, if we can get through October, look out."

The Spartans are three-fourths of the way through one of the toughest months for any team in recent Big Ten history. They are 3-0, in control of their fate in the Legends division and displaying incredible poise every time they take the field.

The Big Ten's drama kings were at it again Saturday night against No. 6 Wisconsin, falling behind early, surging ahead, losing a 14-point lead in the final minutes and then producing the play of the year in college football. Again.

Forget "Little Giants" or "Mousetrap." A play called "Rocket" tops them all.

When Keith Nichol came down with Cousins' 44-yard deflected Hail Mary pass and stretched across the goal line with no time left, lifting his team to a 37-31 victory over Wisconsin, Michigan State sent a message to the rest of the Big Ten.

Look out. The Spartans are coming.

"That's why you play to the end of the game," coach Mark Dantonio said.

October used to be the month where Michigan State fell apart, where it let down its fans after teasing them with strong September starts. But a program that used to be allergic to poise has displayed it more than any Big Ten team in the past year and a half.

In 2010, Michigan State persevered despite losing Dantonio for several weeks as he recovered from a heart attack. The challenges this season all have been on the field, and time after time, the Spartans have answered the bell.

[+] Enlarge
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesMichigan State's Keith Nichol celebrates after hauling in the winning touchdown.
The latest concern stemmed from an emotion-charged win against archrival Michigan, a game that featured 13 Michigan State penalties, including a personal foul on William Gholston that resulted in the Big Ten suspending the sophomore defensive end for Saturday's game. Some branded Michigan State as a dirty team, especially after reading defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi's comment about "60 minutes of unecessary roughness."

Dantonio felt his program was "under attack" during the week. Would all the discipline questions cause the Spartans to play more tentative or more reckless against Wisconsin?

Although Dantonio didn't suspend Gholston and praised the school's administration for sticking by his player, he challenged the team before Saturday night's game.

"I talked about having a perfect storm tonight," he said. "I said, 'No penalties.' And it's amazing we had zero penalties."

Michigan State avoided the flags and maintained its defensive aggressiveness, recording three sacks and five quarterback hurries against Wisconsin star Russell Wilson. The defense triggered the Spartans' comeback, as pressure from Denicos Allen forced Wilson to commit intentional grounding in the end zone, resulting in a safety.

"We know we're not a dirty team," said safety Trenton Robinson, who recorded an interception and a sack. "Sometimes, personal fouls and stuff happens. Around the country, every team has personal fouls. But for someone to be like, 'That's the dirtiest team in football,' that doesn't make any sense. ... We pushed through."

Michigan State held Wisconsin to 19 points below its season average. The Badgers had beaten each of their first six opponents by 31 points or more.

Yet if there was a downside to Wisconsin's dominant run since the middle of last season, it was that Bret Bielema's squad hadn't experienced many crunch-time situations. Since a 31-30 victory at Iowa, Wisconsin had won 10 games by 20 points or more. The team's only close contest, in the Rose Bowl against TCU, ended with a 21-19 loss.

While Wisconsin fought back courageously Saturday night, scoring two touchdowns in the final 8:10 to tie the game at 31-31, the Badgers had their issues in the final minute. They couldn't recover a Cousins fumble that would have set them up for a game-winning field-goal try. They allowed Michigan State to convert two third-and-longs. Bielema used timeouts when going to overtime with momentum might have been the smarter play.

And they couldn't bat down the ball at the end, leading to Nichol's crazy catch.

"We wanted to get the ball back," Bielema said. "... We were going for the win."

Wisconsin players applauded the strategy.

"I totally agree with him," running back Montee Ball said. "I would have done the same thing if I was in his position. You don't want to go into overtime if you don't have to."

Wisconsin dropped its fourth consecutive game here, and no loss was more heart-wrenching -- or surprising. Despite not playing a true road game, the Badgers came in as clear favorites, picked by just about everyone to win.

Robinson was particularly rankled by a comment that Michigan State would need "a miracle" to win on its home field.

"To laugh at us on TV and say it's going to take a miracle to win ... is just the ultimate disrespect," Robinson said.

Added receiver Keshawn Martin: "They didn't pick us. We picked us."

After the game, Cousins met Wilson and told the Wisconsin star, "You're a class act, and I think you guys will be there in December, and I just hope we're there with you."

"There" is Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. Cousins still considers Wisconsin the favorite, although that label could be applied to Michigan State.

But the gauntlet continues for the Spartans next week with what is in many ways a more important game at Nebraska. A win in Lincoln, and the Spartans survive October with a chance to do special things in December and January.

Can Michigan State summon the energy one more time?

"It's easy to get up with you win," Dantonio said, "because you believe something better is right around the corner for you. You think, 'OK, now what's next?' A lot of people talked about this stretch, playing Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska, that stretch we had in October.

"Now we're 3-0. And we're going places."

Keith NicholAndrew Weber/US PresswireKeith Nichol pulls in the winning touchdown for Michigan State, a 44-yard Hail Mary as time expired.

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Some quick thoughts from a wild first half at Spartan Stadium, where Michigan State scored 23 unanswered points after finding itself in an early hole ...

Turning point: Wisconsin led 14-0 and had the ball late in the first quarter when Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson picked off a Russell Wilson pass intended for Nick Toon, who never turned around for the ball. Although the takeaway didn't directly lead to points, it changed field position and helped Michigan State record its safety. The Spartans grabbed momentum and never looked back.

Best player in the half: Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins. The Spartans senior is outplaying the Heisman Trophy candidate on the other side so far tonight. Cousins completed 8 of 10 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown to B.J. Cunningham. Spartans linebacker Denicos Allen also deserves a mention for pressuring Wilson.

What Michigan State needs to do: Continue to challenge Wisconsin's defense down the field. Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar called a terrific second quarter, and he's using big-play weapons like Cunningham and Keshawn Martin. Defensively, the Spartans settled down late in the half, but must shore up the middle against Montee Ball, who has 68 yards on 13 carries. Michigan State has been spectacular on special teams and must continue to make plays in the kicking game.

What Wisconsin needs to do: Settle down, for starters. The Badgers melted down in the second quarter after a terrific start and must catch their breathe. Special-teams breakdowns have killed Bret Bielema's team, especially the blocked punt late in the half that Michigan State recovered in the end zone. Wilson needs to elevate his play, especially if Ball can't return after leaving in the second quarter. The defense must start pressuring Cousins, who has had a ton of time to throw downfield.
Joel Foreman can still remember the look on their faces.

Foreman was a redshirt freshman offensive lineman for Michigan State in 2007 when the Spartans lost to Michigan 28-24 at home. It was the sixth straight loss in the series for the guys in green, and another class of seniors went out winless against their rival.

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
Mike Carter/US PresswireMichigan State, led by Kirk Cousins, has beaten rival Michigan three straight times.
"You could see how much it meant to the seniors, and for them to leave never to have beaten Michigan," Foreman told ESPN.com, "it was pretty impacting, seeing how it affected them and how much they wanted to do that and weren’t able to."

The expressions could be very different this Saturday.

Michigan State has won the past three games against Michigan and has a chance for its first four-game winning streak in the Paul Bunyan Trophy game since 1959-62. The Spartans have only won four straight against the Wolverines three times in their history, the other two streaks coming from 1950-53 and 1934-37. Maybe most importantly, a whole group of seniors, including Foreman, can say they never lost to Michigan during their playing careers.

“It would mean a lot to me and my senior class," safety Trenton Robinson said. "It hasn’t been done in a long, long, long time, so to do something that hasn’t been done is always a good feeling. It would change the tide in Michigan and let everyone know that Michigan State is here and here to stay.”

The Spartans have already accomplished one milestone this season. In their last game, they beat Ohio State 10-7 for their first win in Columbus since 1998. With two dozen players on the roster from the state of Ohio, that was an emotional and important victory for the program.

And yet, Foreman said the players hadn't even gotten to their locker room after that win before talk started turning toward Michigan. This is, after all, the in-state rivalry, and Michigan is the team they have to hear about all year long.

"It's personal," quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "It's very personal. I grew up in Michigan, so it means a lot to me and I take it very, very seriously. We talk about this as a streets versus alleys game. If you beat Michigan, you can walk the streets. If you lose, you walk in the alleys."

Michigan State has been walking tall for the past three years. Nowhere is that more evident than on the left arm of Jerel Worthy. The junior defensive tackle showed up for fall camp this year with a new tattoo, which depicts a Spartan warrior stepping on the fallen body of a football player with a block "M" on his helmet. It's not exactly subtle.

The tattoo attracted a lot of media attention this summer, and now Michigan players will see it up close for the first time. What does Worthy expect the reaction to be?

"They're not going to be happy about it," he said. "I'm sure those guys will be riled up and ready to go. It's a little more incentive for those guys. But everybody is already going to be amped up."

Of course, Michigan's top rival has always been Ohio State. The Wolverines measure themselves against the Buckeyes and sometimes see themselves as better than their neighbors in East Lansing. Former Michigan running back Mike Hart infamously referred to Michigan State as "Little Brother" after the 2007 win.

"Little Brother," though, hasn't lost to the supposed bigger brother since then. There's no question this year that the game matters to the Maize and Blue, as first-year coach Brady Hoke installed a countdown clock to both the Michigan State and Ohio State games at Schembechler Hall. The Spartans believe they have made people stand up and notice.

"A lot of people in Michigan are Michigan fans," Robinson said. "That’s how it was. I know it’s not the same any more. They’re like, ‘OK, Michigan State is here. They’re playing and they’re winning.’”

They've won three straight in this all-important rivalry. A fourth victory Saturday would create some pretty memorable expressions.

MSU looks to slow down Robinson again

October, 12, 2011
10/12/11
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Northwestern hadn't faced Denard Robinson before last Saturday, when the Wildcats played Michigan for the first time since 2008. After 60 minutes of football, Pat Fitzgerald came away with the same basic conclusion as everybody else.

"There's no way to stop that kid," the Northwestern head coach said of Robinson. "You've just got to contain him."

True, but some teams have proved better at keeping Shoelace in a confined space than others. Including this week's opponent for the Wolverines.

[+] EnlargeDenard Robinson
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesThe Spartans hope they can contain Denard Robinson like the way they were able to last year.
Had the Heisman Trophy voting closed after five games last season, Robinson likely would have won unanimously. He had put up almost unfathomable numbers and was the talk of college football.

But then came the Michigan State game. The Spartans intercepted him three times in a 34-17 victory. While Robinson ran for 86 yards, it took him 21 carries to get there. Before that game, he'd been averaging more than nine yards per rushing attempt.

This year, Michigan State enters the rivalry game ranked No. 1 in the nation in total defense. And its No. 1 goal remains the same: guard Denard.

"You just can’t let the man run around back there," Spartans safety Trenton Robinson said. "We just have to contain him. If you slip up and leave a crease down the middle, he’s going to be gone."

Northwestern had a plan to stop Robinson last week, and it worked for a while. Fitzgerald brought receiver Venric Mark in on defense as a Shoelace spy who would chase down the quarterback whenever he tried to run. The Wildcats dared Robinson to beat him with the pass, and he threw three first-half interceptions as Michigan trailed 24-14 at halftime. But just as he did in the second half against Notre Dame, Robinson busted loose, finishing with 454 total yards and four touchdowns.

The Spartans realize that they can't focus on taking just one thing away Saturday.

"We've got to stay in our gaps and play with great technique up front as a defensive line," defensive tackle Jerel Worthy said. "The linebackers have got to understand when he's going to hand the ball off and when he's faking. And the defensive backs have to be able to stick on their man, because when the ball fakes come, sometimes he throws to his wide receivers downfield."

The Spartans' secondary, led by Trenton Robinson, Johnny Adams and Darqueze Dennard, will be by far the best Michigan has faced this year. It's questionable whether Robinson and his receivers can get away with the jump-ball type throws they have feasted on this season.

Above all, Mark Dantonio's defense wants to get physical with the 193-pound Robinson. That means hitting him hard, and then hitting him again.

"When you've got a guy who's not really big but who's explosive, he's most comfortable out in space," Worthy said. "That's also where the defense is most vulnerable.

"But when you get a lot of guys collapsing on him, and he starts to take a lot hits and it doesn't feel good to him, he starts getting a little more timid. That's when the tempo slows down, as it did last year. He starts to pass the ball a lot more because he's not wanting to get hit. That's when you start to see the game plan change a little bit."

Michigan State worked that plan to perfection last time out against Ohio State. The defense manhandled the Buckeyes offensive line to pressure Braxton Miller and never let the elusive freshman wiggle free while sacking him nine times. But the true freshman Miller is no Robinson, not yet anyway.

Yet it's no secret that Robinson wore down last year after accumulating so many hits. The better defenses in the Big Ten, including Iowa and Ohio State, held him below his standard. First-year head coach Brady Hoke went into this season hoping to lessen the load off his star quarterback, but the offense has had to adjust to Robinson's skills. He's still averaging 17 carries per game.

Can Robinson make it through another full season of hits? This week will be Michigan's seventh straight game without a week off, and last week Robinson sat out a few snaps after taking a shot on his nonthrowing hand. (He had a season-high 25 carries against Northwestern, too).

"We're always concerned [about Robinson's health] on a daily basis," Hoke said. "The way we practice, he's going to get bumped around a little bit with some of the things we do. But he's a pretty tough guy, and he's got a great mentality about the game of football and his teammates and how he wants to perform for them. So far, we're hanging in there."

Whether Michigan State can hang onto the Paul Bunyan Trophy ultimately will come down to whether they can stop, or at least contain, Robinson.

"You've got to keep him corralled," Dantonio said. "That's a lot easier said than done."

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