October 30, 2013 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

Superior defensive talent gives Spartans edge in Saturday's bitter showdown

From left, Isaiah Lewis, Kurtis Drummond and Darqueze Dennard are part of a stout Spartan defense. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)

East Lansing — Brady Hoke wasn’t counting fingers and toes the other day. He wasn’t thumbing his nose, either.

But he was trying to remind everyone what his Michigan team — and specifically a young, impressionable offense — is up against this week when it travels to Spartan Stadium to face the nation’s top-ranked defense.

“Really, their defense is as good as any,” he said Monday.

He called Michigan State’s senior-laden group a “big challenge,” lauded the Spartans’ consistency and then added, “Probably five or six pro players on that defense.”

When I asked the Wolverines head coach how many NFL players his defense had, he balked initially before finally answering, “Less than five or six.”

Offensively, Hoke probably has a few, most notably All-America left tackle Taylor Lewan. But the question is whether the Spartans have a few too many for the Wolverines to handle at the moment. And it’s that matchup that everyone’s understandably pointing to as the Spartans try to beat their archrivals Saturday for a third straight time in East Lansing, which would be a first for the program.

Lewan, bracing for his last go-round in this rivalry, talked about getting “bullied” in the loss at Michigan State two years ago and vowed not to let it happen again. Al Borges, Michigan’s offensive coordinator, talked about trying to avoid “bad situations where they become disasters.” And so on.

Some of that’s gamesmanship, I’m sure. And Mark Dantonio made a few comments Tuesday to try to remind Saturday’s officiating crew it’ll be a two-way street fight.

But it’s also a grudging sign of respect.

Big players make big plays

Led by seniors like cornerback Darqueze Dennard, safety Isaiah Lewis, and linebackers Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention sophomore defensive end Shilique Calhoun, this Michigan State defense really is loaded. And, frankly, this is a game the Spartans should win, if only because these are the types of games in which that NFL-caliber talent tends to tip the scales.

Think Charles Woodson in 1997 and Braylon Edwards in 2004. Think Plaxico Burress in 1999 and T.J. Duckett in 2001. Think Chris Perry in ’03 and Javon Ringer in ’08.

You’ll remember Mike Hart’s “little brother” dig after Chad Henne led Michigan’s comeback in ’07, or the “60 minutes of unnecessary roughness” that overshadowed the Kirk Cousins-to-Keshawn Martin in 2011. That’s how this bitter rivalry goes, I guess.

But just remember that the pros tend to outweigh the cons, and it’d be a surprise if this year doesn’t follow suit.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got a lot of great players on our defense, and there’s a lot of guys that will step their game up even more come Saturday,” said Dennard, an all-Big Ten selection last year and one of the nation’s top corners. “It’s a big-time game and it’s a rivalry game. … The big players make big plays in these games.”

This game always seems to mean a little something more to the Spartans. And while Dantonio’s defiant success — successful defiance? — has helped even that ledger in recent years, there’s a reason Dennard refused to actually say the word “Michigan” when he and his fellow co-captains met with the media. It’s the same reason Hoke has everyone in Ann Arbor using a four-letter word to reference Ohio State.

“Yeah, that’s a bad word,” Dennard said, smiling, when someone called him on it Tuesday. “I’m going to stay away from that. … I don’t want to give them acknowledgment. I don’t want to give them more than they … you know. It is what it is.”

Higher stakes

It’s what this MSU defense is, to hear Borges talk.

“They have much more of a ‘sic-’em mentality,’ ” he said, dismissing comparisons to other defenses the Wolverines may have faced this season. “They’re trying to take everything away from you. It’ll be a completely different test, in a completely different environment.”

Far different than Michigan’s last outing, obviously. The Wolverines are coming off that ridiculous, record-setting 751-yard effort against Indiana’s defense, such that it is. But they’re averaging just 291 yards against the Spartans the last five years, and they don’t need anyone to remind them this year’s group might be the best of the bunch, though that’s all most of us in the media are doing this week.

Michigan State ranks No. 1 nationally in total defense (215.5 yards per game) and rushing defense (54.9 ypg), second in pass-efficiency defense and third in third-down and scoring defense. The Spartans are allowing just 3.55 yards per play, and they’ve forced three-and-outs on 47.5 percent (48 of 101) of opponents’ possessions.

Sure, they’ve padded those stats against some inferior competition. But on that count, the Spartans don’t feel the need to defend themselves.

“I think we’ve proven ourselves no matter what anybody says in terms of who we’ve played,” Bullough said. “We can only play who we’ve played and we’re proud of what we’ve done. So I don’t think we have anything to prove to anybody else, except ourselves. We’ve been tested. We’ve seen good offenses. Whether they have the best record or not, we’ve seen and played — and dominated, quite frankly — good offenses this year.”

Saturday, they’ll see another, certainly. And the stakes will be considerably higher, given this rivalry’s footing and the Big Ten Legends Division standings.

“But I think this team plays well under pressure,” Bullough said. “I think this defense, specifically, has always responded well under pressure. ... Pressure puts a little bit of a chip on a team’s shoulders, and I think that’s how we play the best.”

And that’s what they’re banking on against Michigan, from their best players, in particular.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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