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 wasnt counting fingers and toes the other day. He wasnt 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 nations top-ranked defense.

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

He called Michigan States 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 its that matchup that everyones 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, Michigans offensive coordinator, talked about trying to avoid bad situations where they become disasters. And so on.

Some of thats gamesmanship, Im sure. And Mark Dantonio made a few comments Tuesday to try to remind Saturdays officiating crew itll be a two-way street fight.

But its 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.

Youll remember Mike Harts little brother dig after Chad Henne led Michigans comeback in 07, or the 60 minutes of unnecessary roughness that overshadowed the Kirk Cousins-to-Keshawn Martin in 2011. Thats how this bitter rivalry goes, I guess.

But just remember that the pros tend to outweigh the cons, and itd be a surprise if this year doesnt follow suit.

At the end of the day, weve got a lot of great players on our defense, and theres 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 nations top corners. Its a big-time game and its 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 Dantonios defiant success successful defiance? has helped even that ledger in recent years, theres a reason Dennard refused to actually say the word Michigan when he and his fellow co-captains met with the media. Its the same reason Hoke has everyone in Ann Arbor using a four-letter word to reference Ohio State.

Yeah, thats a bad word, Dennard said, smiling, when someone called him on it Tuesday. Im going to stay away from that. I dont want to give them acknowledgment. I dont want to give them more than they you know. It is what it is.

Higher stakes

Its 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. Theyre trying to take everything away from you. Itll be a completely different test, in a completely different environment.

Far different than Michigans last outing, obviously. The Wolverines are coming off that ridiculous, record-setting 751-yard effort against Indianas defense, such that it is. But theyre averaging just 291 yards against the Spartans the last five years, and they dont need anyone to remind them this years group might be the best of the bunch, though thats 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 theyve forced three-and-outs on 47.5 percent (48 of 101) of opponents possessions.

Sure, theyve padded those stats against some inferior competition. But on that count, the Spartans dont feel the need to defend themselves.

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

Saturday, theyll see another, certainly. And the stakes will be considerably higher, given this rivalrys 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 teams shoulders, and I think thats how we play the best.

And thats what theyre banking on against Michigan, from their best players, in particular.