Michigan State's Denzel Drone is fired up about a sack in the Rose Bowl. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
Pasadena, Calif. — To truly understand how dominant Michigan State’s defense has been all season, just listen to Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney.
“Everywhere I looked there was a green defender,” the Cardinal running back said. “That’s what they do, and that’s what they pride themselves on, and they did it well.”
That description defined Michigan State’s 24-20 victory over Stanford in the 100th Rose Bowl on Wednesday, and it was a repeat of what the Spartans have done all season. From holding Michigan to minus-48 yards rushing to being the first team to contain Braxton Miller and the Ohio State offense, Michigan State has suffocated opponents.
“You win championships with defense,” defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi said.
And that’s exactly what Michigan State did, capping a perfect Big Ten season with a victory in the conference title game and following that with a third straight bowl victory.
But as the clock turns to 2014, the question for the Michigan State defense is, can it be the same type of dominating force moving forward?
The Spartans lose six starters, and the with the stakes continuing to rise for a program that no longer will be happy just getting to the Rose Bowl, the pressure will continue to mount for the unit that calls itself “Spartan Dawgs.”
The victory over Stanford was the first glimpse at whether the Michigan State defense will struggle to adjust to new personnel or whether it will thrive. Senior linebacker Max Bullough was suspended for the game and the Spartans had to turn to backups Kyler Elsworth and Darien Harris.
But instead of seeing a drop-off, the two combined to make the biggest play of the game, stuffing the Cardinal on a critical fourth down late in the game.
“It just shows our backups can play just as well as our starters,” defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “They know they are a play away from being a starter. They showed that we have guys that step up in each and every role and can be playmakers. They are willing to step up and want to step up and they are just waiting for that chance. Kyler had it and he did what he had to do.”
There will need to be plenty more of that in 2014 as Michigan State must replace Bullough and Denicos Allen in the linebacking corps, Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover up front, and Darqueze Dennard and Isaiah Lewis in the secondary.
The Spartans have the luxury of depth on defense, and that should play a significant role. The defensive tackles are often rotated throughout games and the replacements for Reynolds and Hoover have seen nearly as much playing time.
Mark Scarpinato and Damon Knox were effective in the middle and should be leading candidates to take over as full-time starters, while James Kittredge, who was hampered all year by an injury, should be ready to get back in the mix.
Sophomore Ed Davis took advantage of an injury to Jairus Jones and became an impact player late, making him the perfect player to move into Allen’s spot as an outside linebacker.
The secondary might be one of the team’s deepest positions. The loss of Lewis will be made less significant by the fact his backup, RJ Williamson, has been the nickel back all season and has played significantly the past two years. Talented redshirt freshman Demetrious Cox also will push to get on the field.
At corner, the loss of Dennard will be tough to overcome, but the Spartans are convinced they have plenty of talent. Darian Hicks, who played as a true freshman, is going to be counted on, as are sophomores Jermaine Edmondson and Ezra Robinson.
“We’ve got good players,” Dennard said. “It’s buying into the coaching staff and the guys they recruit. It’s a mind-set we have that it’s the next guy up and that’s what has happened.”
The biggest hole to fill will be at middle linebacker. Bullough was graduating regardless of the suspension and Elsworth is also a senior. There will be quite the battle to take over the position, but again, the Spartans are confident the players in that fight have the chance to be outstanding.
Harris will be in the mix, as will Davis and redshirt freshman Riley Bullough. But Jon Reschke and Shane Jones, two highly touted recruits that redshirted in 2013, will be fighting for the spot, as well.