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Big Ten's Big Matchup: MSU Defense vs. OSU Offense

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Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard was named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year this week. Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images.
Ohio State QB Braxton Miller became the first player in Big Ten history to win two consecutive Offensive Player of the Year awards. Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Perhaps the oldest adage in football is that ‘defense wins championships,’ and it will be put to the test in the Big Ten championship game.

Michigan State boasts the nation’s top-ranked defense and is set to battle Ohio State’s high-powered offense Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis (8 p.m. ET, FOX) for the Stagg Championship Trophy.

For No. 10 Michigan State (11-1, 8-0), a win guarantees a berth in the 100th edition of the Rose Bowl. No. 2 Ohio State (12-0, 8-0) could also earn a trip to Pasadena with a win, but it would be for the right to play for a national championship.

Never has so much of the BCS landscape hinged on the winner of the Big Ten title game in its short, three-year history — until now.

“There is a buzz throughout the Big Ten area and nationally about the game, so, it makes it a more exciting game,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said this week during the Big Ten title game teleconference. “We’re a confident football team right now, we’re excited to play, and it will be a great challenge for us.”

Said Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer in his weekly press conference: “(Michigan State is) as fine a defense as there is in America. Very good players, excellent scheme, and well-coached.

“And from game one to game 11, they are the most improved offense, certainly in the Big Ten and maybe one of the most improved in America.”

So, will Michigan State’s stout defense have the Spartans smelling Roses, or can Ohio State’s ground-and-pound game answer and have the Buckeyes California Dreaming by Saturday night?

The Case For Michigan State's Defense

Michigan State is allowing just 237.7 yards per game (172.9 passing, 64.8 rushing), making the Spartans the top rushing and total defense in the country. Michigan State is also No. 4 in the nation in points allowed (11.4).

Well, (there are) a lot of key components,” Meyer said of Michigan State’s defense. “It's not real overcomplicated. That's where I think they do an excellent job. They make everything look alike, and they are very well-coached as far as gap control and you don't see many big plays against them.”

The All-Big Ten honors announced this week included a who’s who of Michigan State defensive players.

Defensive end Shilique Calhoun was named the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year after the third-year sophomore led the Spartans with 17 quarterback hurries, 32 quarterback hits, and seven sacks. He also ranks second on the Spartans with 13.5 tackles for loss. Calhoun is tied for second in the FBS with four fumble recoveries.

Calhoun was named the National Defensive Player of the Week after returning two turnovers for touchdowns in a 21-6 win over South Florida in early September.

Senior cornerback Darqueze Dennard earned Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year accolades, leading Michigan State with 12 passes defended and eight pass break-ups. He is also tied for the team lead with four interceptions.

Calhoun and Dennard, along with senior linebacker Max Bullough, junior safety Kurtis Drummond, and senior safety Isaiah Lewis were all named to the conference’s first-team defense. The five first-team selections on defense are tied for the most in school history (1966), according to the Michigan State athletics website.

Senior linebacker Denicos Allen was a second-team selection.

“Two things that are key components for our defense: We’ve had consistency with our coaches and we tweak things to try and make it better,” said Dantonio, who was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year on Tuesday. “We are who we are and we’ve gotten better at it from a coaching perspective.

“It’s the best defense we’ve had since coming here in 2007.”

Senior defensive tackle Tyler Hoover had 30 tackles and four sacks in eight games. He was Michigan State’s Big Ten Sportsmanship Award honoree this week.

The Case For Ohio State's Offense

Ohio State’s all-conference recognition this week on offense was just as impressive. The Buckeyes claim the No. 6 offense in the country (530.5 ypg), including the second-ranked rushing attack (321.6 ypg).

For the second straight year, junior signal-caller Braxton Miller was named the Big Ten Quarterback of the Year, as well as, the conference Offensive Player of the Year. Miller is the first player in conference history to earn two consecutive Offensive Player of the Year awards, according to the Big Ten website. Purdue quarterback Drew Brees earned the award twice, though not consecutively (1998 and 2000).

Miller led the Big Ten passer efficiency with a 164.3 rating and total offensive yards per game in conference play with 295. He has 1,759 yards passing and 21 touchdowns while adding 891 yards rushing and eight touchdowns despite missing nearly three games early in the season due to injury.

All told, Miller’s six career Big Ten individual awards is a conference record.

Meyer said Miller’s competitiveness and toughness sets him apart from other quarterbacks.

“Without question, those are the two characteristics,” Meyer said of Miller. “I've coached a couple championship quarterbacks, and competitive spirit and toughness are the first two things you look for.”

Senior Carlos Hyde was named the Big Ten's Running Back of the Year after leading the conference in rushing with 143.3 yards per game and 14 touchdowns, despite missing the first three games of the season. With 1,290 yards on the season, Hyde became the first running back for an Urban Meyer-coached team to rush for 1,000 yards.

He rushed for at least 100 yards in each of the last seven games, including two 200-yard performances. Last week against rival Michigan, Hyde rang up 226 yards in a 42-41 win, the biggest performance by an Ohio State back ever in “The Game.”

Between Miller and Hyde, the Ohio State backfield has combined for 1,070 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns the last three games against Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. Hyde has rushed for 589 yards and seven touchdowns while Miller has added 481 yards and six scores.

Both could eclipse the 3,000-yard career rushing mark Saturday. Miller needs 133 yards and Hyde is looking for 33 yards.

“(Ohio State has a) great offense — tremendous offense,” Dantonio said. “They have (Hyde), they have great skill players, and (Miller is) a game-breaker. He can run it, he can throw it and the thing that he can do is create when somebody has him all pinned up. He is able to take a bad play and make it a good one. Those are the things that make it so hard to defend him. He’s going to be able to create numerous times throughout a football game.

“I think the key to our success is being able to contain the quarterback in those types of situations. Obviously, we have to be fundamentally sound in what we’re doing, but we have to be able to control him in those broken situations.”

Of course, Miller and Hyde have a senior-laden offensive line to thank for their successful numbers and all-conference recognition.

Senior center Corey Linsley, left tackle Jack Mewhort and left guard Andrew Norwell also were first-team offense selections, anchoring a unit averaging 48.2 points per game and 530.5 yards.

Fifth-year senior Kenny Guiton had 749 yards passing and 14 touchdowns this year and was named Ohio State's Big Ten Sportsmanship Award honoree.

The Winner

The last two meetings between Michigan State and Ohio State have been decided by a total of four points, including last season when the Buckeyes edged the Spartans 17-16.

If we are putting the ‘defense wins championships’ adage to the test this week, I don’t believe it holds up against Ohio State. The Buckeyes do feature a relentless running attack, but have the ability to incorporate the big play through the air. Now that the Buckeyes are No. 2 in the country after Auburn upended then-No. 1 Alabama last week, and one win means a national championship berth, I think Ohio State has the chip on its shoulder to outlast Michigan State's defense.