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Don’t Sleep On Michigan State

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Running backs haven't been able to get far against Michigan State's defense this season. Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images.
Running backs haven't been able to get far against Michigan State's defense this season. Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images.

Defense is so last century.

The days of Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz-led excitement are all but gone in Major League Baseball. Even though the Steroids Era has fizzled, fans still prefer Miggy to Verlander; Harper to Strasburg.

Even Maddux and Glavine knew it: Chicks dig the long ball.

In football, it’s more obvious. Johnny Football, Oregon and Baylor are all more scintillating than Alabama, which even though it owns the nation’s top seed is not the top headline grabber.

In the Big Ten, a league known for ground and pound, the talk is about Ohio State and Braxton Miller and not about the league’s most unique story line — the Michigan State defense, the best in the land.

The numbers are staggering — a statement normally saved to support claims of a dynamic offense. But you got to see these. The Spartans give up the fewest yards per play (3.5) and per game (215) in the country. They also crush the run, allowing just 2.1 yards a rush. Not surprisingly, MSU gives up just 12.3 points per game.

But there are more numbers.

ESPN.com stats reveal Michigan State has given up 71 rushing yards before contact — all season. That’s about nine a game. The next closest? Virginia Tech at 28.4. The average team gives up 79 ground yards before contact a game. And it gets even crazier on third down. Michigan State has allowed a total of negative 1 rushing yard — in 34 carries.

The Spartans take care of business when business needs to be taken care of.

And then there’s the big plays — er, I mean, lack of big plays. Michigan State has not given up a touchdown drive longer than 75 yards and has only allowed 19 gains of 20-plus yards all season.

Counterpoint, however, Michigan State plays in the Big Ten and will not play Ohio State until Nov. 30 (and then again maybe in the Big Ten title game). Clearly the schedule has something to do with the numbers. But Spartans held Indiana 14 points below their season average (42 to 28); Illinois 28 points under (31 to 3); and Iowa 13 points under (27 to 14).

Michigan State will be tested in the next two weeks, facing off with offenses that average at least 40 a game in Michigan and Nebraska.

The rival Wolverines are the biggest test and if the Spartans can win, they will have a heavy advantage in the Big Ten Legends Division with a 5-0 league mark.

Before the season, I wrote about how this defense was scary good, but I added the offense was scary bad with no one to throw to and no consistency or firepower. I had no idea how the Spartans were going to score.

The defense has been even better than I thought, carrying the offense through the front half of the season. MSU’s defense even scored four times in the first two games.

The performance of the defense allowed the offense to find rhythm and consistency. The group got all of its quirks out in game situations, and now the Spartans are firing on all cylinders. They scored 42 points in two of the last three wins, and in the 14-0 win over Purdue, the offense didn’t need to do much.

Jeremy Langford is a workhorse in the backfield, carrying the ball 20-plus times in each of the last three games. He rushed for more than 100 yards in all three wins.

Connor Cook has emerged as a reliable quarterback. He isn’t as accurate as the Spartans would like, but doesn’t turn the ball over (12 TDs/2 INTs). The sophomore did go 15-of-16 with three scores in the most recent win over Illinois.

The Wolverines haven’t proved anything to anyone. The only quality win is against Notre Dame. Near losses to Akron and UConn mar the Wolverines schedule, as does the four-overtime loss to Penn State — a game Michigan handed over.

Look for Sparty to put on a show in East Lansing, giving Devin Gardner and company a rude welcome for the Saturday matinee.

I not only like MSU. I like them by double digits in a win that propels them into a solid first place in the division. A win over embattled and injured Nebraska the following week (Nov. 9) would seal the deal.

Don’t sleep on the Spartans, even though that’s the feeling you may get watching from  your couch.