April 29, 2012
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - A "2" on the scoreboard is a singular defensive statement.
So rarely seen on the crawl at the bottom of a television screen or in the season summaries listed in record books, it leaves little to the imagination. The odd special teams blunder aside, a ball carrier was either tackled behind the goal line or a defense drew an egregious penalty on an offense desperate to escape its wrath in the end zone.
The 14-2 final score in the annual Green-White game may not have said much about the relative strengths and weakness of the Michigan State football team as it breaks spring camp. The players were dispersed evenly via team draft and key performers, such as quarterback Andrew Maxwell and linebacker Chris Norman, were held out because of injuries.
Of course the score of any spring game is eminently forgettable. It's a scrimmage, for crying out loud.
But, the score was symbolic because it was a way for the defense to put a stamp on the 2012 team going forward.
When defensive end William Gholston put the Green team ahead 2-0 in the second quarter by dropping running back Nick Hill for a 2-yard loss in the end zone, it was a fitting tribute to last season when MSU led the Big Ten in total defense and was sixth nationally.
It was also appropriate that the White team's game-winning touchdown was set up by a 45-yard pass from No. 2 quarterback Connor Cook to Johnny Adams, an All-Big Ten cornerback moonlighting as a wide receiver.
And with eight starters from that unit, and two others with significant starting experience returning, outside linebacker Denicos Allen is expecting whatever the opposite of a drop-off is.
"I think a lot of people should definitely consider us as a national championship contender, especially with the defense we have," said Allen, who was second in the league with 11 quarterback sacks. "I think we definitely have a top-caliber defense.
"Personally, I think it's the best. I think we go out and play hard as a defensive unit and not just as individuals. And I think that's what makes a championship team."
Such talk was easily dismissed in the past because while it may have been long on conviction, it often lacked substantiation.
But now MSU's defense, which held the nation's No. 1 spot for a time last season, has measurables and comparables.
The Spartans were a play away in the inaugural Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin from playing in the Rose Bowl, and defeated the conference champions during the regular season. The Spartans came back to beat Georgia in triple overtime at the Outback Bowl, and the Bulldogs had previously tested eventual national championship runner-up LSU in the Southeastern Conference title game.
"I think we can be better than last year," Allen said. "I think we can be lot better than last year."
Based on a presumption that standouts such as Allen, Gholston, Adams, middle linebacker Max Bullough, safety Isaiah Lewis and the rest of the cast can, and will, continue to improve, MSU can make a case for why it at least deserves to be included in the national championship conversation.
Of course, the folks responsible for determining the narrative next fall will look at an offense that has a new quarterback and an inexperienced receiving corps. But having faced teams at the highest level, Allen doesn't see that much of a gap between the elites and MSU.
"Physically, we're there," he said. "Physically, we're ready. Really, it's just a mentality, no matter who we're playing, we just have to come out and dominate. I would say receiver isn't a position that's a strongest on the offense, but I don't think it's an area of concern for us.
"We have a good quarterback, a good line to protect for him and our receivers are good. They just have to learn the offense better, and that's really the only problem."
The mind-set has also undergone an overhaul. The Rose Bowl had always been the Spartans' No. 1 objective, and if they got there, everything else would take care of itself. However, they've been thinking about themselves on a grander scale ever since the Outback Bowl.
"After the bowl game, we (said) no more Rose Bowl, we want a national championship," Allen said. "So from there on, it was just national championship. We definitely talk about it more than we have before. We used to say, after breaking down (into position groups), `Rose Bowl champs.' Now after every break-down we say, `national champs.'
"Our expectation shouldn't be Rose Bowl; it should be national champs. We can do it. It's the expectation of this program, not just us. We know what kind of talent we have on this team and the possibilities of this (team) playing for the national championship. We want to be there really bad."
From a defensive standpoint, MSU will give itself a chance to be in the conversation if it plays every game at a high level from start to finish.
"We have to come out every game and play like we want to be there and not have games where we're slacking on D in the first half and pick it up in the second half like in a couple games we had last year," Allen said. "We've got to come out in every game and just dominate if we want to be that caliber of team.
"I think we're going to do that this year."
In his trademark way of breaking circumstances down to their base elements, head coach Mark Dantonio gave no reason why the Spartan defenders can't accomplish anything they want to.
"We can run, we can tackle, we can do the things on the defensive side of the ball that allows you to be successful," Dantonio said.
All that seems to be lacking is leadership, which so far isn't up to last season's standards.
"Based on what I know, because of the seniors we have lost, there is a void in leadership," Dantonio said. "It's not that we don't have good leaders, we have good leaders. (But), somebody has to take control of our football team.
"We really have good people and great chemistry on our football team. Somebody has to pull that leadership to them. We have some very good people but they don't step out and lead at certain positions because they are just humble people. At some point, you're thrust into it and you have to grab it and gravitate to it. That comes naturally. The leaders eventually take over."