Sept. 18, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist | @GrinzOnGreen
EAST LANSING, Mich. - How the question is generally being framed this week doesn't bother Michigan State.
Instead of, "What do you think of Notre Dame relishing the opportunity to validate its offensive might against the nation's top defense?", it's been, "How do the Spartan defenders feel about having a chance to see how they fare on the big stage against a nationally renowned program?".
But fifth-year senior outside linebacker Denicos Allen gets the nuanced skepticism as MSU prepares to face the Fighting Irish on Saturday.
He really does.
"We're not that blind in our pride to not realize what we're going up against," Allen said. "We know we're going up against a really good line, a good offense and they have good coaches. It's the same level of talent, so it'll just be a matter of who's going to play the best.
"People say we haven't played anybody so we're not as good as a `D' as we look, but what we did to those opponents shows we're a really strong defense. If we had given up points and stuff like that, that would be a good reason to question our defense, but we've been pretty dominant throughout these three games."
Michigan State's first-team defense didn't allow a touchdown in the first two games against Western Michigan and South Florida, and Youngstown State's two TDs came on short fields (33 yards and 46 yards) after a fumble and long kickoff return.
The Spartans have yet to allow more than 51 rushing yards and WMU barely made it past the 200-yard mark for total offense with a 56-yard drive on its final possession against MSU's second- and third-team defenders.
"This is a chance to show the nation we're an elite defense and the challenge of a much-more-talented opponent will definitely bring the best out of us," Allen said. "We've been preparing even harder and this is going to show we're up to it."
The Spartans lead the nation in total defense, with 177 yards allowed per game, and passing efficiency defense (68.1 rating). They're fourth against the rush (50.3 ypg.), fifth against the pass (126.7 ypg.) and 12th in points allowed (12.0 ppg.). Michigan State also tops the Big Ten and is tied for 18th nationally in turnover margin (plus-1.3) and leads the country with four defensive touchdowns.
Allen & Co. will be going against Notre Dame's 50th-ranked offense (451 yards per game) and 92nd-ranked rushing attack (125.0 ypg.). The Irish are 39th in passing efficiency (148.0 rating). Despite the heady number, defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, who has contempt for all statistics except a winning score, believes his team deserves a "C" grade at this point.
"I'd say we're average," Narduzzi said. "We're getting into the beef of our schedule (so) we'll find out really where we are. Our guys hopefully are going to play even bigger in a big game. (But) you tear the tape apart and there's all kinds of things we can do better."
That said, Michigan State is one of only three defenses, along with Wisconsin and Southern California, to allow just four running plays of at least 10 yards so far. And if the Spartans don't have the nation's top confidence quotient, they're right up there with 11 players who began the season with starting experience.
"We've got a swag to us," Allen said. "We just want to keep that swag and maintain that image. "We know we have a good defense, we have a great defensive coordinator who makes sure we're in the right spots at the right times, we're playmakers and we make plays.
"That's all that matters. It's definitely time. I'm not going to say these three past games were a cakewalk, because no game is a cakewalk, but this is up another level. This is a true test to see how elite we can be. I know we're a good defense. How good is the question?"
Last season, Notre Dame took a 7-0 lead on a spectacular, 36-yard, improvised pass play by quarterback Everett Golson in the first quarter en route to producing 300 yards of total offense in a 20-3 victory that ended No. 10-ranked MSU's 15-game home win streak. The Irish managed just two field goals in the second half, but one of those came after converting a fourth-down situation in the final quarter.
The elusive Golson isn't with the team this season and Tommy Rees, who's more of a pocket passer, has completed 60.7 percent of his passes (65 of 107) for 969 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions.
"This is a great challenge for us to go against this offense," said cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who will be put upon to live up to his preseason All-American billing. "It's definitely a statement game. We're going against a great offense, with great receivers and a great quarterback, and the philosophy they've got is pretty good as well.
"This game will show what we can do good and basically prepare us for the Big Ten season."
It'll be up to senior middle linebacker Max Bullough to match wits with Rees, who's a master at changing the play at the line of scrimmage, by getting the defense lined up properly.
"I think this will be a big test for both teams," Bullough said. "I think people say that about us because of the teams we played in the first three games and Notre Dame maybe played some tougher opponents. You can't argue that, but we're worried about what we can do to win the game, whether it's offense, defense or special teams. Regardless of who's testing who, it still comes down to who wins the game."
Unlike Narduzzi, however, Bullough won't be as happy with a win in which the defense doesn't live up to its reputation.
"We have pride on defense and hold ourselves to a very high standard, and I think everybody knows that," he said. "Yeah, first we want to get the win, but second to that we have a lot of goals as team and as a unit, and quite frankly as an individual, that we want to meet and I want to meet."
The Spartans aspire to hold every opponent to under 100 yards rushing and 200 yards of total offense, but Narduzzi reiterated that only one stat matters.
"This is a game we're trying to go win, and that's it," he said. "There's no proving. I don't care if they rush for 300 yards if we win. I just want to see that scoreboard look in our favor at the end of that game."