First of all, let's just get this out of the way: Michigan State is for real. If you are still clinging to the ghosts of John L. Smith and Bobby Williams like Ricky Bobby running around the race track his underwear while yelping at for salvation via Tom Cruise, well...that analogy probably speaks for itself. It makes you look foolish, and foolishness on the heels of four straight losses is not even foolishness anymore: its blind, hollow arrogance for its own sake. The "Little Brother" thing was kind of amusing at first, fine, but its validity has been pulverized to a fine powder on the football field the last four years. It is okay to give credit to whom is due (trust me, you'll be okay). In any case, this sort of rhetoric is better left to the various seedy message boards of the Internet. Not only that, this silly jingoism detracts from, in my opinion, the mission of this blog (as well as every other self-respecting college football blog out there). The point is to provide useful commentary, analysis, and discussion of our favorite team, and saying "HALOL LITTLE BROTHER" doesn't really bring much to the table.
More importantly, this type of thing is made even more ridiculous insofar as it has nothing to do with the upcoming season and the game on October 20th in Ann Arbor. Outside of this heated in-state rivalry--and, yes, it is a rivalry, Michigan fan who is pretending not to care even a little bit--the Spartans have acquitted themselves well against the rest of the Big Ten. After going 6-7 in 2009, the Spartans went on to go a combined 22-5 in 2010 and 2011, including a bowl win against a strong Georgia team. That is nothing to scoff at, even if you happen to be looking at the numbers through maize and blue colored lenses.
Just to put it in perspective, Michigan football has not notched back-to-back 11+ win seasons since...Fielding Yost. I know, it's a little hard to believe (although this tidbit does carry a few caveats*). What MSU has accomplished the past two seasons would be considered impressive for any program in the Big Ten, and, dare I say it, practically any major program in the country.
There are many reasons for this, but there is one that stands out most clearly: the defense. If you, the skeptical Michigan fan, need to be convinced that this is somehow ephemeral or a blip on the radar, revisit some of the defensive tape from the Spartans' last two seasons--the Michigan games would be a good place to start--and recognize that that could not be further from the truth.
*Okay, for the caveats. First of all, Bo and Lloyd both rattled off multiple double digit win streaks, as we all know. Bo won: 11, 10, 10, and 10 from '71-'74; 10, 10, and 10 from '76-'78; and 10 and 11, respectively, in '85 and '86. Similarly, Lloyd won: 12, 10, and 10 from '97-'99 and 10 in both '02 and '03. We're still talking about Michigan here, fergodsakes. Although my 11+ win barometer was somewhat arbitrary, it was to prove a point re: MSU's status in the B1G vis-a-vis Michigan's historical record.
Additionally, we have to remember that up until recently, teams played 1--or even 2--fewer regular season games than they do now, not to mention the fact that some great teams during Bo's time didn't get to go to bowl games because the profligate bowl structure that exists today was not extant back then. For instance, after winning 11 games in 1971, Bo's 10-1 '72 team did not have the chance to participate in a bowl game (a loss to Ohio State led to the Buckeyes getting that year's Rose Bowl berth).
ANYWAY, this was the longest, most quibbling footnote ever, but I just wanted to clear that up before moving on.
So, defense. It's pretty neat, a concept with which we were all reintroduced to in 2011. I think that it's fairly obvious that Michigan State's success the past two seasons can be explained largely as a result of a defensive renaissance in East Lansing, which is saying something since MSU's all-time passing leader just moved on to the NFL.
In spite of offensive football's hold on the average fan's interest and focus, it still stands to reason that quality defense is the trademark of any team with lofty aspirations (and the accompanying results to prove it). While it may be irritating to do so, just look at the SEC. This past season's LSU and Alabama teams fielded offenses with spectacular talents and impressive production to match--in spite of our negative impressions of the head-to-head match-ups in Tuscaloosa and NOLA--but their defenses unquestionably carried the day.
Think back to Florida under Urban Meyer. The 2006 team will probably be remembered most by the average fan for Chris Leak (and a freshman Tim Tebow), but that team accomplished what it did because that defense was ferocious. Fast forward to 2007: Tim Tebow wins the Heisman but the Gators lose four games, including an "upset" at the hands of Michigan. For an explanation, you need not look further than the defense, one that lost a significant amount of talent from the year before and was thus very green and very average, particularly against the pass. Fast forward again to 2008. Tebow is still pretty good, to say the least, but doesn't win the Heisman...the Gators win another title anyway, holding an Oklahoma offense that had been putting up insane numbers all year to a mere 14 points. The defense was back, and so it was no surprise to see the Gators bring him a crystal football for the second time in three years.
As such, it's no surprise to see the Spartans rack up wins in the manner that they have the past two seasons, which I would imagine have been two of the most impressive defensive performances in MSU history. Keeping in mind that the Spartans had to take on Wisconsin's offensive juggernaut twice, the 2011 defense was, by all manners of reckoning, truly elite. All of the following rankings are national (via cfbstats.com):
- MSU was 10th in scoring defense, giving up 18.4 ppg
- 9th in rushing defense
- Tied for 12th in interceptions
- 11th in passing defense
- 6th in total defense (behind only Alabama, LSU, FSU, Georgia, and South Carolina)
- 3rd in sacks
- Tied for 3rd (with LSU) in TFLs
- How will Andrew Maxwell take to the QB1 role?
- Who will replace Cunningham, Martin, and Linthicum as the primary receiving targets?
- Will the offensive line--which took a not insignificant amount of criticism last year, especially early on--continue to improve/how much will the additional year of experience mean?
- And, lastly: how do you go about accounting for the loss of both guys on the DL's interior, namely Jerel Worthy (who at times made it seem like MSU was fielding 6 linemen)?
In 38 of the past 41 games, the team that ran for more yards won the game.