Rush Defense: 98.6 ypg (8th national, 1st conf.)
Pass Defense: 98.9 (3rd, 1st)
Total Defense: 274.4 ypg (4th, 1st)
Scoring Defense: 16.3 ppg (9th, 1st)
There were very few teams that could claim to have a better overall defense than Michigan State last year, and only Alabama really had an open and shut case.
Michigan State's defense was its same smash-mouth, fundamentally sound and incredibly efficient self in 2012, and of all the things on defense that a team can do well, Michigan State pretty much did them. The yardage stats are above, but let's take a look at a few different numbers to add some more stupifying context to just how impressive this unit was. MSU was fifth nationally in yards per play average at 4.37. The Spartans allowed 3rd down conversions on just 30.9% of opponent tries (30.8% for 4th down tries). If your team was lucky enough to make it down the field and into the redzone, it probably didn't come away with a touchdown; Michigan State was second nationally in the percentage of redzone touchdowns allowed at just 32.3%. Michigan State also had the third least plays of 10+ yards allowed in the nation. If you want something really remarkable, it is that the Spartans did all of this with mediocre numbers in negative plays generated. Just 6.2 TFLs per game and 1.5 sacks (42nd and 93rd in the nation respectively).
It was a defense that you could win championships with. Unfortunately it was paired with an offense that did just about everything but gain yards at a reasonable rate, and the stellar defense was often playing incredibly meaningful possessions well after it should have been. The Spartans lost to Ohio State by one, Michigan by two, Northwestern and Iowa by three, and Nebraska by four (the Spartans also pulled out wins in four one-score-or-less games).
It would be tragic if it wasn't Michigan State and this wasn't a Michigan blog. In that light, it was really, really fun to watch.
Of course, things aren't going to really get any better for the rest of the conference. Michigan State brings back most of the key players from last year's defense, and Dantonio and Narduzzi have been at this long enough to have another generation of players ready to step in and contribute at a high level.
We'll start on the defensive line, where Michigan State loses its biggest defensive name from the last few years: Williams Gholston. While Gholston never achieved at the level that many thought he was capable, he was an important part of the defense. In his stead the Spartans will break in a new starter at end to pair with established starter Marcus Rush. Rush is a redshirt junior and has started every game since he finished that redshirt year. He hasn't proven to be a big player in generating negative plays, but he is a sound run defender and a key cog in the defense.
It will be opposite him that Michigan State looks for a spark. That could either be Denzel Drone, a long-time contributor, or redshirt freshman Shilique Calhoun who has been turning heads this offseason. Joel Heath should factor in somewhere as well, either as a backup or a possible starter if the Spartans look to go big on the defensive line.
In the middle Michigan State gets Tyler Hoover back for a sixth year after petitioning the NCAA to grant him an extra year of eligibility taken when he missed all of 2011 with an rib injury. Hoover has played both end and tackle on the defensive line for MSU, and he has a wealth of experience as well as the size (290 lbs) to hold down the middle of the line. Micajah Reynolds is also back after starting a handful of games as a junior, as is fellow upperclassman James Kittredge. These three more experienced players would seem to have the inside track for starting jobs, but there are a number of redshirt sophomores, including five-star recruit Lawrence Thomas. Consider this the theme of our preview: experience players playing in front of quality depth and exciting young talent. Good way to build a helluva defense.
Behind this solid defensive line will stand three starters and linebacker who you are probably already familiar with.
There is no better place to start than in the middle with Max Bullough. If you're drawing up a middle linebacker, you're probably going to inadvertently come up with something resembling the 6'3 250 lbs senior, who has very good instincts, two years of starting experience, and two years of all-Big Ten honors (1st team last year, 2nd in 2011). This very well could be the best linebacker in the conference -- Jake Ryan included.
Of course he is flanked by Denicos Allen at the SAM linebacker spot, whose name you might remember from 2011 when he was top-25 nationally in both sacks and TFLs (2nd and 4th in the Big Ten respectively), and was basically a thorn in everyone's side. Allen isn't the biggest player at just 5'11 232 lbs., but the coaches know how to use him and get him free to make hay in the backfield. Also: two year starter.
The last of the Spartan linebackers is Taiwan Jones, a lankier player (6'3, 240lbs) and a good athlete that worked his way into the starting lineup last year despite playing behind multi-year starter Chris Norman. Jones is the least experienced of the three, but given the level of competition and how much playing time he won last year, I think MSU is going to be fine at the WLB spot.
I'm not sure there is a better group of linebackers in the conference.
In the secondary, Michigan State will look to replace Johnny Adams at corner. That could be junior Mylan Hicks (who had his appendix taken out last month but will presumably be fine) or any one of Michigan State's less experience underclassmen options: Ezra Robinson, Trae Waynes, or Arjen Colquhoun.
The other corner spots is not up for grabs. It will once again belong to Darqueze Dennard, a multi-year starter who has been Michigan State's best cover corner over the last couple years and has a number of all-Big Ten honors to his name. Dennard should be one of the top corners in the Big Ten once again.
Behind him will be an established pair of safeties. Kurtis Drummond is back after winning the majority of last year's starts at free safety. He will be joined by yet another multi-year starter and multiple all-Big Ten selection in strong safety Isaiah Lewis. Lewis has shown himself to be a great fit at strong safety in Narduzzi's quarters defense scheme that values run support.
There is a reason that Michigan State has four players that made Phil Steele's preseason all-Big Ten team: there is a ton of proven talent on this defense.
The only question I can pose after all of that is: just where might the cracks lie in this otherwise really, really good defense?
Not in the back seven. There is too much experience there and I can't see anything but a rash of injuries making a big difference. If Michigan and the rest of the conference want to have a chance, the hope has to be there that the defensive line under performs. Last year's Spartan defense had trouble getting sacks and TFLs, and there doesn't seem to be anyone on the line that looks to add much there. Michigan State does use its linebackers a lot on blitzes, but having a dangerous rusher on the end adds another dimension to a defense (see: Michigan since Brandon Graham).
If Michigan State's defensive line has troubles, it could make life harder on the rest of the defense. Do I expect significant troubles? No, no I don't. I don't even really see this defense being anything but a thoroughly top-25 unit at worst. But when you're going up against a defense this good, you take whatever little advantage you can squeeze out.
Now if these same guys could just play offense too..